Hug A Bureaucrat – Syriza’s Lesson For Britain

Poor bloody Syriza. We all read about how Tsipras moved into the Prime Minister’s residence and found it stripped, even down to the soap. But that was the least of it.

One of Syriza’s many problems is the lack of a functioning state in Greece. How do you collect taxes, run a health or education system, distribute the resources to build or maintain infrastructure, without the state to do it?

The old way of doing things under the traditional political parties was closer to the norms of the Middle East than those of Northern Europe. There were connections of kinship, politicians collected clients who expected rewards for their support, and, as Aditya Chakrabortty put it recently, the tax collection system is more akin to a plate being passed around at the end of a church service.

Harold Wilson, the former British PM, used to describe the British state as being like a car. Depending on who was in power, they might drive it in different directions, but the vehicle was essentially the same efficient machine.  His critics in the Labour Party saw this as inaccurate, thinking the top ranks of the Civil Service to be instinctively conservative, likely to defend the Establishment and thwart radical zeal. Recent partial revelations about an Establishment cover-up over child sexual exploitation suggest that there might have been something in this view, but nonetheless, the machinery of state was indeed a Rolls Royce operation.

The British state took some building. 19th Century reforms created a system of competitive examinations for entrance to the highest levels of the Civil Service, and the brightest graduates saw it as the highest career destination. When governments took decisions, the Civil Service could make it happen – or warn of the consequences. Just look at the creation of the NHS, a massive, complex undertaking, but just three years after the Second World War ended, the NHS was up and running. You need an efficient, responsive state to make something that big happen.

Now look at the direction of travel since 1979. Look, particularly, at the ambition of the current government (and at the record of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition). We have been letting them “shrink the state”.

Who cares, you might say. Fewer pen pushers, scrapping some back room people in the town halls, what does it matter?

It matters when the intention of the government is to weaken the state by handing over its functions to the private sector. Massively powerful private interests, like Capita, Serco, and others, their numbers increasing by the day, often created by the hiving off of state assets, looks rather like a pin striped British version of Greek clientalism. Rather than building up the resources of the state to handle modern complexities, we have been de-skilling and weakening our administrative system.

The consequence of this is that Harold Wilson’s ‘car of state’ is now a rust bucket sitting on a pile of bricks. The state that is being created will be no vehicle for change when it is nothing more than a few bods trying to work out whether to give the contract to Atos or Serco.

The Greeks have some pretty plausible explanations for the sorry State they’re in. Invasions, conquest, dictatorship, and some wasted decades of democracy haven’t made it easy to forge a state fit to administer a modern country.   What’s our excuse? We used to have a state, but we sat back and watched them flog it off to their mates.

If Britain ever elects a government of the left, they might find soap in the downstairs loo in No.10, but will they have the impartial apparatus of government available to make the changes we need?

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