Why is everything shit?
It’s a simple question. It gets phased in a lot of different ways. On a news discussion programme on the BBC it might be in the form of a wry nod to living in strange and unusual times. On Twitter it’s a viral video of a man jumping out of the window. In the heavyweight newspapers it is usually wrapped up in a lot of euphemistic words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘idiosyncratic’, ‘the old rules no longer apply’. But it comes down to the same thing. Why is everything shit?
The Government is panicked and incompetent. The Opposition has all the dynamism of someone woozily coming around from a general anaesthetic after having a hip replacement operation, dreaming of a nice cup of tea. The press is less Fourth Estate, than Divine Right of Barons. As for democracy, that subtle, complex form of representation, in which courtesy, respect for opponents, and the healthy knowledge that power can and will change hands, has been replaced by a reality TV, lottery-like notion of ‘winner takes all’. Suck it up, loser.
So how did this happen?
It happened because the glue that sticks things together has perished, and now flakes off, yellowed and dry, from the social institutions that used to make things work.
Some people point to the financial crisis which shook the world a decade ago, and still hasn’t been resolved. Others, on our local turf, anyway, think that the MPs expenses scandal, with the loss of trust that entailed, has made voters cynical and vengeful. Or it’s all about ‘out of touch liberal elites’. Or ‘fake news’. Or social media. Or a cultural rift between the urban, young, and educated, and the suburban, or rural, and old, and know-nothing. Take your pick, but there’s only a partial, sometimes vestigial, degree of truth in any of these suggestions.
For the rotting glue affects all of those things, but it is also about some very specific things. I want to start with just one of them.
It is sometimes said that voters are unhappy with politicians, because in an era of globalisation, governments simply don’t have the power to take decisions that once they did. But that’s not true. They never had absolute power to make things happen. Events, dear boy. And vested interests, and lobbyists, and the economic and financial power of business. The scale of some of these forces might have changed, but they were always there.
But politicians, governments, worked very hard, over many lifetimes, to create what Steve Bannon, Prince of Darkness, called “the administrative state”. Are students of British politics any more taught of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report (1854)? That’s the point at which the British government decided to create a politically neutral administrative apparatus, staffed on merit, to run the functions of a complex, modern state. And whatever criticisms were rightly made of the Civil Service over the years, incompetence was rarely one of them, at least until recently.
Politicians stood for elections, voters chose the direction of travel, governments steered it, parliament legislated for it, and the Civil Service made it happen – or warned of the difficulties, if necessary. It was a ‘Rolls Royce machine’ as some politicians called it. Purred along nicely, the precision engineering of the quiet, confident Whitehall mandarins.
It was traditionally the left who carped about the Civil Service. In the days before all the Oxbridge double firsts made a bee-line for The City, the clever, posh and well-connected saw a career in the Civil Service as a desirable and high-status role. But whatever the mind-set, it did work, sometimes brilliantly. The complexity of something like the NHS was rolled out from scratch in less time than it took Andrew Lansley to take a hammer to it in 2010.
But, as with so many things, the rot seems to owe much to the Thatcher-Reagan era.
Public service ceased to be a respected and honourable role, but became a despised ‘bureaucracy’. Whoever had an ambition that wasn’t about amassing money, fast, and in obscene amounts, was a nobody. Politicians on the right came to deride and suspect their Civil Servants, viewing the warnings and caution as foot-dragging and negativity. They by-passed the Civil Service, bringing in ever more ‘special advisors’, and then they actively started to privatise or outsource the ‘administrative state’ itself.
And so we get here. As the security operation for the London 2012 Olympic Games showed in an embarrassingly public spotlight, the private sector is often all talk and no trousers. The Army, the very model of a state institution, stepped in with no fuss and quiet efficiency. But when its not so public – a private prison riot here, a disability benefits cock-up there, the loss of half a million confidential patient records somewhere else – then we see that cutting and de-skilling the Civil Service, and using the ‘lean, efficient’ private sector is a recipe for failure after failure.
For generations of politicians now think that they merely have to have a bright idea, and then hire a company to put it into action. Because PWC, or ATOS or whoever, will take the client’s cash (our taxes), and try to bodge something the client will like, regardless. The Civil Service, on the other hand, are more likely to offer words of caution. And no pushy politician with a career to build wants to hear that.
The withering of a functioning state is a major part of what has contributed to the declining public confidence in politicians. Basically, they promise, but they lack the means, the expertise, to deliver. No wonder people think politicians are liars.
There is more – much more – to be said about political parties without purpose, companies without accountability, and above all, the withering of local government. But right now, as the Prime Minister no one elected gets ready to trigger Article 50 to leave the European Union, it is as well to start with this one big part of why things are so shit.
Without the state, government doesn’t know how to do anything. They really don’t.