Monday, March 04, 2019

Reforming politics (1): the state of play

Whilst all of politics seems to be devoted to Brexit at the moment, your humble Devil has stated repeatedly (both before and after the vote) that the political and economic landscape of the UK needs massive structural reform.

If, as many assert, the vote to leave the European Union was inspired not by the EU itself, but by the many and varied issues facing the country—issues that go way beyond the vaunted “austerity” measures—then, regardless of the outcome of the current (pathetic) negotiations (and regardless of how you voted), it is very much worth looking at what might be done to fix them.

The problems come in two interlinked flavours:

  • politically, the UK is hugely centralised—more so in some ways, it has been asserted, than the Soviet Union. This leads to people feeling that their voice is not heard, and to a degradation of democracy;
  • economically—outside of London and the South East (and a few scattered cities), the UK economy is moribund at best, and near non-existent at worst.

Combine a massive population of people who believe that they have very little with a demos that feels it has no power, and history tells us that you will always have an irruption of protest, at best; bloody revolution at worst. (It is why democracy is said to be the "least worst” political option that we have found—because people believe that they have power, even when that power is hugely diluted.)

The Leave vote is at the less harmful end of that protest scale—for which we should be grateful. Our tin-eared politicians are, of course, working diligently to prove to population that the UK’s democracy is a sham and that their power is utterly illusory—but let us assume that our lords and masters locate their testicles, and extract us from the EU properly.

And then what?

The internal settlement

What our trade and foreign policy should be (free trade, obviously) is out of the scope of this post: let us focus, instead, on our internal political settlement.

Although I do not necessarily agree with all of the details of the Harrogate Agenda, your humble Devil does agree with many of the principles outlined in it—and including Pete North’s assertions that we need to radically decentralise our political structures.

But, in the spirit of Chesterton’s Fence, let us look at:

  • how our governance is currently conducted;
  • where we want to get to, and;
  • why we might have got to where we are.

Our current government structure

Most cursory students of government will understand our current structures rather similar to this diagram:

In the current model:

  • people pay the bulk of their taxes to central government;
  • central government is lobbied by think-tanks and quasi-automonous non-governmental organisations (QUANGOs) and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs—many of whom are, in fact, fake charities or, if you prefer, sock-puppets);
  • central government departments administer some of the policies centrally;
  • central government actually offloads the vast bulk of the administration of these centrally dictated policies to local authorities;
  • most of the time, policies that the government thinks are going to be hugely unpopular are handed off to QUANGOs;
  • which, in turn, offload the administration of these policies to local authorities;
  • crucially, local authorities have very little policy-making and minuscule tax-raising power;
  • and local authorities must then spend their money on enforcers to ensure that cigarettes are suitably hidden behind shutters rather than doing what voters expect them to do, i.e. collect the bins once a week;

This whole structure is, frankly, crap. Some of the reasons that it doesn’t work:

  • central government makes homogenous policies with little to no consideration of operations (or prices) at a local level;
  • with central government often divorced from local pressures, government becomes even crappier than it might be;
  • local authorities have almost no power: which means that local people do not engage with local politics. One side-effect of this is that those elected tend to be even more shit than national politicians but, most importantly, people feel disenfranchised from politics entirely;
  • central politicians generally like this, as political disengagement means that the electorate are disinterested in examining the myriad ways in which politicians line their own pockets and, frankly, fuck things up through their sheer incompetence;
  • civil servants love it, because no one knows or cares just how much they, too, are filling their boots and avoiding scrutiny;
  • crucially, with central government making most policy decisions, there is almost no scope for competition—except, of course, between countries (and this is being constrained, as we will see);

In short, this is a recipe for unbelievably rubbish politics in the short term, and political disaster in the longer term. But, of course, it just gets worse…

Everything is a remix (of sockpuppetry)

The corruption of local politics was a central reason for the ever-increasing centralisation of government—especially under the Conservatives in the ‘80s. Further, for Thatcher’s government—fighting wars on multiple fronts e.g. the unions) whilst requiring swift, radical change (to bring the economy back from ruin)—centralising power meant that reforms could be made faster and with less local oversight (but I repeat myself).

However, for governments with an internationalist agenda, these reforms also proved fortuitous in other ways.

In we take account of structures outside of the UK, the world works rather more like this:

In this model:
  • supranational organisations—such as the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Health Organisation (WHO), and others—make worldwide policies, which are passed down to national governments or other supra-national organisations (such as the EU);
  • these supra-national organisations are paid for by national governments, which often lobby these same supra-national organisations to “force” national governments to do things which their populations do not want. As an example, the UK is the biggest funder of the WHO (£168m in 2017) and of their Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (3.5m in 2017) and has advocated some of the strictest anti-smoking measures within those fora—the policies of which filtered down into the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (which, amongst other things, introduced stricter advertising, banned the sale of ten packs and, shortly, menthol cigarettes). The plain packaging was, of course, our own government taking its cue from Australia’s failed experiment. If you don’t remember voting for any of this, you’d be right—you didn’t. And if you asked the government… well… it’s out of their hands, innit;
  • at the behest of member states, supra-national organisations aim to “harmonise” as much of life as possible (state-speak for “remove choice from common people”): if you have got the impression that there is essentially no difference between the political parties, this is why. And you wouldn’t be alone—witness the election results favouring “populist parties” (state-speak for “parties representing the concerns of the ignorant, dirty common people”), in the last few years, in USA, Italy, Brazil, etc.;
  • so, supra-national organisations hand down (lobbied for) policies to national governments, who pass some legislation (“terribly sorry, old chap: you may not have voted for it, but it’s out of our hands.” [snigger]), and then (usually) pass enforcement down to the local authorities;
  • local authorities must then spend their money on enforcers to ensure that cigarettes are suitably hidden behind shutters rather than doing what voters expect them to do, i.e. collect the bins once a week;
  • finally, do remember that all of the funding for these supra-national organisations comes, ultimately, from member states’ taxpayers. If you thought that the UK’s central government was unresponsive to people’s local needs, just how responsive do you think the rarified policy-makers of the Geneva-based WHO are, eh?

I want to break free

In (attempting to) leave the European Union, we are getting rid of one level of supra-national government—and one of the worst. For whilst the policies of the WTO, WHO, etc. depend on countries agreeing to abide by them—and countries can, to an extent, opt out of certain policies—the EU tends to enact those same policies into legal instruments that member states must legally abide by.

And one must acknowledge that these supra-national organisations do have their uses: the WTO tries to standardise rules for trade, and push for more free trade by lowering both tariff and non-tariff barriers.

But the problem is that, sooner or later, such bodies always become corrupted. The WHO, for instance, has moved from its drive to eliminate real diseases such as smallpox (which it was successful in), to attempting to “eliminate non-communicable diseases by 2030” (state-speak for ”anything that might kill you that isn’t a disease” or, in this case, ”eliminating death”!): this latter mission means regulating the day-to-day lifestyles of ordinary people which is, and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough, )not the proper business of government.

Central dictatorship

These organisations love a centralised government because it makes it far easier for them to implement their increasingly deranged policies—with a centralised modern government there is, as it were, one throat to throttle.

And in the UK, central government essentially has all of the power—local people do not really have any representation at all, except for a sham General Election every five years or so. They do not even have the kind of multi-tiered representative structure of states in the USA.

This needs to change—and change soon. My next blog post will examine, at high level, what this change should look like and the systemic implications of doing so.

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