Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A post seething with impotent rage

Do you remember the Maxwell pensioners? They were perfectly blameless employees of the Mirror group and other businesses controlled by a fat con-man, originally from Czechoslovakia, named Robert Maxwell, who fell off a yacht in mysterious circumstances in 1991. One day they were looking forward to their retirement; the next, they found out that the money had evaporated into some black hole - used, if I recall correctly, to cover some embarrassing lack in the Maxwell balance sheet - and would never be seen again. Rather, in fact, as the "money" used by many of the world's great financial institutions to prop themselves up turned out to be largely a figment of bankers' imaginations. Though it had proved tangible enough in the past to keep many of them in Ferraris.

Well we're all Maxwell pensioners now. We thought, naively, that we paid taxes and the government used that money to provide the essential public goods on which we all rely: the police, the armed forces, the schools and hospitals, benefits for those who can't find work and pensions for the retired. But it turns out that, while the Blair/Brown government (because we can't blame all this on Gordon, really we can't, however much we'd like to, however convenient it is for certain people to pretend things were better under Tony - they weren't, not deep down, not if we had known) spent some of our money on things we need or just look nice - like nuclear warheads for example - most of it was pissed down some invisible drain. And even though the economy boomed, tax receipts went up, people unknowingly paid their stealth taxes, and the government had bucketloads of money coming in to do anything it needed to, it still wasn't enough. So they had to borrow and put things on PFI (which is a bit like hire purchase, except that you also have to pay for the flatscreen up front) in the deluded belief that the reckoning would never come. And now the reckoning has come and we're fucked.

The Mail has some juicy figures, extracted from the new book Fleeced!, by David Craig and Matthew Elliott, which explains just how the Gordon and Tony show has driven Britain to a state of national bankruptcy not dreamed off since we were melting down the railings for ammo to aim at Herr Hitler. The headline figure is three trillion pounds. Around half of that is accounted for by additional spending - this government has doubled public expenditure in real terms - and the other half by what it has ventured in propping up the banks. Three trillion. Have you any idea what three trillian pounds looks like? On a piece of paper, it's three followed by twelve zeros, which probably doesn't make things much easier. So look at it this way. If for every pound this government has wasted you scooped out a teaspoonful of earth, the resulting hole (by my very approximate calculation) would be about 15 million cubic metres. That's big enough to swallow the Great Pyramid six times. Thanks a lot, Gordon.

Where has it all gone to? Spending on the NHS has more than doubled, but hospitals are not twice as good. Yes, there have been some improvements - how could there not have been - but most of the money has not gone in improvements, it has gone on salaries, on gold-plated pensions, on administration, on stupid IT schemes. £12bn on an NHS database, £5 billion or thereabouts on ID cards. There are the quangos, of course, few of which we would miss if they suddenly ceased to be. We got on, after all, quite merrily without most of them. There are the regulators who regulate the regulators, and the lobbyists who are paid out of government funds to lobby the government for more money. There are fake charities, and publicly-funded think tanks. There's the Olympics, an unaffordable national vanity project even in a good economic climate. And the stupid wars, entered into so that Tony could show his friend God, when his final hour comes round, what great moral courage he possessed. There's politics itself: politicians have multiplied in number and accumulated new perks even while their power has diminished; there have been new institutions like the Welsh assembly which cost a fortune to administer and which have added very little to the sum of human happiness. There's a new Supreme Court which has cost £56m to set up and will cost a further £14m a year to run, money that didn't have to be spent when the law lords sat in a committee room in the Palace of Westminster. A small waste, but one that can be multiplied a thousandfold.

In a phrase, what the money has been spent on is this: vastly increasing the proportion of the national economy that is funded by the state. That has increased from around a third to almost half. As Matthew Elliott himself wrote, "The acceleration in profligate government spending has been the basis for probably the biggest boom in public-sector employment, rising wages, lavish expenses and inflation-protected pensions in British history". And then there's the quasi-public sector: large parts of the country are now run by private companies who have perfected the art of ripping off the taxpayer. And they're still splashing it around. The latest unemployment figures revealed that while private sector employment had fallen, the public sector has actually been taking people on. This is very good news for the people involved, of course; but all public sector jobs are essentially parasitic, and without a strong real economy to generate revenue state employment is unsustainable.

The deficit is scary, properly terrifying if you can bear to think about it, but the prodigious wastefulness that has produced it is unforgivable. It's grand larceny on an imperial scale. It's like come back after a nice holiday to find that all your possessions have been stolen by the house-sitter - who, when you complain, points to small-print in the contract entitling them to swipe most of your salary on top. Sorting it out will hurt. Real people, blameless people, will suffer hugely and through no fault of their own because of what this government has done and the money the have magicked out of thin air to pay for their madcap obsessions. New Labour ministers might not have benefited personally from their spending splurge - not much, at any rate - but they thoroughly deserve the fate of Crassus, to be confined in chains and have liquid gold poured down their throats.