The poet Baudelaire was infuriated by the Belgians – particularly their habit of gawping over their shoulder as they walked, blocking the streets as they bumped into each other with clashing walking sticks.
One knows the feeling. It’s the same one you get watching governments not looking where they're looking, crashing into each other and obstacles they haven't noticed as they triumphantly reversr previous policies with new ones which are tried for a bit and then abandoned in turn. So nothing is ever definitively learned or discarded, and we are locked in a nightmare acting out a variation of Einstein’s definition of madness, doing the same things over and over at regular intervals and expecting a different result.
Ed Straw calls it ‘zigzag government’, and it reigns in health, education, and much of welfare. The NHS has suffered 30 years of back-and-forth 'reform’, none of it improving the basics. The latest back-to-the-future wheeze in education is grammar schools:
‘The zigzag nature of policy-making has made it impossible to establish effective solutions. The waste of resources that results from ‘reform’ in perpetuity, and the damage it inflicts on the life chances of the young people caught up in the whirligig of change, are never measured. Running a system in a state of permanent revolution and high anxiety has significant downsides. It may seem extraordinary but Theresa May and the others are content to use children as guinea pigs. Politicians’ ideologies are evidently more important than children’s education’.
The same is true for health:
‘The NHS is now experiencing exactly the same underfunding that occurred in the 1990s as Thatcher’s world concluded. Gordon Brown arrived and restored the funding to functioning levels….. but went too far, such that by the end of his term money was pouring in only to be appropriated by top management for, um, eh, top management. Excess austerity became the new normal once more and the patient is skinned again’.
Despite Tony Blair’s short-lived promise of joined-up government, nothing is joined up with anything else, so there is no notion that meddling with one part of the system will have consequences, often disastrous, for the rest of it. So we currently have green papers on corporate governance and industrial policy but neither makes any reference the other. Just say the word ‘Unilever’ to yourself to realise the absurdity of this. Is it the government’s aim to foster long-termist, inclusive companies or not? Or here’s Vanguard's John Seddon on the NHS in his latest newsletter:
‘I have been outraged by media exposure misleading us all about the problems in the NHS. The media buy the Whitehall narrative; journalists have no idea what questions to ask. The narrative is "demand is rising" (it is not, but failure demand is); "we have a problem with old people ‘bed-blocking'’’ (while there are some, the greater problem with bed utilisation is people who shouldn’t even be there, people who are there longer than necessary and people who keep returning because the system hasn’t solved their problems – and the largest proportion of the latter are not old people).
And I’m astonished to see reports of whole teams of people (experts, thus super-costly) being stood down from operating on patients simply because there is no bed in which to put patients post operation. It is complete madness; what kind of mind would make beds a constraint in a health system?’
Where the major parties do agree (although pretending not to), it’s because they’ve been captured by ideology, not by evidence, to which they adamantly adhere long after its failure is apparent to everyone else. In his book Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman denounces attitudes to austerity and poverty that have barely changed since the Poor Laws:
‘In recent decades, our welfare states have come to look increasingly like surveillance states. Using Big Brother tactics, Big Government is forcing us into a Big Society. Lately, developed nations have been doubling down on this sort of “activating” policy for the jobless, which runs the gamut from job applications workshops to picking up trash, and from talk therapy to LinkedIn training. No matter if there are 10 applicants for every job, the problem is consistently attributed not to demand, but to supply… Just as Soviet-era shops employed "three clerks to sell a piece of meat”, we’ll force benefit claimants to perform pointless tasks, even if it bankrupts us’.
Ideological commitment means that the government dysfunction is transmitted directly to the corporate and public sectors, and thence to the economy as a whole. Witness the meek all-party prostration before the banks and financial sector, which are now bigger, and as a result the economy more debt-laden and financialised, than before the 2008 crash. And in the same register the craven refusal to do anything about the zombie shareholder-dominated corporate governance that is at the heart of our low-wage, low-productivity, dramatically unequal part-time economy. Note that it was a Labour government that in the 2006 revision of the Companies Act for the first time explicitly entrenched the principle of shareholder value as the guiding principle for directors. Review panellists confirm that they were told by the then DTI that there was no question of altering the shareholder-first mantra.
And we haven’t even mentioned Brexit... Belgium and particularly Brussels have a surreal side which even the unimpressed Baudelaire might have eventually learned to appreciate. In 2010 and 2011 the country managed to go 589 days without an elected government at all, an unchallenged world record. We might not want to go that far. But government ministers should surely subscribe to a political Hippocratic oath, first to do no evil. Until they are certain they should take to heart the advice of another poet, Allen Ginsberg: ‘It’s never too late to do nothing at all.’