Big Ben is the emblem of London, and by extension of the UK too, in both sound and sight as representative of Britishness and British history as the Eiffel Tower of France or the Empire State Building of of the US. Yet this national icon is now in such disrepair that according to a parliamentary report repairs worth £40m are urgently needed to prevent the clock’s hands dropping off, the bearings seizing up and the pendulum slowing to a stop. As it is, London will be without its visual and aural signature for four months while repairs are carried out, or 12 if the clock gives up the ghost first.
It’s tempting to see in the state of the emblematic clock tower a metaphor for the UK economy as a whole – the stately exterior concealing the engine of a clapped-out 1960s Mini. Perhaps only in the UK is such vicious short-termism, a lethal blend of ignorance and expediency, conceivable.
It is not just Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (which together, note, face a repair bill of no less than £7bn to stop them crumbling around MPs as they speak). The same effortless ability to fudge the inevitable and then be astonished at the outcome – a 156-year-old clock needs maintenance! whoever knew? – is visible everywhere. There’s the competitive boasting of politicians about their ‘business friendliness’ while the Bank of England warns that a financial sector geared to serving (and remunerating) itself rather than the wider economy needs to be reshaped to suit the needs of those outside rather than inside the charmed circle. The orgy of self-congratulation greeting the success of the James Bond franchise at the global box office glosses over the fact that the car marque inseparable from the brand, Aston Martin, is another British icon with bits falling off, swerving from crisis to crisis under the ownership of a foreign hedge fund.
Or take the steel industry. The fact is that UK steel has been in crisis since the 1980s, by which time it was already crystal clear that there could be no long-term future for steel firms in isolation making commodity products in competition with emerging low-wage economies such as (then) Korea or efficient high-tech ones like Japan and Germany. In 2014 Japan was still the second largest steel producer in the world and Germany the seventh, turning out respectively nearly 10 and four times as much as the UK, which has meanwhile tumbled from fourth world producer in the late 1960s to 18 today, its output having halved.
It’s also been crystal clear that the long boom in commodities, including steel, that has been fuelled by outsize Chinese growth rates would one day come to an end – and that day would be far too late for politicians to consider setting up task forces and other futile talking shops. The cat was let out of the bag by a steel industry insider on the Today programme who explained that the reason blast furnaces were firing full tilt in Japan and Germany while ours were going dark and cold is that in less short-termist and neo-liberal economies with more thoughtful management strategies, steel plants exist as part of vertically-integrated supply chains whose participants are tied together by long-term contracts which give them a powerful incentive to look after the interests of the supply chain as a whole as carefully as they do their own, the two being effectively the same. In other words, while competition is important, so is cooperation; an adversarial supply chain, in which each participant tries to cheat and bully its suppliers and customers, is a recipe for bankruptcy, and, and... now what else is that a recipe for?
Ah yes – horsemeat! Here’s part of what Manchester University’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) said about the horsemeat scandal two years ago: ‘There are better ways to organise the supply chain through vertical integration to ensure participants take responsibility for the overall health of the supply chain… The better way, which delivers on broader economic and social objectives, is represented by the integrated national models of the Danish and Dutch pig industry or the directly-owned processing of Morrisons ... which aligns the interests of firm, supply chain and society’ – and kept the retailer immune from the contamination that affected other supermarket chains.
It’s perfectly true that British steel plants suffer from higher energy costs than many of their rivals. But that too is the result of similarly myopic, unsystemic thinking about power generation. Only the UK, an island nation floating on oil, surrounded by wind and waves pounding its 7,000 miles of coastline 365 days a year, could find itself in its present position of commissioning back-up power plants using diesel generators and buying vastly expensive nuclear expertise from nationalised energy industries in France and China to keep the lights from going out.
To complete the joke, all this is happening in a country where (hat tip to Douglas Board for this), more undergraduates and higher-degree students study business and administration than any other subject, and by some margin; and one of whose more successful industries consists of advisory and professional-services firms that make money from telling others to do as they say, not as we do – in other words, to use the technical term, from bullshit. Now, could one of these madrassas of capitalism kindly furnish us with someone who knows how to wind a clock?