Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Britain's government: some success stories

It won't have escaped the more eagle-eyed among you that I've been blogging for The Independent again, this time pointing out that Britain is pretty well governed, right near the top of international league tables for clean government and economic efficiency. This gives the lie to the Conservative picture of an 'over-regulated' country, but that's an argument for another day.

Lots of public comments at the bottom of my piece took issue with me. 'Ha, is this article a joke?' someone wrote. And you can see what they mean. But I want to shoot right back.

Lest I be berated as some Martyn-Lewis style 'good news' ideologue, I'd be the first to say that many initiatives have bitten the dust. I've written books about it, don't you know. Avoiding devaluation in 1964-67? Er, that went well. Industrial relations reform in 1971-72? What a disaster. The European Exchange Rate mechanism? Oops. The Iraq War? Erm. The world is complex. Governments make mistakes. Sometimes they're just wrong.

But I'd stick to my original point in The Indy. Have a look at the following success stories and tell me that British governance is all bad:

The Clean Air Acts. London in particular was choking by the 1950s. Deaths from respiratory diseases hit new highs. Huge smogs of industrial pollution enveloped the capital. But now? A sequence of Clean Air Acts and their successors have decreed smokeless zones, high chimneys and industrial zoning. Oh, you can breathe the air in your city can you? Thank Whitehall and Westminster.

Staying out of the Euro. Ed Balls and Gordon Brown have their fans. They have many more detractors. No-one can say that all that stuff about 'abolishing boom and bust' was't hugely ill-advised. But you know what? They looked at the Euro and they said, 'we don't rule it out for all time, but Britain's economy isn't in synch with the core of the Euro-zone, and we'll sit it out for now'. If only Greek politicians had been so wise.

Cleaner beaches. I'm writing about this at the moment, so don't let me bore you. But Britain's beaches (above) were disgusting between the 1950s and the 1970s. They were some of the dirtiest in the world. Successive campaigns eventually forced London to come into line with European standards, and indeed in most cases to better them. Inspection and testing regimes are some of the tighest in the world, especially since the 1990s. Today, 97 per cent of UK waters met minimum EU standards. Only 66 per cent did in 1988.

The Montreal Protocol. CFCs from aerosols and fridges threaten to fry the world in the 1970s and 1980s. The Thatcher Government (to its great credit) helped to lead an internal coalition that signed the Montreal Protocol reducing their use in 1987, which led to enormous reductions in the use of ozone-depleting chemicals and to a gradual healing of the hole in the ozone layer.

So, you can breathe; you have a job; excrement doesn't float past your head on holiday; you haven't got skin cancer. Thank your governments, citizens.