Friday, 20 December 2013

Accountability, choice and a new political divide

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet. 

This isn't intended as a criticism of our current leaders - Chesterton's poem in all its glorious cynicism was written long ago before any of them were born. But it is a common comment on the state of politics, it reminds us that the wisdom of our rulers is always to be doubted and questioned.

Nor am I about to launch into a rant about the inadequacies - even the evils - of government. Rather I want to take you on a personal journey and to show that, despite its current mass and majesty, the days of big government are numbered. I observe that I write this at a time when the power of government is plain to be seen - the bans, the controls, the surveillance, the ordering about, the seizures and the arrogance dominate our news.

Alongside the Chesterton quote I'm taking a reference from Alan Massie in The Spectator. It happens to be about Ed Miliband but it could apply in some measure to any of our current leaders and to too many of those who aspire to be leaders in the future:

Ed Miliband is a puritan.

And a hopeless, nagging, fish-faced puritan at that. A ninny, in other words.

The Labour leader has a rare gift. He knows, you see, how you should spend your money. What’s more, if you fail to spend your cash in the proper Miliband-approved manner he thinks he should be – nay is! – entitled to coerce you into changing your miserable behaviour.

This is, in every way, the essence of government today. The idea that matters need organising, directing and managing. The belief that most people are too stupid or too gullible to be trusted with such simple ideas as advertising, budgeting or the consequences of personal choice. And the certainty that only those investments (and I use this word in the deceiving meaning pioneered by Gordon Brown) under the aegis of government are "good" investments.

I write a great deal about what I term 'nannying fussbuckets' - those New Puritans who think it right that government control and direct - even prevent - personal choices. Mostly, I write about this because it makes me angry - not just the manner in which the evidence is abused but from a principled and essentially Tory belief in personal responsibility. Most of the time it simply isn't someone else's fault. It was your choice.

These are simple matters that everyone can understand - do we ban smoking in pubs, should we fix the price of booze, how much tax should we have on whiskey and can people be trusted with gambling. The typical voter can grasp the argument here - for many these are personal choices they want (or don't want) to make.

But there's another scale, a level at which we don't understand, where these same New Puritan preferences apply - the means by which we pay for something, whether we can sell something we own to someone in another country, where we are able (or allowed) to live and the manner in which we work. These are all things that are matters, largely speaking, of personal choice. Yet, just as with smoking, drinking and eating, our government wants to control and direct our personal choice and, on occasion, prevent us from making that choice.

US singer Kelly Clarkson has been thwarted in her bid to take a ring which once belonged to Jane Austen out of the UK.

We are expected to applaud as this vital piece of heritage is "saved for the nation". But the salvation was only achieved by preventing Ms Clarkson from taking the ring out of the country - as far as I know the singer simply wanted to wear the ring, which seems to me a better use of the treasure than sticking it in a glass case for tourists to gawp at.

Government also want to prevent us from making what we want, where we want. The best examples of this needless (and damaging) tendency is the "protected geographical indication' (PGI):

Only cheese produced in the Yorkshire Dales will in future be allowed to use the name Yorkshire Wensleydale.

The European Commission has awarded the cheese Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.

The decision means the name can only be applied to cheese which is produced within an area around Hawes in North Yorkshire.

Our sense of Yorkshire pride covers over the truth that this is simply protectionism - we may as well protect Lancashire Hotpot, Oldham Rag Pudding and Jellied Eels. And it is especially annoying in Yorkshire:

A cheesemaker has lost a five-year battle with the EU to keep calling her product Yorkshire Feta.

The European Court of Justice said only cheese made in certain areas of Greece can carry the name feta.

Everywhere we look we see the same - government justifying itself through the imposition of rules that to many seem like a good thing but, when you slice into them, turn out to be either a solution to a problem that either doesn't exist or else is deliberately exaggerated so as to justify the law.

The divide in our society is no longer between workers and owners, kings and serfs, middle- and working-classes but between those who believe that their neighbours' lives are proper things for government intervention and those who do not. This isn't to deny government but to say that too much of modern government, the bans, the cameras, the secret courts, the whole rigmarole of 'post-democracy' addresses an audience of the scared and the servile.

The alternative - personal choice, independence, self-determination and responsibility - is dismissed as 'libertarianism' with its supporters badged as uncaring, selfish and intolerant. The reality is that the position I describe is not 'libertarian' (although many libertarians will agree with it) but a traditional, mainstream conservative position. And the selfish, intolerant, uncaring ones are those who hand caring, choice and community over to the government not the 'libertarians'.

As technology advances, these two positions - the New Puritan nanny state and a society founded on free choice, association and enterprise - become more starkly defined. The technology allows for government to watch us more closely, to record and store what we do and say, and to manage the manner in which we interact with those around us. At the same time that technology affords us greater choice, more free time and wealth - meaning that we have less use or need for government.

There won't be some revolution or overthrow of government. It will gradually become less relevant - the choices and decisions about our bins, the roads, healthcare and education will shift from the contested political sphere to a more sustainable consumer-producer relationship. The great edifices of government will break up, localise and be forced open by us as citizen consumers. And we will be better for this change.

Rather than grand committees of experts planning and directing as if in some Kafka-esque dystopia, we will have more local choices - some private, some government but all of them responding to the consumer, to us as people exercising our right to choice. A right newly empowered by the might of the on-line world with its connections, its forums and its ability to raise an army where once there were just one or two with paper and a pen.

But in getting to this state we will face resistance from that New Puritan state. From the people who believe that pleasure is addictive and should be stopped for the sake of health. From those who want us all watched from morn to night out of fear that one or other of us might do something wrong. From those who want to police our words, who find offence in anything and everything. And above all from those who, like Saruman, are beguiled by the false hope that power can be wielded without corrupting its wielder.

In the end government will always serve the interests of government before it serves the interests of the governed. But the closer those governed are to government, the less that government is able to ignore the interests of those people. I wrote the other day that democracy isn't enough. Someone asked me was was enough - I think the answer lies in accountability - not just the accountability of the politician to the electorate but the direct accountability of the people providing services to the people receiving services.



Anonymous said...

A much needed analysis. Beautifully argued. I've shared on Facebook.

Nigel Sedgwick said...

On reading your article about food with Protected Geographical Indication, and particularly Wensleydale cheese, I could not help but think of Cheddar cheese.

And that is before we start on Stilton, which I read cannot be so labelled if made in Stilton! This seems to be an issue of location of initial sale to the public, rather than manufacture. Perhaps the geographical restriction should continue in similar vein: only that actually sold to us in the village of Stilton can be so named.

Next up must surely be Somerset Brie.

The EU clearly has a long way to go, on this cheesy issue.

As you so correctly point out, it's government wanting to do things (that should be none of their business) that gets us into this sort of mess.

Best regards