Saturday, 17 December 2016

From there to back again

I am old enough to remember the fag end of British socialism. I was a child of the Thatcher era but the reforms had yet to kick in. It was a time of greaseproof paper for loo roll in motorway service stations and polystyrene cups that spilled scalding coffee onto your hand in the buffet car of a crowded Intercity 125.

It was a time of "tell Sid", Last of the Summer Wine and interminably boring Antiques Roadshow Sunday TV. Trains were nearly always on strike, Arthur Scargill was on telly all the time, and Allo Allo was popular. It was a time of British Telecom and eye-watering phone bills. It was a time of inexplicably bad dubbed Spanish cartoons on BBC children's TV. A time of "exact change only".

So let's get something clear. Mostly the eighties sucked. Ok, so we had the A-Team, Knightrider and Airwolf and some passably good pop music but if I could wind the clock back I wouldn't. Everything we have tried to revive from the eighties has sucked even more than it did the first time around.

If I think about it, it was better to be a kid in the eighties than an adult. Having to write out cheques for groceries and imprinting paper with those slidey things you ran credit cards over with must have been a serious pain in the arse. If you wanted information you had to go to a library and use those microfish machines and have a working knowledge of the Dewey Decimal system. Google didn't exist, and the closest you had to texting was a BT pager. You felt really important if you had a pager and a Filofax.

In a lot of ways it's a wonder anything got done at all. The only computers we had were slow, incredibly basic and the best you could get was a dot matrix printer. Email was a fax machine and a portable computer was as big as golf bag.

It was also a far less liberal time. The state was decisive, authoritarian and terrifying in its prestige and gravitas. The police were thugs - even more than they are now, and falling foul of the law was something you most definitely did not want to do.

If my memory serves me well, there was a certain order. There were moral and legal absolutes which have been diluted over the years. Police were far less tolerant of drugs and drug users and the justice system was notoriously unforgiving. We may now lament the blurred lines and moral uncertainty but if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law, which I have now and then, you're glad of the civil liberties you have and the expectation that your punishment will be proportionate to the crime. As bent out of shape as the system is, I don't think I would want things to go back to how they were.

As to how things got done, it was a time when we had a sprawling public sector. It wasn't like the Blair years with people nested in quangos and sucking up grant money. There was one umbrella and if it was a council service, then you worked for the council and they issued your payslips. From the binmen to the teachers. That's why going on strike was a national pastime.

Now the system is far more fragmented. We tell ourselves the big lie that there has been privatisation but in a more real sense all we have done is changed the procurement model. There was a time when we had council planning offices which dealt with anything from planning permission for conservatories to complex piping systems under the roads. Everything non-domestic has now been farmed out to Atkins and the likes.

In the early nineties this was because Atkins along with a number of other large firms were real companies with real capability with their own institutional knowledge of how to build things. It made sense. The crippling inefficiencies of heavily unionised councils were weeded out and councils gradually became commissioning authorities. To say that such functions were privatised when they still require vast injections of public money is an abuse of language.

If at the time you were a conservative you wholly approved of privatisation. It made a lot of sense. There was no good reason why there should be a single telecoms company. The government certainly had no business making cars, and the model we have for gas now vastly cuts down on the administrative burden. We could argue the toss about water and electricity but on the whole the reforms we made were the right move at the right time. The socialist structures were ossified and creaking and in desperate need of renewal in ways government lacked the capacity.

So where are we now, nearly thirty years on from this? Nobody can deny that telecoms has thrived bringing about better and cheaper phones, and looking back there was never any rationale for the nationalisation of vehicle manufacture - and though Londoners piss and whine about the railways, the ticket prices are proportionate to the costs of running such a hideously expensive mode of transport and they mostly work. The real cost of the revolution is felt elsewhere.

As we know, public procurement has a long track record of being pretty dismal. Botched Public Private Partnerships have scarred the public psyche. There is still colossal waste and commissioning authorities have a way of making everything cost more than it should. There's a certain aspect of "tough titties, Tinkerbell" to this. Governance is expensive. Infrastructure costs money and the people building it need to get paid. To have a first world developed economy it necessarily means we will pay through the nose for it.

But then everything is cyclic. We were in an era where we were suffering from the worst excesses of socialism with its inherent inefficiencies but we are are now halfway on the journey to the other extreme. Some would say we are there already. As mentioned above, the big suppliers to government on major contracts used to be companies of substance. Now they are something else entirely. They run on a skeleton crew seeking out projects to bid for and only then do they, at short notice, acquire the people necessary for its execution.

In this they do not take on permanent staff, and instead they skim from highly paid contractors or subcontracting firms. The result is certainly a more dynamic workforce - with workers enjoying greater pay but fewer rights. Though many are satisfied with that now I think this will become a problem down the line when people realise that security is also important. The problem with this model is that these "engineering" firms posses no institutional memory and hold no assets of their own in relation to their contracts.

This removes the safety mechanism against egregious mistakes and as each phase of a project is farmed out to other big consultancy firms, there are any number of free riders and parasites taking their cut. We are now so far away from the original model that contracts are fluid on a daily basis. Far from being the slovenly mess that was socialism we are no in an age of hyper-accountability where every penny is tracked. The real world effect of this is that pennies are pinched from those at the bottom of the chain while the free riders in the middle still take their cut. Either way the taxpayer is defrauded.

This forces me to conclude that there can be no rational ideological positions on economic policy. At either extreme nothing gets done so politics is really the process of keeping the balance in check and governing it in order to trim off the worst excesses at both ends. I no more want a hyper-libertarian society than I do a socialist one. The dogmas of the right have it that utopia is only just over the horizon if we sell off a few more things. I see it as the mirror equal of Corbynist socialism.

Instead of seeking a new Jerusalem we must accept that this flawed muddle is how things get done. What matters is that we have trustworthy institutions run by transparent and competent politicians. Since that is not the case, the dismal partisanship of old must take second place to genuine constitutional reform.

On present trajectory we are looking at a systemic collapse of politics whereby one extreme has total dominance - which would be a disaster. No system of governance should ever be run by true believers. I fear we lack the checks and balances in this ever more polarised world to stop that from happening. Trump shows us that the USA has a constitution for very good reasons. It's time we had one too. I don't want to loonies of either stripe in control and I definitely do not want to go back to the eighties. 

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