Friday, 13 May 2016

Don't expect Brexit to deliver deregulation

It was put to me recently that "policy should follow the people, not stand Canute-like in their way". This does make me chuckle. You see, policy is an instrument of governance, and governance is largely the practice of making large numbers of people do things they wouldn't do otherwise, and wouldn't do if you asked them nicely. But sometimes, for the greater good, it is most necessary. Politics is when it infringes on morality and speech, but mainly it's about facilitating more freedoms, more trade and protecting us from the elements.

The libertarian tendency, one which I have in recent years subscribed to, holds that most of it is unnecessary. And of course that is a valid view if you operate from a position of complete ignorance. As indeed I did. Good government is invisible government. It's massive and it is everywhere. Most modern, complex systems simply would not function without it and its impact is massive.

My example de jour being the shipping container. There are better designs but we settle for the mediocre one because universality is what makes the global shipping trade work as efficiently as it does. Perhaps one of the greatest innovations of the modern world. The shipping container dictates the size of lorries, the types of dock crane, and the shape and size of ships, the width and camber of roads and the height of bridges.

That does mean lorries are now much bigger than we would necessarily want for our roads on this little and ancient island, and that's why we need more of a say in the rules we adopt, but the common good benefits are there for all to see. The fact that these rules are decided globally is why we should leave the EU - not because regulation is bad. We need our own vote and veto.

Vehicle regulations are massively important. Many people remark all cars look the same these days. That's not by accident. Design is heavily regulated so that when a pillock steps out into the road and gets hit by a New York taxi, he is alive to write a blog about it. Would this have happened without regulation? Would it bollocks. But these are global regulations and they are not made by the EU.

Meanwhile, everything under our streets is tightly regulated from sewers to cabling and gas pipes. As much happens beneath our feet as above ground. It is of labyrinthine complexity and it is regulated and it needs regulating because otherwise it would be an even bigger mess than it is presently. It adds costs but not arbitrarily. It means maintenance works are cheaper and faster, and that planned works do not interfere with the operation of other things. All the things you take for granted and don't think about are planned and regulated by somebody somewhere.

Road building is a thing that fascinates me. Most people are now aware that turning your front lawn into a driveway now contributes to flash flooding. So we now have flood impact assessments and we have planning. It seems nonsensical and absurd to libertarians that a council can tell you what to do with your property, but would be less amused by their home being under three feet of water - and would be the first to complain about it. So yes, government, to an extent has the right and the necessity to tell you what to do. And we all benefit from it.

A favourite talking point of libertarians is "who would build the roads" and as a man demonstrated in Bath just recently, people would indeed build roads of their own accord. But done without planning permission and not to regulatory specifications, the liability for accidents is his, with just one small collision having the potential to be ruinous.

Meanwhile, proper roads have factored in camber and drainage. I am one of those people who loves to speed down a motorway. Who doesn't? The majority of people now do. And why is that possible? Regulation. The roads are well set out, the signage is standardised - and deep, lethal puddles on motorways are now a rare thing thanks to engineering, but that is engineering working in tandem with regulation. Thanks to this, journey times are shorter and driving is more fun.

Meanwhile the M62 has an active traffic management system which slows everyone down to 40mph in heavy traffic. I think it's an amazing system. Is that because I am a nannying fussbucket who likes to spoil everybody's fun and a Malthusian who wants to slow down human progress? No. It's because traffic jams are caused by the bunching effect of sudden breaking. Traffic jams are a massive waste of life and better regulated traffic flows better giving us more time to spend with our families.

All of this spawns an army of faceless bureaucrats making decisions about people's lives and while we might think we can sack them all and shrink the size of the state, the reality is, we need them. Maybe not the lesbian tennis outreach programmes, but traffic flow statisticians and hydrological surveyors are people who make the world work better in ways you've never considered.

Everything is regulated and it is regulated with good reason. I caught a television programme recently which reminded me of this, which shines a torch on port inspectors testing anything from imported Disney crockery for formaldehyde to tinned fish for botulism. We test to rigorous standards to protect our people and our environment - and it protects our markets from fraudulent goods. The primary defences are not based on testing though. Modern defences rely on continuous process control, rather than "end of pipe" testing, which is expensive and of limited value.

Without the process, we'd never have known fraudsters were feeding horse meat into the food chain. It may have slipped the net for a while but it was detected. There is a reason for this. The chain starts back in the country of origin. The crucial part of the system is the international surveillance and warning system which tell the inspectors what to look out for, and only then a tiny sample of incoming produce is actually sampled. None of it works without international standards and regulations, international cooperation and a lot of inter-agency coordination.

There is every advantage in having common standards to make things work on a transboundary basis and also to reduce overheads in creating such rules. They have to be research based and research does not come for free. This is why we will continue to cooperate with the EU on regulatory affairs and pay into the budget whether we leave the EU or not.

The kipperish pipedream that Brexit means deregulation is a fantasy. What matters is that parliament has the ultimate veto. At present the EU decides which rules we adopt and we have no right of veto. That is why we must leave - but the idiotic rhetoric that we don't need regulation down to the microscopic level is absolutely childish - and that's why Brexit the Movie is garbage. We won't deregulate if we leave the EU. Modern society depends on it. The issue is who makes it and how - and who speaks on our behalf. While we are in the EU, it is a process barely touched by democracy.

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