Monday, April 04, 2011

Below the line - AMENDED

Max Hastings in The Mail pontificates about the split in British society. But he puts the divide between the public sector and the taxpayer. And as always with the man - he's only half right and misses the main point.

What he miisses is that none of us have any problems with the front line public sector – the dustmen, the nurses and others who do useful jobs. And although many of them could be employed in the private sector, I have no great hang-ups about that either. Many of the corporates which would replace them are just as malign as the worst of the public sector. And I resent being ripped off by the corporate bureaucrats just as much as I do the public sector bureaucrats. There is little to choose between them.

So, the split is not where Hastings puts it. The big divide is elsewhere and you don't have to look hard to find it. It is between the political classes and the rest of us – The Great Man is far too grand, too close to the political classes, and far too much out of touch to understand that.

The thing is that, in recent the past (20th Century), the divide was vertical – with polarisation left and right. That is where Hasting's brain still resides. But he is twenty or thirty years out of date, the last time when he ever understood anything about politics.

Now, the line has moved. The division is horizontal again. That puts "us" below the line, and "them" above it. The division not only transcends the tradition of recent politics, it also crosses the divide between public and private sectors. The private/public line has become so blurred as to be barely discernable in many cases. Most certainly, it no longer so neatly corresponds with any political divide.

In many respects, the private sector is as bad, if not worse than publicly-owned enterprises. When the banks make profits, for instance, they keep them and award themselves bonuses. When they have financial difficulties, they become "too big to fail" and the losses are "socialised", i.e., we pay the debt.

You have water companies, who are profligate in their spending - and generous with their bonuses - yet can't supply the product at times. They simply increase their bills each year to cover up their grotesque inefficiencies. Are they private sector - or simply regional monopolies with a licence to print money? Then you have companies like BAE Systems, whose only customers are governments.

Others like Capita are effectively branches of government. Group 4, which runs prisons, is another one. There are the Housing Associations, which seem to be run for the benefit of their administrators. There are Foster Care providers - multi-million-pound businesses, which have local authority Social Services as their only customers. Yet these are all supposedly private sector.

There are also the multi-national conglomerates, such as the Ferrovial Group, which owns Heathrow Airport ... and Tata Steel. Where is the accountablity there, and the response to public demand, which supposedly goes with the private sector?

The point is, as made, that the distinction is not about labour versus capital any more (not that it really ever was). But the old 1945 paradigm, which swept Labour into power with a landslide victory, has long gone. Some publicly owned enterprises behave more like the private sector, and vice versa. The distinction was destroyed by Thatcherism, and we will not get it back. And that leaves with the "corporates". Whether in public or private ownership, they are as bad as each other.

So we end up with the new, horizontal division. Actually, it is a return to the old days, before the Labour Movement emerged. When that movement emerged, we had the vertical division of Left and Right. The "left" represented the people (in theory), the "right" looked after the bosses (again, in theory). Its very existence tilted the line, from horizontal to vertical, and we got 20th Century politics.  Now, the leaders of the Left have lost their way and joined the leaders of the Right. And as they have merged, the line has tilted back to the horizontal.

The horizontal split is typified by the days of Whigs and Tories, when the politicians had more in common with each other. Those were the days when they looked after themselves, and their own interests. Those were the days when the people were unrepresented. Just like now.

But, if we are returning to the old political model - the original class, or even feudal model - there is nevertheless a new certainty: us "below the liners" have had enough of the "above the liners". What swept out the decaying self-interest of the old systems must be done again. This time, though, we must do it right or, at least, get it wrong in a different way.