Saturday, October 08, 2011

Rebellions bite upwards

Impotence writ large pervades this piece which tells of "furious" ministers baulked by MEPs who have pushed up the EU budget by 5.23 percent to £114.9 billion for the year 2012.

That brings British contributions to about £16 billion, over which neither our elected members nor the general public have any direct control. Our task is merely to pay the bills when they are presented. There is not even any opportunity to withhold the sum, as it is paid automatically by the Treasury without needing our permission or involvement.

Thus to report the bald facts, therefore, is merely to remind ourselves of our own impotence. It is small wonder that, while UKIP constantly harp on about our EU contributions, the issue never gains any serious traction. People do not feel they can affect the decision – and what they can' t change, they tend to accept or ignore.

However, perhaps we the people are not as impotent – or as clueless – as our masters would prefer us to be. We do have the power to affect such decisions, if we choose to do so, and our tactics are right.

Addressing the issue of EU contributions, it is the case that we cannot stop the government paying the money out of the Treasury cash pot. But it is also the case that there is only one cash pot. That pot is limited and, if the money is taken out for one purpose, it cannot be used for others.

Although the government would prefer us to think of it in a separate compartment, what then comes over very clearly is that local government finance is part of the overall pot. Whatever shortfall there is in local taxation, the Treasury has to make up from central funds.

Now, while we cannot control what central government takes out of the pot - for instance, in paying the EU its subs - we can to a certain extent control what goes into the pot (and comes out) at local level. The weak link in the system is local government. But, if you starve local government, you also starve central government. The finances are that closely inter-related.

At first sight, though, forcing "starvation" would not appear to be a realistic proposition, given the huge scale of the budget. But, one does not have to have even a passing acquaintance with government to know that it is vastly over-committed. Very small shortfalls can create huge stresses.

Creating – or exacerbating – these stresses is well within the capability of individuals and small groups, particularly as many local government officials have become arrogant and lazy. Many of the income streams on which they have come to rely are of dubious legality, if not outright illegal, and they have not taken care to protect them. They can be interdicted.

At very small risk, therefore, and with only small but carefully targeted effort, it is possible to leverage effect on the system. The Booker column later today might give some clue as to that – pointing to a way forward. All we need to do is realise that, like underdogs, rebellions bite upwards. You might also say that a bite in time saves nine. Teeth-sharpening is on the menu.