Monday, December 23, 2013

Rewriting history: Mandela and the limits of 'legitimate' protest

Nelson Mandela's death made me realise just how little I actually knew about the history of apartheid. Even though these are events barely before - and some within - my own lifetime, I'm just ever so slightly too young to remember them first-hand, and certainly didn't learn about them in school. It's got me thinking about how short historical memories can be, and how quickly we become dependent on received wisdom and official versions of history. I'm reading Long Walk to Freedom in a vague effort to rectify this, and am currently getting acquainted with a new Mandela, one who hasn't been much talked about in the past few weeks – the angry young radical of the 1950s.

In the days following Mandela's death, it was fascinating to see a few Facebook friends posting tributes which referred to him as a paragon of non-violent resistance. But of course, Mandela at one time headed up the military wing of the ANC. In Long Walk to Freedom, he makes clear that “for me, non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” In the early 1950s, with the Nationalist government seemingly intent on closing down all legitimate expression of dissent, he says:

“I began to suspect that both legal and extra-constitutional protests would soon be impossible. In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and far-sighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa. Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

All of this raises really interesting questions about the limits of the state's monopoly on legitimate violence, and about what we should do when peaceful resistance to tyranny fails. Given that we’re living in a country where even engaging in peaceful civil disobedience is likely to get you spied on or whacked with sticks or both, it would be nice to think that Mandela’s death might have prompted some introspection about these issues – and about what lessons we can learn from Western leaders having been so catastrophically on the wrong side of the argument in the 1980s. Instead, Mandela the militant seems almost to have been airbrushed out of history.

This is a really interesting case study of what happens when someone violates near universally-accepted social and political norms, yet is almost universally regarded as a hero. Mandela’s probably quite unusual, maybe even unique, in having that stature. The Mandela denounced by Thatcher and Reagan as a terrorist and the Mandela who won the Nobel Peace Prize are, after all, the same man. It’s a truism on the left that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”, but seemingly not in wider society – certainly not post 9/11, when 'terrorist' and 'freedom' have been carefully constructed as polar political opposites.

So, perhaps inevitably, the tension between these two Mandelas is apparently being resolved by ignoring the first and co-opting the second. As ever, when the facts come into conflict with our existing beliefs, our beliefs tend to hold the trump card: we deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance by reinterpreting or selectively remembering the facts to bring them back into line with our view of the world. If Mandela is a good guy, he must conform to all the things I assume a good guy does. Thus, the challenge Mandela's history poses to the accepted definition of a 'good guy' is swept away. For those of us who don't know much about South African history, this process of reasserting the dominant narrative is even easier. Why would you even be aware of Mandela’s militant past if you only know him as a quasi-mythical liberator, one of the most politically uncontroversial figures since Jesus?

For me, the whole episode is an interesting window into the way dominant ideas entrench themselves both in official versions of reality and in people's own minds, and thus become stubbornly difficult to shift or challenge. And at a time when we have an Education Secretary who thinks school history lessons should be about political propaganda rather than critical thinking, that's something we should all be concerned about.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tory stories #2: Can't pay your bills? Blame the greens!

Further to my last blog, it strikes me that one under-remarked aspect of the current row over energy bills is the way the Tories have leapt on Labour’s narrative about living standards and appropriated it for their own purposes. Don’t blame the big six for soaring energy bills: blame the tree huggers and their nasty environmental levies!

When Ed Miliband put living standards at the heart of his conference speech, for the first time in three years it seemed like Labour had a message that would resonate – and, moreover, one that would put the Tories on the back foot. Yet within a few short weeks, they’ve already made a bid to claim ownership of this agenda. Not only that, they’ve done so in a way which actually gives them a platform from which to pursue their own agenda – and which, as a convenient side benefit, allows them to blame Ed Miliband for the problem. Again.

 You’ve got to hand it to them. You might have thought that being forced to react to Labour’s narrative would at least shift the centre of debate a bit, perhaps generate some token concessions towards a more progressive politics. Instead, we’re seeing the living standards message being pressed into service to undermine support for efforts to tackle climate change, to push the centre of debate even further to the right. (The way Nick Clegg seems to have found out about the announcement also suggests the knives are out when it comes to coalition politics.)

I know there are good arguments for funding some of these things out of general taxation rather than fuel bills, which are a fundamentally regressive mechanism – although that only really holds if it’s paid for by raising taxes rather than cutting something somewhere else – but that’s not really what this blog is about, not least because I have no illusions that I’m at all qualified to pontificate on energy policy. What I’m interested in here is the Tories’ expert manipulation of the terms of debate, the way they pounce on any hint of successful agenda-setting by the left.

Maybe it’s the Oxford Union training that does it. Competitive debaters are always told that the most successful way to neutralise an opponent’s argument is to agree with its essence before turning it to your own purposes. The Tories are absolute masters at this, while the left have consummately failed to take on the Tories’ own false narratives about the financial crisis and its aftermath.

And yes, that includes everyone’s new favourite rent-a-rant, Russell Brand, whose interview with Jeremy Paxman I watched in quiet bemusement as to why so many people I knew were gushing about it. Yes, there was some good stuff in there. But there was also a huge amount that was cringeworthy and will surely have confirmed every negative stereotype some viewers had about the left. Oh, and ‘all politicians are venal and corrupt’? Fine, if your goal is to win over anti-politics UKIP voters – but it’s neither true nor constructive. Frankly, if Russell Brand is our new secret weapon in the fight against Tory spin, I think we are in serious trouble.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tory stories: How the right creates its own reality

'Framing’ seems to be the new buzzword on the left at the moment. NEF* have just released an important new report, ‘Framing the Economy: The Austerity Story’, which deals with something that’s nagged at me for a long time: how successful the right has been at shaping the narrative about the economy and welfare, and how poor the left has been at articulating a competing story. Ever since 2008, I’ve found the sheer effectiveness of the Tory spin machine hugely unnerving. They don’t need to respond to political realities, because they create them, shamelessly and repeatedly, irrespective of the facts.

A classic example of this was George Osborne’s speech to this year’s Tory conference, which I had the misfortune of witnessing whilst up there with work. To be honest, the whole thing was head-wrecking, but in this context one particularly shameless passage stands out. He starts off talking about the 1980s, with what seems like a tone of humility:

“We shouldn’t pretend we got everything right. Old problems were solved. But some new problems emerged. In some parts of the country, worklessness took hold and we didn’t do enough to stop that.

“Labour made that problem of welfare dependency worse… What a waste of life and talent.

“Well, never again. We’ve capped benefits and our work programme is getting people into jobs.

“But what about the long term unemployed? Let us pledge here: We will not abandon them, as previous governments did.”

And suddenly, in an astonishing rhetorical pirouette, we’re talking about the government’s latest plans to penalise people on benefits. I’m sure you know the details (already immortalised in this awesome game), but let’s recap:

“Today I can tell you about a new approach we’re calling Help to Work. For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits.

“They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity. Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day.”

Let’s just break down the logic of that passage a bit.

  1. Thatcher made lots of people unemployed.
  2. This led to welfare dependency.
  3. So we must help people back into work.
  4. By forcing them to do menial unpaid work or attend job centres daily.

Every time I read this back it blows my mind. What Osborne is actually saying here is, ‘Ok, so we may have screwed entire communities in the ‘80s by creating mass unemployment. But wait: now, we’re screwing them again, by capping their benefits and forcing them to comply with draconian and humiliating conditions just in order to survive!’ But somehow, like some mad political contortionist, he’s managed to turn this into a superficially plausible political story about welfare – and not just that, but a story in which the abject failure of Thatcherism actually becomes a justification for dismantling the welfare state. 

And that’s what I think is really significant, and disturbing, about this example. Tories are not just good at spin: they’ve carved out a bewilderingly successful niche in using the failures of their own ideology to justify more of the same. The most obvious example is the way the financial crisis, essentially an almighty failure of neoliberalism, has been rebranded as a failure of socialism and used to justify austerity – not to mention no-holds-barred deregulation in pursuit of a return to the same failed growth model.

Take the Tory response to Labour conference, which has been repeated with terrifying discipline by pretty much every Conservative politician who’s given an interview in the past few weeks. Here’s their response to Ed Balls’ conference speech:

“It's the same old Labour. They still want more spending, more borrowing and more debt - exactly what got us into a mess in the first place.”

Here it is again in response to Ed Miliband’s speech. And again in response to the Labour reshuffle. In fact, you can find the same quote pretty much verbatim in any number of articles and interviews. If you don’t believe me, just Google it.

This could have been – and probably was – written before Ed Balls or Ed Miliband even opened their mouths. It certainly bore very little relation to anything they said. (If in doubt about this, bear in mind that the first line of the Reuters piece in which the quote above appears reads: “Britain's opposition Labour party sought on Monday to convince voters that it can be trusted with the economy by promising iron discipline on spending.”) And this is how the Tories create their own reality. They don’t need to respond to what the left actually says: instead, they decide what it has said and hammer it relentlessly into the public consciousness.

It’s particularly frustrating that they can get away with this at a time when experts are warning that the Help To Buy scheme risks creating another housing bubble – which, er, is actually what got us into a mess in the first place. Indeed, elsewhere in Osborne’s speech was the claim that we can’t hope to stop the next crisis, but by continuing to slash welfare we can build up a big enough budget surplus to somehow ride it out. Great stuff George – let’s not try to fix the problems that made our economy fall over. Instead, let’s destroy everything that makes our country civilised as if that will somehow help when it inevitably happens again. And he accuses the left of being unambitious for Britain!

We urgently need a more compelling response to this endless stream of manure. As NEF puts it: “The battle for the economic narrative will be won with stories, not statistics. It is time the opponents of austerity tell a story of their own.”

* Full disclosure: NEF have just given me a job. Although very exciting, this has nothing to do with the content of this post. No, I mean really.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Michael Gove and Nevile Gwynne: BFFs

Waking up to the Today programme always carries the risk that you’ll start the day with a strong urge to hit something. But why oh why did this morning have to begin with me being subjected to Nevile Gwynne and Michael Gove’s increasingly vomit-inducing mutual appreciation society?

Gwynne (a retired accountant and old-school Latin teacher with seemingly no distinguishing qualities) scratched Gove’s back a few months ago: in a ludicrous publicity stunt for his book ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’, he and his publishers gave a ‘Bad Grammar Award’ to a group of academics who’d written to Gove criticising his educational reforms. I thought this smelt fishy at the time, and it turns out so did a lot of other people – a blog I wrote digging around the subject went unexpectedly viral and still gets more hits every week than anything I’ve written before or since. 

Now it seems Gove has returned the favour. He’s issued a memo to Department for Education civil servants about how to write well, in which he describes Gwynne’s Grammar as “a brief guide to the best writing style” - thus giving this tedious old fraud another chance to spout guff on national radio. (It’s not clear whether copies of Gwynne’s Grammar are being bought at the taxpayer’s direct expense, or if officials are expected to purchase them out of their own frozen wages.)

Gwynne duly seized the opportunity to describe Gove as “possibly the most important person in education there’s been” – what, ever? And that wasn’t even the lowest point of a truly dismal interview, in which Gwynne was asked piercing questions like “Ah, so you’re a fan of Michael Gove?” and “But lots of people don’t like Michael Gove – isn’t there a risk he might put people off buying your clearly marvellous book?” Interestingly, Gwynne responded to this latter question by saying darkly, “Well, don’t forget, Mr Gove has got against him, as have I, pretty much everybody in high places in the academic world.” Oh, you mean like those academics you conveniently ridiculed in the national press a few months back for entirely spurious reasons? Still, one thing’s for sure: nobody could accuse Nevile Gwynne of being an academic. His sole academic qualification is a BA in Modern Languages, meaning he has about as much claim to be an expert on grammar as I have to be an expert on political thought.

In fact, I think the lowest point of the interview was probably when the interviewer asked breathlessly, “So if these officials read your book, it’s not just that they’ll improve their style, they’ll improve their thinking as well?” Lest we forget, one of the things I discovered when researching that blog I mentioned is that Gwynne cannot write for toffee. His website is a rambling, incoherent mess of paragraph-long sentences and genuinely ungrammatical nonsense. From everything I’ve seen of him, his thinking is not much better. Yet the Today programme treated him with almost ludicrous reverence, acting like he is the world authority on the English language he so obviously isn’t. At the end of the interview, John Humphrys even chipped in: “Why is he not Sir Nevile Gwynne, for heaven’s sake?” Um, maybe because he’s a complete nobody with no real qualifications who you have inexplicably decided to give airtime to plug his tedious little book?

Seriously, guys. If you want me to continue running the daily risk of waking up to George Osborne, you really are going to have to do much better than this.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New brooms, same old story: why no-one is responsible for the cuts

One of the many terminally infuriating things about what passes for political debate in Britain at the moment is the government’s relentless repetition of the mantra “the mess that Labour left us”. A cursory search of TheyWorkForYou shows that in the last month or so alone, it’s been trotted out in parliament by David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, Nick Cleggtwice – and Treasury Minister Sajid Javid, who managed to crowbar it into his announcement of Stephen Hester’s departure from RBS.

Reaching back a little further, examples continue to abound with tedious regularity. Here’s Danny Alexander writing in the Telegraph in April: “It has not been easy cleaning up the mess left by the last Labour government”. Who could forget Boris’s speech to Tory conference last year, hilariously likening himself to a mop and David Cameron to “a broom that is cleaning up the mess left by the Labour government.” 

Or how about Eric Pickles’ speech to the National Conservative Convention in March: “Nearly three years on and we are still trotting out the same tired soundbites.” Oops, sorry: obviously that should have been “Nearly three years on and we are still [all together now…] clearing up the mess left by Labour.” Seriously guys, change the record. You’ve got to wonder just how long things have to continue getting worse until it stops being Labour’s mess and starts being the government’s mess.

What’s been particularly frustrating about all this is Labour’s inability to cut through the dominant narrative with a political message of their own. And what’s distressing me most at this exact point in time is the way they appear to have sat down and gone, “You know what, fuck it. If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Let’s take a look at Ed Balls’ big speech on public spending the other week:

“The next Labour government must start planning now for what will be a very difficult inheritance … The situation we will inherit will require a very different kind of Labour government to those which have gone before. We can expect to inherit plans for further deep cuts to departmental budgets at a time when the deficit will still be very large and the national debt rising.”

In case we haven’t got the message, he then rams it home a second time:

“Because this Government’s austerity economics has failed, we will have to govern in a very different way and in circumstances very different to what we have known for many years. We will inherit a substantial deficit. We will have to govern with much less money around. We will need to show an iron discipline.”

The same message is there in Shadow Financial Secretary Chris Leslie’s response to the IFS briefing on the spending review, which suggests to me it’s a concerted party line:

“Action now would boost people’s incomes, help get the deficit down and mitigate the scale of the cuts needed in the next Parliament. The longer David Cameron and George Osborne plough on regardless, the more difficult the inheritance Labour will face in 2015.”

Of course, Labour’s claims about the economy at least have the advantage of not being complete horse manure. But it all just smacks a bit too much of getting their excuses in early. Basically, their big new message is, “We’re going to have to make cuts because this government has screwed up the economy.” Hmmm, now where have I heard that before?

Just occasionally, it would be nice to see one of these people actually take some responsibility: to say, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” But I guess Labour have to somehow square the circle of opposing every cut whilst simultaneously saying they would stick to the government’s spending plans if elected. Essentially, if they do win the next election, we’ll be swapping a Tory government making cuts and blaming Labour for a Labour government making cuts and blaming Tories. It doesn’t get much more uninspiring than that.

And they wonder why people have so little faith in politics.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ed Balls vs the Treasury: how the cuts debate became utterly meaningless

It’s been a pretty depressing week all round on the cuts front, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies claiming that the next two elections will continue to be dominated by austerity, and the Labour party admitting that none of the Tory cuts they’ve been screaming about for the past three years would be reversed under a future Labour government (I understand that this is supposed to prove their ‘credibility’, presumably in much the same way that the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once proves your cleverness).

But there was one detail of the week’s news which really irritated me, and which I think deserves unpicking. When Ed Balls announced that Labour would take winter fuel allowance away from wealthy pensioners, the Treasury dismissed the policy on the grounds that it would barely save anything, telling the press that “one pledge that saves less than half a percent of the welfare budget is utterly meaningless”. 

This strikes me as disingenuous bollocks. The change to winter fuel allowance was projected to save around £100m a year. The government’s benefits cap is projected to save around £275m a year, within much the same order of magnitude. And that’s just DWP’s own, highly dubious estimate: it doesn’t include either the cost of administrating the cap or, more significantly, the cost to local authorities of providing temporary accommodation to families made homeless by the cap. Once these things are factored in, even DCLG reckons that “the policy as it stands will generate a net cost.” 

Oh, and if the Treasury really wants to pick a fight over whose policy saves a bigger fraction of the welfare budget, perhaps it would like to have a chat about this pie chart, which was doing the rounds on social media a few months back and which demonstrates the hollowness of government rhetoric blaming the size of the benefits bill on ‘scroungers’.

In fact, the government has been pretty open that the benefits cap is at least in part a symbolic gesture rather than a policy designed to achieve genuine savings, with Cameron and Osborne repeatedly drilling home the message that it’s just wrong for any family to get more from the state than the average working family earns.  All politicians make gestures designed to convey a political message rather than for their fiscal impact: the real debate should be around the content of that political message.

In the Tories’ case, the message is that people out of work are feckless scroungers responsible for all our economic problems, and that the government is on their case. In Labour’s case, the message is that they might no longer be the anti-cuts party, but at least they’re the party who’ll focus cuts on the wealthiest. And that’s why the analogy between the benefits cap and the cut to winter fuel allowance holds so well. In both cases, the purpose is to set out the party’s stall on the kind of cuts they want to make: cuts that demonise the poorest, or that target the richest.

Of course, pitting these messages directly against each other lays open just how narrow the political debate on austerity has become: disagreement between the mainstream parties is restricted to how we should go about cutting welfare, rather than whether we should cut it in the first place. Still, if the Treasury had responded to the content of Labour's gesture rather than just the headline figure, at least we'd have something that vaguely resembled actual political debate. To criticise them on the basis that their gesture doesn’t save much is, to borrow a phrase, utterly meaningless.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sir Gerald Howarth and the pendulum of history

This Tuesday got off to a bad start when I woke up to the radio replaying Sir Gerald Howarth storming to victory in the parliamentary Ignorant Bigot Championships:

“I fear the playing field is not being levelled. I believe the pendulum is swinging so far the other way, and there are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further.”

Ah, the proverbial pendulum – always a sure sign that you are about to be subjected to the ill-informed chuntering of a person who really needs to check their privilege. To me it’s always seemed like a weird metaphor for debates about equal rights, as if history is somehow an endless ebb and flow between patriarchy and matriarchy, oppression of gays and oppression of straights, white rule and black rule – rather than a slow crawl towards equality for everyone who isn’t a rich, white, straight, cisgender man.

Nobody loves a good pendulum more than those men who bitterly complain that women’s rights have ‘gone too far’, that they are the new underdogs in the workplace. I wouldn’t dream of comparing my own experience as a relatively privileged woman with that of, say, the gay couple beaten up in Bromley two days before Howarth’s outburst. But I did heartily wish that those anti-feminists could have been in my shoes this Thursday.

I’d been invited to speak at a policy event. I was a bit nervous, because there were going to be some very high-powered people in the room, and I was effectively pitching my charity's policy ideas to them. I also knew there were going to be a lot of industry types there, among whom the things I had to say would almost certainly go down like a lead balloon.

What I hadn't quite realised was that the people I was addressing were basically the old boys' network personified. On taking my seat in the audience, I overheard this exchange between two other panellists:

Old white man #1: “I think you employ an old mate of mine...”

Old white man #2: “Oh yes, he's a tremendous chap!”

It was at roughly this point that I started to feel like I was in a badly-written satirical novel.

As I sat and listened to a procession of old white men, it dawned on me that I was the only woman speaking during the entire event. I had a glance down the agenda and totted up the numbers: thirteen speakers, every single one of them male except for me. In fact, in an audience of 50-odd, there were only about six or seven women in the room at all. Just think about that for a second: there were more men speaking from the platform than there were women present in the audience. And it gets worse, because, despite there being a lot of contributions from the floor, only one of those women apart from me actually spoke.

After the event, a slightly less old white man came up to me and said, “I thought you did very well on the panel.” Not 'I thought you were very good' or 'I thought you made some interesting points', but 'I thought you did very well'. I'm sure he was trying to be nice, so I smiled and said thanks (actually, come to think of it, I probably pulled a face and said something self-deprecating, which I guess makes me part of the problem) – but inside I was thinking, do you genuinely not realise how patronising that sounds? Would you honestly have said that to a man? 

None of this is unusual. Last year I was invited to a roundtable with a senior government minister at one of the party conferences. It was a fantastic opportunity - my charity is too small to get regular access to ministers at that level. I spent ages thinking about what I was going to say. Ages wasted, because I never got to say it. Of about twenty people at that event, two of us were women. And, in the course of about ninety minutes, neither of us said a word – despite my embarrassingly ineffectual waving at the chair to try and attract his attention. I left feeling angry and frustrated with myself, all the more so because I didn't even have the courage to go up to him afterwards and complain.

I’m honestly not trying to be self-pitying here. My point is that you couldn’t have been at either of those events without realising the obvious fact that this country is still run by the same clique of privileged people it always has been. The pendulum of history only exists in the bitter and fearful minds of people like Sir Gerald Howarth. All of which leaves me with a worry: next time I hear someone sounding off about the pendulum swinging too far the other way, I think my fist might end up swinging rapidly towards their face...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In defence of penpushers: the cuts we never challenge

When politicians want to sound like they are going to cut without cutting, they almost always promise to protect ‘frontline services’. The implication is that, unlike schools or hospitals, ‘Whitehall waste’ can be cut with basically no inconvenience to anyone. A few paperclips here, a few pointless penpushers there – who’s going to notice the difference? After all, who knows what they do all day anyway?

This really bothers me. Because of course, what civil servants do all day is develop the policies and regulations that govern schools and hospitals, that keep corporations in check, that protect the environment, and so on and so forth. And the hidden consequence of these unglamorous and so largely un-noticed ‘backroom cuts’ is to accelerate the corporate capture of politics.

My day job gives me a ringside seat at this particular drama. I meet civil servants pretty regularly, and since the cuts began to bite they are in a pretty sorry state. They aren’t allowed to have business cards, so whenever I need an email address I have to pass them one of mine to scribble on the back of. When I started my job in 2010, they’d just been informed they could only serve tea and coffee in external meetings, which if nothing else made them almost embarrassingly pleased to see me. Now, they’re not allowed to serve tea and coffee at all, making them seem like the poor relation of the private sector (and, to be honest, even the charity sector). These things matter: they have a subtle but important influence on the dynamics of the relationship between officials and lobbyists.

Most importantly, officials are now so thinly stretched, and have been so disrupted and demoralised by the upheaval of departmental ‘restructurings’, that they’re in no position to resist corporate lobbying. Civil servants already have both hands tied behind their backs by the ludicrous policy of ‘one-in, one-out regulation’ (which, by the way, has now been amended to ‘one-in, two-out’ - I despair). The massive inequality of arms between them and the industries they are supposed to regulate means that the decks are, now more than ever, stacked in favour of the rich and powerful. 

The other day, I had a meeting with a couple of civil servants to discuss new quality standards for a particular product. Although the idea was at a very early stage, it rapidly became apparent that they’d already had sessions with industry representatives who’d told them that the key standard most consumer groups are calling for would be legally impossible. I was pretty sure that this was bullshit, and told them so, albeit possibly not using those exact words. In response, one of them looked uncertainly at the other and said – I kid you not – “Well, it sounded pretty convincing at the time…” 

They then admitted that they knew they ought to get some independent legal advice on this, but hadn’t been able to access departmental lawyers. Feeling a rising sense of doom, I ended up offering to get some advice from a retired lawyer who sometimes helps out my charity. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s a tip-top ideal scenario when the government is dependent on the mates of a tiny charity with a turnover of less than £500,000 a year to resist the demands of an industry whose executives get paid more than that just for getting up in the morning.

Another of the policy initiatives I’ve been working on – a car crash all by itself, which I may blog about properly another time – started life three years ago presided over by two longstanding and well-liked officials who knew the area inside out. At least one of them was far more business-friendly than I’d have liked, but they at least knew their stuff, and were respected by those working in the field. Since then, I’ve dealt with a string of about four different sets of civil servants, each seemingly more junior and more clueless than the last. And, surprise surprise, industry has got what it wanted: three years of consultations and deliberations have achieved a big fat nothing. 

As far as I can see, civil servants have basically been told to sit on their hands and not regulate, then denied access to the resources and specialist knowledge they need to defend the public interest, as opposed to the interests of whichever powerful lobby shouts at them the loudest. Thank God we’ve done away with all that Whitehall waste!