Careless whispers

Reporting on the resignation of William Hague\’s special advisor this afternoon, the Evening Standard alludes, censoriously and primly, to \”rumours that had been circulating on the internet [about the nature of their relationship]\”.

Those will be the same rumours that were reported by the Standard diary (on the pretext of reporting on a Freedom of Information request) last week, and (in the guise of reporting on a \’row between bloggers\’) in earlier editions today, will they? Yes, I believe they will.

It\’s the stupid, economy!

With the last prime ministerial debate dissolving into inchoate chattering behind me, three night thoughts about the economy:

All three parties are continuing to evade the issue of where the cleaver should fall. Assuming we believe that the present level of public sector borrowing is unsustainable (or, which is not quite the same thing, that it risks incurring the wrath of the bond markets), we are facing deep and wounding cuts to public services. All this wittering about efficiency savings, reduced bonuses and more effective procurement is marginal at best and evasive in general. And the safeguarding of the NHS and education as sacrosanct simply means that the viciousness of benefit cuts or tax rises will be so much more acute elsewhere. When people look back on this disingenuous apology for a debate, they may be angry. They would have every right to be.

Cutting public spending will hit all sorts of people, me included. But it\’s less clear than it used to be what the public sector is nowadays. Since 1997, the process of privatising public services has accelerated. Companies like Capita, Serco and Veolia may not be household names, but they each have public sector revenues running into billions of pounds every year; they empty our bins, clean our streets, collect our council tax and run our trains. The public-sector income of big consultancies like KPMG, Price Waterhouse and McKinsey is lesser, but nonetheless considerable. The modern state is locked into a co-dependent embrace with an ever-growing parastatal private sector. Will cutting public expenditure boost or undermine this economic interzone?

Lastly, the three candidates fell over each other to laud manufacturing industry. Fair enough, except inasmuch as these were the same people drivelling on about \’knowledge economies\’ and other weightless chaff only years ago. Consistency, and a modicum of dignity, are maintained by talking nowadays of the importance of science and high tech manufacturing, rather than the dirty and – by implication – \’uncreative\’ factories of the past. But nobody has given anything more than sentimental or affirmatory arguments as to why serious manufacturing industry should take root in the ashes that remain, after three decades of systematic and determined de-industrialisation. Absent the public sector and the former \’masters of the universe\’ from the world of finance, and you have to ask, What of our alleged economy remains?

They are now vying with each other to say that teachers are valuable. And the sea wet. And that fiddle music is a great accompaniment to urban bonfires. Selah.

Kicking against the BRICs

Compared to the hubbub over Google\’s threats, media coverage of the banning of China\’s first \’gay pageant\’ was limited, but gave an interesting snapshot of something. I\’m just not sure what.

The Guardian had reported on plans for the event on 10 January, with organiser Steve Zhang suggesting that police could yet shut it down. And so they did. But this seemed to be very polite repression: police were reported to have had friendly conversations with the participants, who were told that homosexuality was a \’sensitive issue\’. Very different in tone to Russia, where \’gay pride\’ and similar events are regularly and violently broken up by police (and nationalist counter-demonstrations).

If the demonstration had been by a political opposition group, the situation would probably be reversed. Russia is a democracy, albeit a compromised and autocratic one, and opposition parties are at least tolerated. The harsh treatment of pro-democracy activists in China shows that ideological pluralism is still seen as a dangerous threat to stability. You can bet that Google searches for gay dating sites would be far easier to get past China\’s internet censors than phrases like \’Tiananmen Square protests\’.

At which point one starts to wander dangerously close to sweeping generalisations about value systems and cultural heritage, confucianism and christianity. One culture is concerned about social cohesion and harmony, the other about personal behaviour and sin. Both can be repressive, but in different ways and to different people.

Inertia creeps

I was in Chicago last weekend, at an event sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy. The conference was about the challenges of city growth – housing, transport, environmental sustainability, government – and involved people from public and private sectors, academia, the military, and non-governmental organisations.

One theme that emerged was scepticism about the ability of elected city leaders to commit to long-term change, given the short-term imperative of electoral cycles. Some of us from public sector backgrounds suggested that this may not be as much of a problem as it seemed: given the much-criticised inertia of bureaucracies, 180-degree reverses in policy were much rarer than electoral rhetoric would suggest.

Which brings me to Boris Johnson\’s retreat from his plans to cancel the western extension of London\’s congestion charging zone. Despite commissioning a fresh consultation exercise, the capital costs of redrawing the zone, and the loss of revenue that would follow, clearly seemed too onerous. You can\’t imagine that any mayor other than Ken Livingstone would have introduced congestion charging in 2000, but now it is in place, it looks like it\’s here to stay.

Similarly, Labour did little to undo the Conservative settlement of the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of some trade union legislation, and indeed built on many of the elements that they had most strenuously opposed in opposition. And you can only wonder whether an incoming Conservative administration would undo much of the current government\’s programme, from ID cards to Bank of England independence, against which they have so heartily inveighed.

Inertia is a mixed blessing. I railed against it when I was younger and today my views remain largely partisan (bureaucrats can be either valiant voices for common sense or obstructive dullards, depending on context). Famously frustrating to politicians like Tony Blair, inertia does perhaps serve to dissuade incoming governments from spending too much time unstitching their predecessors\’ policies.

Rather than an erratic see-saw of reversals, politics becomes a relatively smooth progression of cumulative change, for good or ill, moving on slowly. Perhaps, when Tony Blair complained of \”scars on his back\”, it was a back-handed tribute to the ability of the civil service (where nobody ever gets sacked for doing nothing) to temper change with continuity, to save us from relentless alternation.

This is conservative, to be sure, but \’conservative\’ as eloquently defined by Michael Oakeshott, not as cooked up in crazy-eyed think tanks: \”To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.\”