What does it say about the character of our politicians that they are apparently so keen to abdicate their responsibilities in so many areas of governance essential to the running of society?
An array of functions that were once the recognised duty of elected representatives have been progressively handed over to people from business and technocrats with no democratic mandate. Is it because our politicians are so bedevilled by a lack of confidence in their own abilities? Perhaps.
But it is also undoubtedly a consequence of the theory, embedded deeply in the psyche of the political class over the last 40 years, that governments shouldn’t meddle because ultimately the market and experts know best.
Take the running of the economy – arguably the most crucial function any government can perform and one pivotal to the prosperity of a nation and the wellbeing of its citizens. Conventional wisdom has it that the decision by the New Labour government to grant ‘independence’ to the Bank of England in 1997 was a wise and far-sighted one. Few now question the merits of relinquishing control of the money supply – a cornerstone of the management of any economy – to unelected technocrats.
Yet, given the value of monetary policy in the armoury of any government – for example, by giving it the power to influence levels of investment and stimulate demand through the control of interest rates and quantitative easing – it beggars belief that a Labour government should wish to give it away. And it was given away to career bankers who, far from being ‘independent’, have been inclined to direct policy according to the interests of fellow bankers and asset holders, rather than those whose lives are rooted in the real economy.
In his autobiography, Tony Blair admits that, when it comes to the economy, he sees the role of government as nothing greater than “to stabilise and then get out of the way”. It is a striking departure from the attitude of previous Labour governments who understood only too well the need to use every available economic lever at their disposal to create jobs, build homes and fund public services.
That Corbyn’s Labour – which rails unremittingly against austerity and the rapacious power of finance – has not committed to restoring democratic control over the Bank of England is an indication of how deeply the ‘hands off’ philosophy has infected political thought.
As with economic policy, so it has been for the public sector, with politicians of all colours eager to divest themselves of responsibility and control. The ideological drive to roll back the frontiers of the state pervades the public sphere at all levels, with few local institutions or services having escaped the onward march of outsourcing. Even modest, yet crucial, jobs that keeps our communities ticking over – the bus driver, the hospital porter, the town hall cleaner, the dinner lady – have often been contracted out.
There was a time when a shared civic pride existed between the communities running these services and the workers who delivered them. But with a diminished public ethos has come a diminished sense of public duty. These community-facing jobs are now seen as purely transactional, a commodified source of profit for an impersonal market. Little wonder that this new, abstract relationship between communities and their public servants has served to intensify the sense of loss and deracination felt in so many of our towns and cities.
The consequence of government disengagement from public provision is most apparent in the area of housing. We don’t build council homes anymore, and the government has no serious plan for addressing the chronic housing shortage. The result has been catastrophic. Try telling a young couple attempting to get on today’s property ladder, but faced with crippling costs due to inadequate supply, that the ‘market knows best’.
And perhaps the most indefensible shirking of responsibility by politicians has been in handing over so much of our justice system, including the running of prisons, to private companies. The punishment of crime, and such matters of moral right and wrong, ought surely to be the responsibility of the State alone, not of commercial entities seeking to extract a profit. Politicians who agreed to put the delivery of justice into the hands of multinational companies should hang their heads in shame.
This ‘hands off’ approach sits neatly with the attitude of most parliamentarians to the European Union over the last 40 years. Our relationship with that institution has been one of increasing surrender of powers from Westminster to Brussels. We can see the result of that now: our MPs are petrified of control coming back. They are rabbits caught in the headlights. A parliament atrophied by decades of having its legislation dictated by someone else has given its members a mindset similar to that of the average parish councillor. No wonder MPs are reluctant to assume responsibility over laws governing every area of public life.
The ceding of control over large parts of the economy and public services to business and technocrats has profound implications for democracy. It weakens accountability and reduces the status and power of politicians. As the functions of government, national and local, have been outsourced, so has responsibility – and ultimately the blame when things go wrong.
This isn’t a crude argument about privatisation versus public ownership. Any economy, if it is to be successful, needs a flourishing private sector, and God knows politicians have often done more harm than good when it comes to establishing the conditions for one. No, this is a debate about the nature of our society and the health of our democracy, about the proper role of our elected representatives and how much we value a sense of national and civic pride.
In 2008, we saw where a ‘light touch’ government philosophy and misplaced faith in the ‘expertise’ of bankers and technocrats led us. Now, the frontiers of the state must be rolled forward just a bit, and the role of government and elected representatives as a force for good reasserted. But to achieve that, we need a new class of politician who actually believes it.