Monday, 10 November 2014

The Price of Everything

When I was a youngster, politics was all about changing the world.  Or, at least, that's how it seemed.  Best of all, politics used to be simple.  There were clever, easy to remember slogans that summed up a whole alternative worldview, and saved you the trouble of reading any tedious books.

One of the best was, "We don't want a bigger slice of the cake, we want to own the bloody bakery!"  There, in a nutshell, is your rough-and-ready, industrial-grade, trades-union activist's Marxism.  Or, if you were more anarchistically-inclined -- and the anarchists always had the best slogans -- there was "Don't vote, it only encourages them!", or its variant, "Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in!" Or, for the feminists, the mystifyingly surreal but ever-popular "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle!"

As a consequence, I still like my politics simple.  As do 99% of the population, I'd guess.  Apart from a handful of headlining names, I have no idea who currently runs most government departments, and I don't really care enough about the nuances of, say, the European Union even to read a book on the subject. I just about care enough about my ignorance to feel a certain free-floating guilt, of the same order I feel about not having redecorated the house, or cleared the junk out of the garden shed.

Caring about such stuff is the province of policy wonks.  The problem is, The Way of the Wonk is also the way to power.  Passion, sincerity and the "vision thing" can all be faked; a thorough knowledge of people, parties and policies cannot.  I suppose this has always been the case, but it seems particularly acute in an era when simple "gut" politics have mutated into a choice between managerial styles.  You need to know who your rivals are for the post of Head of Regional Sales.

This began at some point in the 1980s, and coincided with the disappearing act of the political left.  It seems that, right across the broad "centre" of the political spectrum, the current consensus took hold, which I would summarise like this:
  • We are living beyond our means
  • Demand on public spending is growing, and exceeds our ability to pay for it
  • High taxes lose electoral support; low taxes win it
  • Henceforth, we must manage scarcity, and provide fewer public services from a shrinking budget
I think that's it; have I missed anything?  The rest is just detail -- managerial wonkery.  You know the sort of thing, debating the benefits of privatisation versus "private finance initiatives" and all that Ed Balls.

Now, I was brought up in the belief that there was enough money for everything, it was just a question of setting priorities.  The business of politics, as I understood it, was persuading those in control of the national wallet that it was in their best interests to give us (for various competing definitions of "us") what we wanted. What my particular "us" wanted was nationalization and across the board state-led solutions.  What counted as acceptable "persuasion" towards that end was what defined your position on the political spectrum.  At some point in the 1980s, however, the senior ranks of the Labour Party must have seen something, read something, or eaten something (Opposition Pie?) that changed their collective mind.  The eventual abandonment of "Clause IV" as a political embarrassment was the symbolic end result.

The downfall of Militant in Liverpool was exemplary, and equally symbolic.  Their ultimate crime was not being -- gasp! -- radical socialists, or -- yikes! -- bumptious scouser scallies (though that probably didn't help), but to set an illegal council budget, in pursuit of the philosophy that services should be delivered now to the people of Liverpool who urgently needed them, and how to pay for them could and should be sorted out later.  Big mistake, it turned out.

Ever since, the electorate has been faced, every four or five years, with an unappetizing choice of "responsible" managerial styles and strategies claiming to do more with less, but actually always doing less with less.  It's a political puppet show played out against a lurid media backdrop, behind which some truly awe-inspiring self-enrichment has been carried out by a tiny group of kleptocrats.  Anyone talking a political language outside this Consensus of the Suits, whether of the left or the right, has been branded an irresponsible, ill-informed loony.  Which is why the suits are now getting bitten on the arse by the likes of UKIP, who really don't care what they are called.

But, here's the thing.  Now I'm all growed up and have stopped believing in Revolution as a one-stop solution to society's ills, I need to know the answer to a few simple questions.  In fact, one simple question, with some supplementaries.  A lot hinges on the answers.  My simple question is this:

Is it true that we can't afford to pay for excellent public services out of the public purse any more?  I mean, really true?

If it's not true, then people have a right to be very angry with our political class.  It's "string 'em up!" time, no?  But if it is true, then:
  • Is it a consequence of the Low Tax Genie having been let out of the bottle?
  • Is it a legacy of decades of unsustainable borrowing?
  • Is it a failure of political imagination, will, and courage?
  • Is it a result of choices between, say, defence spending and local council spending?
  • Something else, so terrifying that no-one dares speak its name?
I don't know the answers. I know the answers I would prefer to hear, obviously.  But I will switch off once any answer -- however worthy -- stretches into a third paragraph.  I will get impatient with answers making use of metaphors drawn from household and small business financial management (I really don't believe the nation's banking arrangements are like mine, overdraft and all -- I wonder how much HSBC charges to write a letter to the government?).  I don't want to hear about any all-or-nothing utopias -- yes, there are so many ways the world could be better if only people were better, too, but we don't have time for that any more.  And, no matter how fervently you believe it, no answer that lays off the blame onto convenient scapegoats (single parents, immigrants, benefit scroungers, the EU, freemasons, street musicians, left-handers, et al.) will be heard out; financial speculators, however, are fair game.

If the answer -- as I suspect it might be -- is "yes, to all of the above" (except possibly that last one), then maybe it really is "string 'em up!" time, after all. Perhaps it's time for a new slogan.  Let me think...

How about: "A government needs the fish vote like a bicycle encourages a bakery!"  Confusing, but in the words of that great Parliamentarian George Clinton, "Free your mind, and your ass will surely follow".  It could work...

Or we could all simply agree to pay lots more tax -- and, yes, we're looking at you, Amazon -- and stop living like selfish, miserly, status-obsessed blockheads.  Duh.

Lobby of the offices of The Economist


Martin Hodges said...

Have you read this Suzanne Moore piece, Mike?

Mike C. said...


I hadn't, but I have now. Mine is better, I think! ;)


Martin Hodges said...

Of course.

Gerry said...

The answer is old but pithy, in German for the hell of it.

Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen


Mike C. said...


Indeed, it really is that simple, isn't it?

For non-German speaking readers, that translates as "Whoever you vote for, the fish gets the bakery".


Dave Leeke said...


A sense of bewilderment at how we got this far suggests itself in your excellent post. If the figures in the following links are even slightly exaggerated - which I assume they're not - then things certainly are not rosy in the garden.

As I close in on retirement later this year and think about my children's futures I wonder how we ever got into this state and what the future actually holds.

I don't think things are going to be getting any better soon.


Mike C. said...


Yes, bewilderment is a fair summary. I had always trusted those who said, in effect, "They're only *pretending* there's no money", so it came as a bit of a shock to hear the same people saying, "No, wait... Actually, there *isn't* any money..."

As you say, you can't help but worry what is in store for our children.


Patrick Dodds said...

Thanks for this post - you summarise a lot of what I have been thinking for years but have never been able to put into such a succinct form.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Patrick -- I think a lot of people are thinking this. What a shame it won't express itself at the ballot box except as a low turnout and another hung parliament...