Saturday, 26 September 2009

Polly's fantasy Gordon

As Gordon Brown is greeted in Brighton with what one BBC reporter delightfully described as "a carefully rehearsed ecstatic welcome", Polly Toynbee has written his resignation speech for him. The short version is, "I'm brilliant: that's why I have to resign". Thus is the cognitive dissonance that has permeated Polly's Guardian commentaries for well over a year resolved into the sweetest of harmonies.

Her Gordon sings of his accomplishments, regrets that he is less popular than he truly deserves, and commends the party to whoever is chosen from "the abundance of talent" the Labour party has to offer - and who will then "take up the baton and run with it to a victory at the next election." And then he snaps his heels together three times and wakes up in Kansas. The public, meanwhile, will come round belatedly to appreciate the merits of their former leader. After all, "the British detest their politicians until they are powerless, when the most unexpected previous figures of fun and hate turn overnight into national treasures". I wonder who she's thinking of. Neville Chamberlain?

The other day Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association asked me if I'd like to join. Not while Polly Toynbee is president, I replied. Someone so muddled in her thinking is in no position to lecture the rest of us on the virtues of rationalism. This piece is no exception. Although she has been lamenting Brown's deficiencies every other week for months, there are no hints in her imagined speech that suggest she is able to identify them, save the sad but unavoidable fact of the PM's terminal unpopularity. Her Gordon offers himself as "a scapegoat... to draw the understandable anger people feel at how risk and greed in the banks caused so many to lose jobs, homes and pensions." His only crime is not to have seen it coming - and in any case, the Tories didn't see it coming either. If anything, if the Tories had been in power, it would have been worse.

No-one would pretend, I hope, that the banking crisis would have been averted had we had a Conservative government (though if it had been that way around, I can well imagine Polly claiming that with Labour in charge it would never have occurred). That's not really the point. What did for the British economy, when the crash came, was the catastrophic budget deficit; and that is directly attributable to Brown's delusional belief (trumpeted ad nauseam) that he had abolished "boom and bust" and that he could safely put more and more of the nation's bills on credit. Golly Brownbee can't see that, of course. For him/her, the national debt was "necessarily incurred to prevent worse disaster", an unfortunate consequence of the collapse of Northern Rock, RBS, HBOS et al. Perhaps; but if the prime minister, as chancellor, had kept a tighter rein the expense, though unfortunate, would not have been ruinous - and the coming cuts would be less savage.

Like the real one, Toynbee's fantasy version of the prime minister claims to have saved the world. If he hadn't been there to prop up the world economy - if it had been those do-nothing Tories, for example - "the catastrophe doesn't bear thinking about". But helpfully Brownbee tells us anyway: supermarket shelves emptying as the panic spreads, "total collapse", a whole generation left to rot away on the unemployment scrapheap. There follows a parody of Conservative policy ("the cruelty of Mrs Thatcher's 1980s cuts") and "blind indifference to national wellbeing" and, for good measure, a ritual denunciation of the Tories' more colourful allies in the European parliament. In passages like this, Polly Toynbee is perhaps merely providing us with a precis of what Brown intends to say in his conference address - though we can I think also expect grandstanding of the "I flew to Washington and told Obama what to do" variety.

Here's Polly's best line: "I will spare you the litany of Labour achievements – just look all around us". It works best if you remember where Brown, if he were actually delivering the speech, would be standing: in the conference hall at Brighton, looking out over the assembled delegates, almost all of whom will have jobs in the public sector; in many cases, jobs that did not exist before Labour came to power.

This is perhaps the key passage:


Ask yourselves what you value most in life. Most precious are those things we can only purchase together: health, education, safety in the streets, fine public spaces, parks, museums, sports grounds and beautiful public buildings. No shop sells anything we prize so highly ... The small state is the squalid state, penny-pinching, mean-spirited and devoid of things that make a country proud.


In Polly's universe, the government only spends money wisely on good things that everyone wants - like health, education, culture, "sports grounds and beautiful public buildings". The bigger the government, she thinks, the more benign it is. Perhaps Polly Toynbee really does believe this; no doubt Gordon Brown does, too. But it simply isn't true. There's very little connection between the size of the state and the quality of the services it provides. A big state can be every bit as squalid, penny-pinching and mean-spirited as a small one. But the impact of its penny-pinching and mean-spiritedness on ordinary life will be considerably worse.

The past decade has seen a growth of the scope, reach and activity of the state far beyond any improvement that has been wrought in public services. Toynbee makes no mention of the CCTV cameras (everywhere, expensively positioned but largely ineffective, it turns out, at preventing crime), the databases, the IT projects that don't work, supernumerary politicians and quangocrats, form-fillers (and those whose job it is to demand form-filling from others), consultants, regulators to regulate the regulators, processors to process the applications for permits for things that have been done quite happily for centuries without anyone batting an eyelid. For her it's all schools and hospitals. Brown will try to spin the British people the same bogus line.

In Monday's Telegraph, Boris Johnson defined with some precision the parasitical class that has emerged to suck the public coffers dry.

I don't just mean the outreach workers and diversity officers whose recruitment has caused such chronic spluttering into the cornflakes. I mean the legions of officials whose responsibilities have been generated by the cascade of bad law from Whitehall and Brussels, and then all the other officials whose non-job is to service those non-jobs – the folks in HR and IT and payroll and secretarial and legal and planning, all happily filling their days in meetings and PowerPoint presentations, job accreting to job in a vast snowball of public-sector employment, until we get to the point where a place like Newcastle has 75 per cent of its workforce in the pay of the state.


But he also - and this is the most telling point - noted that dismantling this infrastructure of waste will not be easy. Partly because of labour market ossification, but mainly because the political cost of directly firing people is so high, getting rid of non-jobs is far more difficult than creating them. The likely result is that the axe will fall in the worst possible place, on the infrastructure projects that the country actually needs. "...the danger is that government will go for the easier option. They will cut or defer investment. They will chop plans for spending on roads or rail or schools or sewers or power plants or fibre-optic cables".

This is the real tragedy of the New Labour years. It is not that they have spent a lot of money - and thus almost bankrupted the country - that is the true crime; because money that is well-spent is never truly wasted. It is that they have spent the money in almost the worst possible way, on things that we either did not need or which are actively harmful both to the wellbeing of society and the health of businesses. This will not be forgotten, or forgiven.