Sunday, 15 November 2015

The new nationalisation of Britain

'Neo-liberalism' is a vastly overused term these days. In the hands of experts such as David Harvey, Mike Davis and Will Davies, it means something sophisticated: a combination of economic, cultural and social analysis that starts to help us make sense of our ever-shifting, restless, boundless, urgent, insurgent world. Far too often, it's just a set of boo words, to denote the 'free market', the 'globalised economy', the 'rise of inequality' or some other phenomenon that the writer happens not to like (and probably doesn't exist anyway, at least in the simplistic forms this sort of stuff appears). So in popular journalism and commentary? Totally useless, and worthy of ignoring every and each type it appears.

But it's still a useful term when used sensitively, applied to the strange hybrid forms of governance to which we are now subject. What it denotes in our political now is a strange type of not-quite-here and not-quite there administration, not quite public, not really private, and complicated beyond measure. Take a look at the railways. Does anyone really know who's responsible for everything? Well, no - not really, a cost and a burden on the passenger and taxpayer alike.

And that question of administration is a clue to what we see as one of neo-liberalism's neglected intellectual and practical roots. For it's a question of administration. If you want to impose all those things that Ministers since the 1980s have called 'markets', you need controls: powers to enforce those structures and concepts that are supposed to be natural, accepted, integral to what it is to be a citizen and a person - but, of course, are actually immediate, contemporary, shifting, historical. But those powers, collected at the centre, often just collapse in on themselves - too variegated, complex and burdensome to be executed by just a single Ministry, however full of clever civil servants it may be. Then Whitehall and Westminster start to clutch at all or any mechanisms that they can to get a hold on what is happening, let alone what could be made to happen. They're multi-layered, variegated, splattered in all directions, often on an ad hoc basis - and usually fail to wrest back control at the centre, rather just blurring the whole situation until it looks like a grey dog in a rainy fog. It's for this reason that political scientists have increasingly spoken of the 'hollow crown' of the Premiership and Cabinet, with all the formal power that comes with the pomp and ceremony of the British state - but with little of its past reach, bite and force, even within the UK's own borders.

Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Act, which fundamentally recast the National Health Service during the last Parliament, is a good case in point. It was supposed to explode the NHS into many Commissioning Groups and 'providers', whether private or public; after a messy and long-winded series of compromises, it actually ended up spinning a spiders' web of regulators, agencies, commissioners, authorities and mechanisms that it is almost incomprehensible even to those who are supposed to understand it. Ministers' recent swaggering behaviour towards Housing Associations, forcing them into a right to buy 'deal' that will basically nationalise them while making it harder for and harder for such associations to break even and build more houses, is another series of egregious errors unfolding in slow motion.

Universities are another good example of what we mean, and of course we here at Public Policy and the Past have close experience here. Ministers have long wanted to impose a hierarchical series of prices on the sector, all the better to signal to parents what is 'best' and most 'admirable' in British Higher Education. They were thwarted in the last Parliament, when almost all universities decided to charge the £9,000 maximum that was supposed to be available to them in 'exceptional' circumstances. So now they're back for a second bite at the cherry, setting up an absurdist and to be honest rather laughable mechanism called the Teaching Excellence Framework. This involves setting up a whole load of metrics, peer reviews and indicators to create four levels of fees - not the last of the increased control-in-depth on which the Government will insist for, well, less and less (and less) money.

It's the process which Andrew Marr tried to sum up, all those years ago back in the 1990s, with his book Ruling Britannia: the apparent retreat of the state, matched only by the rolling forward of every type of unaccountable, uncontrollable quango, 'mission group', 'policy tsar', think tank, 'task force' and third sector contractor (Kids' Company is a good example) that you care to count. The Greater London Council was abolished by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, since it displayed rather too much independence of mind for the Conservatives; it was replaced by a series of borough-by-borough quangos that did the same work, without any of the same tiresome democratic representation. Nationalised industries were sold off, but had to be controlled by new regulators that had more power than the Ministers whose work they had supposedly replaced (since Ministers had often been forced to accept what the boards of publicly-owned corporations had told them). The Scottish and Welsh Offices were enormously powerful in those two countries, ruled even at a time of increased personal 'liberty' by Secretaries of States who had powers akin to Irish Lord Lieutenants in the nineteenth century. And so on.

That's why public services look, structurally at least, something like the production systems of the Perestroika-era Soviet Union: full of 'choice' that isn't really choice, and consumerism within the limits of what government will allow; but also marked by a really chaotic sense that no-one is really in command of the situation. It's the worst of both worlds, and it can't last. One day the NHS deficits that we see piling up will burst their bounds. More than just one or two hospitals might well go into financial administration. One day a really big university will go belly-up, in a welter of recrimination and finger-pointing (not least among its staff). One day a local authority will collapse under the weight of financial stringency on the one hand, and the massive and growing burdens of social care in a rapidly ageing society on the other.

The reason? Something that post-war history and politics could never have prepared us for. Something paradoxical, that's there because of a string of ideological u-turns and z-turns, a series of unplanned and unexpected contradictions, that occurred when central government's plans to construct 'markets' smashed into reality as experienced and governed on the ground, and became quasi-prices, semi-controls and bounded 'choices'. This does seem very strange, though not perhaps new in a world where the state is always compromised and compromising: in which the Conservative Party, supposedly the party of the organic constitution, the smaller state, the market, the businessman and the cautious stewardship of public administration, has engaged on a binge feat of controls, directions, power-grabs and diktats that would make a commissar weep. And all for what? To bring local government to heel, to push the envelope on what is public and what is private, to roll forward the frontiers of the state, and to complicate every line of responsibility of management until it looks like a tin of spaghetti.

Neo-liberalism: the service of those collapsing internal contradictions of markets that have been pushed too far: that never have been, never will be and never can be. A confused, kaleidoscopic and contradictory set of overlapping dilemmas that look nothing like the conspiracy theories of the Left, but nothing out of the fundamentally ahistorical imagination of the Right either. A strangely utopian state of affairs in which frictionless, costless, easy administration guides the people to their choices. The process by which the Conservative Party is eating itself, bit by bit - only matched, and perhaps facilitated, by the Labour Party's even faster, more radical and more obvious process of disintegration. One more game that seems as if it will never end: the chasing of a tail of perfection.

The bottom line? We live in an era clearly characterised by the nationalisation of authority, without raw power itself being available actually to forward the public good. Everyone in Whitehall and Westminster knows this, and experiences it every day. It'd just be nice if Ministers weren't quite so disingenuous about the true nature of their ideas and choices.

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