Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The worst of all possible worlds

Irwin Stelzer stumbles on a profound truth in his column today (or perhaps he knew it already).

Writing about taxation, he notes the paucity of ideas coming from the Conservative Party and Cameron's limited ambitions for tax reform, and thus concludes that, "… a serious debate about policy can only be had in the think tanks, the universities and on pages such as these."

Actually, it has always been the case that serious policy development comes from outside the political parties – that the "Thatcher reforms" owe their intellectual genesis to the Institute of Economic Affairs is now part of political history.

However, Stelzer is being rather naïve (or self-serving) if he expects policy ideas to be generated or seriously discussed in the pages of newspapers – which have long given themselves over to entertainment and sundry activities, far removed from serious commentary.

And, while there may be (poor quality) debate over some issues, the bigger problem is that – as we have seen – whenever it comes to policies dominated by the EU, there is no debate at all. The "elephant in the room syndome" prevails.

This particularly applies to universities. While they are credited with being the intellectual power-houses of the nation, their capacity for policy generation on a wide range of issues, which have any impact on EU affairs, has been all but emasculated. Essentially, we have seen here another aspect of the slow-motion coup d'état whereby the research funding mechanisms have been captured by the "colleagues" and no policy development will attract grants unless it has a "European dimension".

That leaves the think-tanks but, in contrast with the vibrant scene in the United States, operations here are poorly funded and – as far as we are aware – there are none which are dedicated to researching national policies which might conflict with European policies. Even the so-called Eurosceptic think-tank, Open Europe is dedicated to "reform" of EU structures rather than creating independent British policies.

For sure, taxation is largely a national issue – although not entirely so. The VAT system is "off limits" as an EU requirement, corporation tax is increasingly coming into the sphere of the EU and there are other encroachments in the wings. Thus, even the Taxpayers Alliance fights shy of addressing EU issues.

There is, however, on the internet another force – the political blogs. It was hoped that these could generate a lively "conversation" about policy issues but, so far, that potential has not been realised. Instead, the "big hitters" seem to devote themselves to emulating MSM gossip columns. As for the EU, the "elephant" on the blogs is almost totally invisible.

Thus, it is fair to say that whole areas of (formerly) national policy are no longer discussed, political debate increasingly devoted to areas which remain (wholly or partially) within national control.

That much is most recently evident in the CAP, such discourse as there is being focused on changes to (or the abolition of) the EU’s policy. Nowhere have we seen (except perhaps in my own book) any serious attempt to offer a uniquely British agricultural policy.

The problem with this is that so many policy areas are interlinked and interdependent. How we manage our agriculture impacts on inflation – and thus wages, it has a massive impact on developing countries, and thus affects our aid and development policies and, through that, foreign policy. Failures in these spheres are the drivers of economic migration, which in turn affect immigration to this country, and thus our immigration policy and other related issues.

In other words, individual policies cannot be constructed and managed in isolation – yet that is precisely what is happening. With different policies carved up, some handed to the EU in toto, others in transition – such as road safety and transport – some with shared management, such as foreign policy and aid, there is complete confusion of aims, direction and execution.

As a nation, though, we cannot continue on this self-destructive path. Either we decide on self-management or, for better or worse, we hand over the whole business of government to others – as we are progressively doing. But this half-way house, where no one is really in control and no one really knows or understands where responsibilities lie, is the worst of all possible worlds.


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