Things Fall Apart

Who said this: “To me, it’s a tragedy of governmental thinking since the 1980s that we do not have any centralised planning in pretty much any area.  The areas of government that used to exist to plan for the long term don’t exist any more…. Everyone likes to criticise civil servants, but the reality is, you do need people to think about where the country is going, and what the right decisions for the long term are.”

No, it wasn’t some mad leftie obsessed with the big state.  It was a man called Guy Hands.  He’s a billionaire tax exile who runs a ‘private equity group’, an anodyne phrase which means ‘an amoral, ruthlessly efficient money-making machine’.  So why the apparent nostalgia for the very state machinery that George Osborne has declared he wants to cut back further to 1930s levels?  Surely this very model of the modern finance capitalist ought to want less government, not more?

Hands, from a sphere normally insulated from the everyday realities of we common people, has run slap bang into the reality of a world without planning.  He bought a care home group, and it’s losing money.  With any other business, he’d strip out the assets and flog them off, and if that meant lots of people losing their jobs, so what?  But with a care home (or many care homes right across the country, to be precise), there’s no way of making the residents ‘redundant’.  You can’t sell off their homes to turn into flats when there’s a load of eighty and ninety-somethings inconveniently sitting around waiting to be fed, and washed and helped into bed.  He’s found that capitalism has consequences, and that only a strong, regulating, long-term planning state can create the conditions in which capitalists can operate without fear of a public backlash.

But his insight is yet to be understood by those most able to do something about it – the politicians, and especially the government.

As Hands observed, since the 1980s, unimpeded by the New Labour non-interregnum, the idea that the state (including the local state) is a good thing which enables us all to lead decent lives free of fear, has been abandoned.  Yesterday’s Daily Mail had a headline about ‘Public Sector Fat Cats'(the very highest salaries in the public sector remain a fraction of what the same skill-set and responsibilities would command in the private sector).  A newspaper owned by tax exiles typifies the way in which, for over thirty years, we have been groomed to love those who abuse us, and to fear and loathe those who would do us good.

But it is hard to battle this mindset, as it has seeped into everything.  We are a sub-prime society.

Remember those sub-prime mortgages which helped to bring about the financial crash (no, it wasn’t caused by Labour “maxing out the credit card”)?  It was profitable to sell mortgages, so banks sold mortgages to anyone who could stick a thumb-print on a credit agreement with no regard to whether the poor dupes could repay the debt.  Then they bundled all the potential bad debts together and sold them on, essentially as a giant, multi-billion dollar punt.  The belief was that by chopping everything up into little bits, risk could be spread and thereby minimised.

The key point here is the ‘chopping up’, That’s the mindset.  Think small, think short term.  Don’t look ahead, don’t consider the bigger picture, above all, maximise the returns in the here and now, and pocket the bonus before the whole bloody thing goes pear shaped.

So education has been chopped up.  Local government – chopped to bits.  They’re starting on health.  And it is a disaster.

Take education.  The latest crisis is for further education.  FE colleges used to be local powerhouses, modest places which punched above their perceived weight by educating people into trades and technical professions, plumbers and chefs, engineers and journalists.  They also provided opportunities to people who’d perhaps missed out the first time around, or who needed a second chance through the very laudable British institution of the ‘night school’.  Run by local authorities, they met local needs very efficiently.  But now?

‘Freed’ from local councils, made to ‘compete’, told to emulate the ways of the private sector, further education has become a pitiful shambles, with ego and misconceived ambition where it shouldn’t be, and a level of contempt for the staff, students and local communities for whom FE colleges were once beacons of opportunity. “Where there is excellence, let there be failure,” seems to be the mantra.

Schools?  From LEAs to a rag bag of academies, free schools, sponsors, creationists, all in the space of little more than a generation.  Who’s in charge?  The Secretary of State might micro-manage the curriculum to squeeze every last bit of fun and creativity out of the Gradgrind Academy, but the responsibility for ensuring that there are sufficient places, teachers, buildings? Nothing to do with the government.  It’s all been chopped up, you see.

Local government used to be a very effective and democratically accountable part of our system, as those fine Victorian municipal buildings remind us.  But now?  All they can do is employ a few stressed out staff to pay the bills for contracted out statutory services.  What that means?  It means you can vote out your local councillor, but you can’t vote out Veolia or Serco who actually ‘do’ the local government services.  Chopped to bits.

This chopping away at things is also apparent in employment. Where once companies employed people, offering a level of security, the prospect of training, promotion, and a pension at the end. Now there is little but insecurity as evidenced by the growing ranks of the so-called self-employed and freelances. You are on your own.

The fact is that it wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t need to be like this. As Guy Hands said, we need sober, intelligent, evidence-based long term planning, and this must start with the state.  Without that planning function, and the means to deliver, things fall apart.  As we can see, if only we look around….

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