Kierkegaard has a wonderful phrase which he uses when referring to public opinion, he calls it the ‘dog’s opinion’, in that it contributes as much to public debate and has as much truth value as the barking sounds made by his neighbour’s dog. It is worthless, I put a similar value on the consensus of opinion that passes for the received wisdom of the Palace of Westminster. This consensus of opinion at present has determined that the priority of any government is to reduce the public sector deficit. Only policies that contribute to reducing that deficit are judged to be worthwhile. Trying to make new policy commitments that don’t involve spending any extra money are next to impossible and lead to nonsensical policy statements by our leading politicians.
David Cameron was the first to make a meaningless sound bite on the flooding problem. He said money would be no object in tackling this problem. Afterwards it was quickly established what he really mean was not what he appeared to be saying. There was to be no extra government money, other than a few small sums to spent on diverting troops to flood control, he was addressing others. What I think he meant was that the insurance industry should not hold back on compensating homeowners for their losses. Not to be out done the leader of the opposition had to produce his own nonsensical policy pronouncement. Ed Milliband said he would commit much more money to resolving the problem than the current government. He then made the statement completely meaningless by saying that the money would not come from extra government spending but through reordering its priorities. However given that most government spending has already been committed to a variety of projects only a small sum of money is available to be redirected to compensating flood victims or spending on flood defences. What he is really trying not to say is that his policy is exactly the same as David Cameron’s.
One really popular but nonsensical policy pronouncement that comes from all parties in parliament, is that they will improve public services not by spending more money on them, but by reforming them to make them more efficient. What these reforms are and how much each reform will save is never spelt out, neither is how it will really lead to an improvement in service. Fortunately it has never to be spelt out, it is ‘responsible politics’, that it is not wasting public money. Any such announcement of reforms in the public sector, will be met with a warm response in the house, as the received opinion is that this is the correct approach to public service. Any minister that announced extra spending to improve public services would be met with howls of derision in the House, as ALL MP’S know that is exactly how not to improve public services. It’s a waste of money, as only reform will improve services.
Never having considered in any but the vaguest terms what reform means, it always in practice means the following. Cuts in staff numbers, worsening of terms of employment and cutting wages of the remaining staff. The crudest cost cutting possible, which generally results in a poorer service provision. Since the quality of such service provision is impossible to measure, it’s always possible to produce statistics to prove that contrary to what service users experience, that the service has improved.
HMRC into which the Inland Revenue has been subsumed demonstrates this clearly. Prior to the era of the great civil service reforms, which started in 1979, it was possible to ring up and speak to a tax inspector to get valuable and informed advice on tax matters. Now after the great cost cutting years of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Wilson, the same quality of advice is no longer available. What the relatively unskilled, demotivated but cost efficient service offer is a much poorer service. Advice offered is often poor or incomplete, errors are made in tax collection. Tax avoidance has grown exponentially because an underpaid, unskilled inspectorate is no match for the army of well paid tax accountants advising on tax avoidance schemes. When Gordon Brown announced that he was cutting the tax inspectorate by 10,000, he was cheered to the rafters. Those MP’s did not need facts or figures, they knew he was right.
What really provoked my ire was the triumvirate of George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls pronouncing on the impossibility of an independent Scotland keeping the pound sterling as their national currency. It was if that if these three great men agreed on something, any opposition is but folly. They claim that if Scotland wanted to keep the pound sterling it had to submit to a currency union with the UK. Ignoring any inconsistencies in their reasoning, they knew they were right. I would want to ask them why this reasoning did not apply to the ‘treasure islands’ of Jersey, Guernsey, The Isle of Man and Gibraltar. Although small in total population, the banks of these ‘countries’ handle many times the quantity of currency handled by Scottish banks, yet their tax policies are contrary to those of the UK. They are in contravention of them as tax havens, yet this does not stop these countries using the pound sterling as their national currency. In fact the inhabitants of the Westminster Palace encourage them to pursue such policies.
What these politicians display is an ignorance anything outside the approved group think of Westminster. Any cursory knowledge of economic history would demonstrate to them that all kinds of currency unions are possible. The sterling area existed for over a hundred years and countries that wished to use sterling as a trading currency only had to deposit their reserves in the Bank of England. Their currencies were tied to the pound sterling in a fixed exchange rate and they were free to use sterling as they wished. There is no reason why a Scottish pound could not exist in parallel with sterling, but such options are closed off to Westminster consensus.
Another aspect of this group think is a commitment to the ‘purity’ of the pound sterling. The foolish notion disproved throughout history is that if the currency is right all will be right with the economy. While it is necessary for the national currency to have a certain degree of soundness, it is overdone in Westminster’s worship of the pound. Nobody in Westminster seems to know that in the 19th century when the USA experienced phenomenal rates of growth, the dollar was one of the weakest of international currencies. Some of the slowest growth in Britain occurred in the 1920’s when the government put a strong pound at the heart of its economic policy. This strong pound through overpricing British goods wreaked havoc on the export industries.
Words that I dread coming out of politicians mouths are reform and modernise as they always herald the introduction of some new and ill thought out policy measure.
‘Collective unwisdom’ is not a feature peculiar to this parliament, there have been several times in history when parliament has been equally poor. The British population in the 1930’s had a similarly low opinion of Parliament. This is the period in which the Boulton Paul Defiant was built, a fighter plane that I think embodies best the follies of our politicians. After 1938 the British government decided it had to build fighter planes quickly to counter the threat from Germany. One plane they choose was the Boulton Paul Defiant, whose only virtue was that it was cheap to build. This plane had two faults it was in terms of speed about 100 miles per hour slower than its German rival the Messerschmidt 109 and its guns were positioned in the rear of the plane. This slow moving plane was a death trap, as to get the best shot at its German rival it had to turn around so the gun turret faced the German fighter. In the process of turning around it was defenceless and this is when the German fighter shot it down. Hundreds of RAF pilots were killed in these planes without them shooting down one Messerschmidt. It is my wish that one of these planes should be positioned outside Westminster so as to constantly remind them of the limitations of the wisdom of conventional Parliamentary thinking.