On the collapse of government in the UK

25/10/2022. London, United Kingdom. Newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at No10 Downing Street. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street

For more than 40 years (1979-2022), it hasn’t mattered which British government was in power – the economic model remained the same. And that has been worship of the market. If public utilities weren’t being privatised, they were (in health and education for example) being “contracted out” vith public money being used in a “mock market”. Except that this has, for specific health procedures, been increasingly a staging post for eventual privatisation – with patients having to pay (often to American companies who have been invited in by the government).

Schools have been increasingly the subject of mock competition – with league tables supposedly identifying and rewarding “performance”. Local government removed from its management role; and charities and religious bodies invited to take over. “Choice” was one of Tony Blair’s most important principles for the “modernisation” of public services New Labour undertook.

There was a time when countries were interested in learning from one another – and Finland’s schools are remarkable for the way in which teachers are trusted by society to conduct their business without the regulatory control which has been such a feature of the UK – with a huge growth in managers at a time when, otherwise, the state was being significantly scaled down. “Hollowing out” was the term used– although that was more than 2 decades ago. .

One of the devices New Labour inherited from the Tories was the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) which allowed Gordon Brown to rack up huge government debt to private companies who just wallowed in cash. A hospital or school would be commissioned with money borrowed from the private sector – with the subsequent interest payments costing the taxpayer 3-4 times the original cost. One result is that hospitals are now paying billions of pounds in interest payments to private companies

New Labour also followed Thatcherism

in its treatment of the Civil Service which has an important role in challenging the practicalities of political preferences. After 18 years of Conservative rule, New Labour was suspicious of the civil service and chose to ignore its advice. Political adviser positions multiplied and “sofa government” kept the decision-making political. This, of course, is a recipe for the dreaded “groupthink”, the importance of which has been reasserted in recent books by Matthew Syed and Gillian Tett

Much more could be said – about the way corrupt practices have seeped into everyday government decision-making; about the scale of lobbying in the UK; about the dramatic decline of public trust in government.

Brexit was the last nail in the coffin –

with propoganda from both sides insulting our intelligence and the immigrants whom Bliar had let so carelessly into the country in 2004 serving increasingly as a scapegoat for the damage and indignities heaped on the precariat during the post-2010 Austerity.

Brexit has damaged both the political and administrative machine equally with the scale of the unravelling 40 years of EU membership stretching what was left of the previously famous capacity of the UK civil service to breaking point – particularly when its political “masters and mistresses” proved to be uninterested in such detail.

The country now finds itself with a multi-millionaire Conservative Prime Minister whose privileged background does not inspire confidence. After 12 years in power, the party to which he belongs needs to show some sign of humility.

But it is the country as a whole which needs to ask itself some very tough questions about how on earth it has reached this point of disaster, draw some fundamental lessons – and develop a serious strategy. Make no mistake, this is a profound crisis both of government and of “governance” (a word I rarely use except critically)

In using these terms, I’m trying to convey the message that changing personnel and structures takes us only so far; what is required is a deep change in how we as a society approach the future.

We’ve been having debates about computers and artificial intelligence for almost half a century – have we really learned so little? The pandemic gave us, momentarily, a sense of possibilities – Ireland and Iceland have both given us recent examples of a more positive type of democracy.

And why should our voting be restricted to the political sphere (and only every few years) when we have the example of industrial democracy to demonstrate the importance of extending the meaning of democracy?

This article has been first published on Ronald Young’s blog Peripheral vision.

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