Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Ukip: A Major concern

John Major thinks Ukip is "un-British". "They are anti-everything. They are anti-politics, they are anti-foreigner, they are anti-immigrant, they are anti-aid. 'I don't know what they are for, we know what they are against. That's the negativity of the four-ale bar, that's not the way to get into Parliament and not the way to run a country." I might have said exactly that myself over recent weeks. But I don't think being a perpetual moaner is un-British. Moaning is one of the things we excel at.

We all know the multifarious reasons why people vote Ukip. It boils down to the fact that government is unresponsive to our wishes. The simple answer is to change the people in government. But we've done that a few times now and it hasn't really changed anything. That's because the simple answer is the wrong one.

Any fans of The Wire will recall a young, energetic, idealistic councilman, Tommy Carcetti (pictured) and his battle to become Baltimore's mayor. He makes all the promises in the world to the city police department only to discover that there's a hidden $54m deficit in the school system and has to to strip the police bare to stop teacher layoffs. To add insult to injury, because he's a white mayor in a black city he has to govern by consensus, which prevents him from sacking the dead wood, and in fact has to bump the police commissioners salary as a maneuver to get him to stand down. In the end, having promised to end the manipulation of crime statistics finds himself doing exactly that to save his skin at the ballot box. He becomes what he set out to replace.

We see this same dynamic in Yes Minister, with Sir Humphrey sticking flies in every pot of ointment. No matter how good your intentions, events happen. I'm sure the Environment Agency had wholly different spending plans before the Somerset floods, but now there's a twenty year plan to stop it happening again, and that's going to cost money. Which means cutting somewhere else and breaking promises.

Voters have a naive of what politics is like and how civics work. Ukipists will taunt the Prime Minister over his "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which was a stupid thing to say because it was always going to be ratified by the time Cameron was PM. And in a democracy, holding high office does not mean you have supreme executive authority.

Democracy is very often about compromise and you while you could go in and clean out the dead wood, sack all the civil servants, you're still at the helm of a vast bureaucracy that will resist change every step of the way. I've seen this in my own career.

I work in a large aerospace organisation and just a week into my contract all those years ago, a retiring manager told me that it, like any other bureaucracy is like a jelly mountain. You can apply pressure to change the shape of it , and it will keep that shape so long as you keep applying the pressure. But if you take the pressure off, it will wobble back to it's original shape, and at best you will leave an imprint.

He couldn't have been closer to the mark. Whatever solution you might put in place to save money eventually becomes part of the problem. Every innovation has a lifecycle and when it's embedded into the system it's near impossible to carve out. We see empires within empires and those know don't care and those who care don't know. Eventually everyone sees the futility and settles down into a routine just to keep the paycheques flowing, keeping a low profile so nobody notices their job is completely pointless. It gets to the point where all you can do is take an axe to it.

It's almost like governance is like managing a large forest. Great ossified oaks must be cut down to make way for the new saplings. But it must be carefully tended. The problem with democracy is it's one of those processes where everyone demands a say and everyone claims expertise. Such a system is only ever going to produce mediocre outcomes and if you are achieving mediocrity then you're doing quite well. You cannot possibly satisfy everyone and you will fail if you try.

So the job then falls on politicians to manage the expectations of a public with unrealistic demands. Everyone wants a free NHS, but few think they should be the ones who pay for it in taxes. Very often the demands of voters are not just unreasonable. They're wholly irrational.

We've had suggestions from Ukip that for a while immigration be managed on a one in, one out basis. But do they have the first idea of what that would entail? And how much it would cost? So much is easier said than done. But an upstart populist party appealing to the unreasonable and the irrational does not have to acknowledge such nuances. It can simply stoke the fears and prejudices of the left behind and whisper in their ear how much better things would be if only they we running the show. This is the politics of cynical manipulation.

Course, it's not unreasonable or irrational to expect that sex traffickers and child abusers are arrested and locked up. It's not unreasonable to expect a welfare system that doesn't fire-hose money at immigrants. And it's not at all unreasonable or irrational to want a say in whether we effectively abolish our own nation to become part of a federal Europe. Immigration might well be a boost to the economy, but nobody was asked if we wanted open door immigration changing the face of our communities.

But again, there are nuances, complexities and obstacles that mean whatever is on your policy shopping list, it's not going to happen quickly and without consequence. Supertanker captains don't envy politicians. Whatever we do is going to take time and cost money. Something like the NHS probably does have too many ossified oaks and pointless chair warmers. It's easy to say you'll slash them all, but large organisations do need effective management, so you'll need to say who and how.

We like to complain about "career politicians" who have come from law backgrounds or big business, but watching half an hour of Ukip health spokesman Louise Bours's witless ranting about the health service and all of a sudden, a lawyer or an army officer, or captain of industry seems infinitely preferable to a thick-as-pigshit nursery school matron.

The MP's we get are in the main decent people coming to politics to work within the established system. Consequently we will get similar results each time, not all of them unacceptable. If we do want different outcomes then we shall have to change that system. But the fact is that modern governance is blisteringly complex and it takes skill and patience to produce even mediocre outcomes. For a party to come into politics with radical demands but with no policies, no expertise, and no blueprint for a systemic overhaul of government is rightly a laughing stock.

To say we can simply repeal the European Communities Act and take a guess how things pan out afterward is insufficient. To say that we will simply pay for a ring-fenced NHS by slashing foreign aid (a foreign policy tool) is irresponsible. And to say you will give the state the power to decide what people industry needs, and to put the burden of immigration administration on them is dangerously naive. To say you will increase defence spending without an outline of what you spend it on and why is equally irresponsible (and stupid), and introduce referendums on local matters without setting out the context in which they are used is just a fantasy fiction.

What we see in Ukip is a nihilistic petulance. It is a party that would rather taking a wrecking ball to government than to acknowledge the complexity and engage in policy. It is born of a pessimism which is uniquely British, and the very reason we have such an impenetrable first past the post system is to ensure it never takes a foothold unless the establishment has got it too far wrong. That Ukip is polling well makes it the canary down the mine that the establishment would do will to heed, as a signal to do better, but certainly should not be stealing the clothes of Ukip. Ukip is popular to Ukipists, but it is not a popular party in the broader sense and it's miserly and stunted vision for Britain is not one shared by the majority.

I confess I am heartily sick of the establishment as we know it, and when something comes along that sets out a better vision, I will vote for it. But to vote for a band of professional miserablists who are motivated out of fear, rejection and loathing is something I can agree on with John Major. It is wholly un-British.

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