Sunday, 2 September 2018

It's a little late for what-ifs



I see variations of the above tweet all the time. The replies are telling. One suggests "Actually tackling the underlying issues of inequality of opportunity, the lack of investment in education, healthcare and infrastructure, dealing with the lack of a cohesive and coherent Industrial Strategy, tackling poverty, and strengthening our Union, not tearing it apart".

Another suggests "Investing properly in renewable energy. Coming up with ways to boost biodiversity in a countryside sadly denuded of wildlife. We should be tackling climate change with our allies, not bickering about the sovereignty that was already in our hands"

The general theme from remainers is that if only we had firehosed the plebs in the regions with more cash then they beastly oiks would not have voted to leave. In remainer luvvie world (the Twitter echo chamber) this is all sound thinking. There is but one small problem. What they suggest is essentially already happening and people still voted to leave.

There's been hundreds of millions spent on places like Hull and Hull can now boast of being a pioneering renewable energy port. Yet strangely Hull voted leave by 67.6%. How can this be?

Hull is reputed to be a ghastly place. I don't get it it. I happen to quite like the place. Seen with a historian's eye the place really speaks to me because it has so many tales to tell. Port cities are exciting to me and the drive through Hull is a journey through time. Some of the surrounding countryside is the best anywhere.

That doesn't stop it being a sad end of the line post industrial ghost town. It's had a lot of spending on the waterfront in recent years and EU funding for the modernised marina, but it's still a place which has largely outlived its traditional purposes.

A wind turbine factory doesn't really make up for the loss of its reason for being and the jobs it creates will be high end engineering roles where the employer will recruit not just from Europe but from all over the world. So this investment doesn't actually solve anything. All it does is create an enclave for the well-to-do middle classes and the only real opportunity for locals is to set up a bacon butty ban outside the front gate.

Much the same can be said of South Wales which is a huge recipient of regional development funding, much of which comes from the EU. Regeneration has been transfromative in recent years but only on the surface.

Like Liverpool and Glasgow, the mid nineties were boom time for waterfront development in Cardiff. Yuppie flats built with cheap money to provide workers for the vast call centres built in business parks peppered throughout the district. It plugged a gap but it was far from a solution and call centres in recent years have taken a pasting thanks to online banking and self-service motor insurance.

One other major employer was internet service providers running technical support desks as the nation struggled with 56k modems and AOL CD-ROMs. That's all gone now. Thank the Lord. But this was only a sticking plaster that never really addressed the core issue. Our cities evolved for a purpose. Now they have no purpose. Newcastle doesn't build ships or mine coal, Cardiff is no longer a global port, Glasgow shipbuilding consists of the occasional Royal Navy destroyer contract and Hull's fishing fleet is a couple of large foreign registered boats crewed by Filipinos on slave wages.

As to the regions in South Wales, being from West Yorkshire I thought I knew quite well what a shithole looked like, but the Welsh Valley's boats some weapons grade shitholes that you simply would never go to unless you were a Channel 4 reporter on poverty safari. These places, however, are not short on regeneration funding. Much of it wasted on unfathomably stupid vanity projects.

But it's not just the small beer. The districts around Blackwood boast engineering centres of excellence and life sciences labs along with vastly improved college facilities and not entirely useless public transport. Now here you have to ask yourself why these corporates would move their facilities to the arse end of nowhere? Quite simply they wouldn't because it's hellishly difficult to get people to move there without paying over the odds. Unless there was a subsidy and a loan guarantee from the local council.

This is where EU regional development funding turns into a giant gravy train. For every headline project you see creating a thousand jobs (usually a figure plucked out of the air and in no way realistic) there's a dozen other projects that never see the light of day but generate millions in consultancy fees. The company set up to deliver a motorsport racetrack in south Wales has debts of more than £31m. Heads of the Valleys Development Company (HOTVDC) intended to build the Circuit of Wales on moorland above Ebbw Vale in Blaenau Gwent.

As an idea I don't hate it if it's linked up with the local economy and open to public use with strong links to local colleges and universities. The region is a magnet for superbike riders and day trippers. But we know how this goes. They will spend half a billion on it and a few years later it will go into administration and them become a storage depot for sea containers. These things always seen like a good idea but the justifications for them are flimsy and the justifications often read like a GCSE geography project. 

Thankfully, the more lunatic schemes like the Swansea Tidal Lagoon will never go ahead. Local MP Stephen Kinnock expressed his disappointment at its cancellation citing the loss of jobs it would create. And that right there is the mindset at fault here. The job of the energy sector is not to create jobs in deprived backwaters. The job of the energy sector is to produce energy at the cheapest possible price. How can heavy industry be competitive if to subsidise make-work jobs in the region through their energy bills?

What all of these madcap schemes share in common is that they are little more than sticking plasters that in no way address the underlying social stresses. Bradford Council has spent millions on city centre regeneration and though it looks million times better than it ever did it's still a dead end for social mobility and recent trends have absolutely devastated working class culture. No trendy retail complex can ever replace the pubs in town that used to serve as community hubs. they may have modernised it but in so doing they ripped the soul out of the city. All of its best music venues are gone. Redevelopment and regeneration is just a byword for sanitising the grubby culture of the plebs.

I've seen a dozen incredulous articles remarking how the largest recipients of EU funding spurned the EU at the referendum. Among the well-to-do remainers there is a sense of bewilderment that the plebs could turn on their gracious benefactors. They simply don't get it. All of these places evolved organically for a reason. Regional funding, however, is essentially pissing in the wind trying to slow the rate of natural atrophy - and it isn't working.

This central economic planning often coupled with fanciful fads like renewable energy serves only the vanity of our political masters. They feel perfectly entitled to vandalise my beloved Pennine wilderness with wind turbines but you'll ne'er spot a wind farm in the home counties where the good Doctor Galsworthy hails from. A tweeter just this week remarked that the BBC loves regional accents, but hit hates regional opinions. That is the very essence of the culture dispute at the heart of Brexit. 

This is coupled with an ever growing political disconnect. There exists a "Welsh government" but in essence it is a quasi-democratised regional development agency that mainly exists to squander grant funding while cutting local councils out of the loop. This is not devolution. All we've done is create another local fiefdom for developers to get their noses int the trough. Regeneration slush funds have filled up the back pages of Private Eye for the last twenty years. 

Doc Galsworthy can lament the opportunity cost of Brexit dreaming about what we could do, but doesn't think about what we actually would do. What we would do is continue on with sticking plasters aimed at fobbing off the regional oiks while the Westminster bubble congratulate themselves for their progressiveness. For all the patronising whinging about "austerity" and the housing crisis, these people would be in uproar if we actually proposed any radical measures to do something about it. Meanwhile the political class would continue to indulge itself in the micromanagement of our lives

You can cry "Stop Brexit! Let's build wind farms instead", but supposing any of this was a good idea it would in no way address the fundamental stagnation of the status quo. It would simply further entrench the privilege of the shrinking middle classes failing to spot that the social fabric is eroding before our very eyes. What needs to happen is something much more radical.

Here we really have to ask the tough questions. Tax freedom day in the UK is now in late May. The state takes almost half of our income in one way or another be it income tax, VAT and stealth taxes but increasingly we are seeing services obliterated and care provision stretched to the max. The current paradigm does not work and it is only going to get worse.  

We need to ask why we are propping up towns that no longer serve a function. We need to ask whey we are subsidising poverty int he regions with welfare? We need to ask who really benefits from "regeneration". We need to ask if wealthy pensioners should pay for their own care. Can we afford our NHS as it stands? Can we keep propping it up with low wage immigrant labour? We need to ask why we are setting an artificially high rental floor price with housing benefit, turning slums into welfare farms for greedy landlords. 

All of these issues have been acute all of my adult life and though we know the answers to these questions they are uncomfortable and requires a certain level of radicalism, leadership and bravery that our current political class is not capable of. Mrs May's dementia tax cost her a majority. 

Stopping Brexit ducks all these questions. The likes of Doc Galsworthy would be delighted by this. The liberal middle class thinks the answer is more taxation, more spending on the regions and more indulgence in white elephant projects. It doesn't work and it is not sustainable and it underpins a political deadlock that ensures no decisions of consequence are ever made. Since twenty years of voting in general elections has achieved nothing you cannot blame the regions for thinking something more drastic is in order.

If we remained in the EU no government of any stripe would do anything especially radical. Not even Corbyn who is not all that different from Blair. The modern Labour party is a party of social feudalism devoted to expanding its welfare client base. It is not interested in the cause of poverty or the collapse of social mobility. It just wants to ensure that the poor can live a subsistence living on state largesse.

Britain has taken a brave decision to pull the plug on the status quo and to let an economic and democratic correction do it thing. It won't be pretty, and it won't be easy. But we know we have endured worse. Ultimately I do not see a workable future for the UK as we know it unless we radically alter the paradigm of UK governance which is coupled with the EU command and control mentality. The world is changing, technology is changing us, work is changing, and we need to organically adapt to the brave new world. We cannot do this with a government actively using our own money against us to prevent radical change and quell disaffection.

No racetrack or tidal lagoon is ever going to bring back working class pride to the regions. There is no going back to mass factory employment and there is no EU utopia. The EU is a defunct idea that simply hasn't kept pace with global changes. Only the people can build the future. It cannot be built to the obsolete grand designs of technocrats deep in the bowels of the Commission. Bradford is never going to be an industrial powerhouse again and Hull will always be sixty miles east of England. The moment we accept that the sooner we can start to build the future. Trying to freeze the past in aspic only makes the democratic correction more severe.

I can appreciate how "believe in Britain" sounds like an empty slogan but we have the know-how, we have the talent and we need to do is unlock that human potential which is currently squandered by pampering ourselves with unaffordable entitlements. I think we are better than our rulers give us credit for. Our ruling class is presently a poor reflection of Britain, bu they are the problem, not us plebs who had the temerity to vote leave. 

In the end there are two ideologies in conflict. We have a ruling class that thinks decisonmaking should be the exclusive domain of experts on the basis that they have superior knowledge and greater moral clarity. Their dangerous delusions have caused energy bills to skyrocket, made travel more expensive and facilitated the rise of the far right in Europe. Their trade liberalisation policies have created a low skill, low wage insecure workforce and made our communities transient. It is anti-human. 

The second ideology is that the people should be the authors of their own destiny and that human freedom is the source of all prosperity and superior to the Utopian ideals of kleptocrats and control freaks. The two ideologies are irreconcilable. 

If the politics of Brexit tells us anything it is that, as much as tribalism is frustrating, we are a tribal species and we seek out our own kind. Increasingly that is along ideological lines rather than geography thanks to the internet - but now we need a new idea that can unite us under one moral mission. Like it or not, that is not the EU. It divides more than it unites. 

We have a turbulent path ahead but from that will emerge a new consensus for the new era that includes those excluded for so long. It may be inconvenient, it may interfere with the grand designs of spreadsheet sociopaths and there is never a good time to do it. All I know is that it must happen. Our survival depends on it. If the old regime was ever going to deliver, it would have by now.  

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