Sunday, February 03, 2019

What do you do when democracy fails you?

The reports that Nissan are about to announce the cancellation of their proposed plans to build the X-Trail in Sunderland have led to a degree of comment. There are those who have rather unkindly suggested that the good people of Sunderland are paying the price for believing what they were told during the referendum campaign about the rosy prospects for the country outside the EU.

But, in a complex world, it is easy to believe those whose narrative reflects your perceived experience. After all, they’re telling you what you want to hear, feeding into years of unhappiness.

No, if such an announcement comes to pass, it will be a matter of some sadness for a community that has been forced to reinvent itself with little support from central government, and has had the guts ripped out of it by people who knew little of life in communities like Sunderland, or in so many other former heavy industrial towns and cities of the North.

The solution for the loss of heavy industry was two-fold - encourage foreign investment to create skilled jobs on the basis that we acted as a jumping off point into the European Single Market, and relocate public sector jobs to now struggling locations - Merthyr Tydfil, Bootle, East Kilbride, to name but three. The latter addressed two primary goals - reducing the cost of the Civil Service by removing tranches of work from the expensive South East, and creating jobs in deprived areas.

Reductions in the Civil Service paybill, combined with contracting out of more functions of government, have been a blow, and the current move towards reducing estates and focusing on regional hubs in bigger towns and cities won’t help. But, more importantly, putting foreign owned business facilities on the wrong side of an emerging tariff barrier risks jobs too.

In terms of Nissan, the signing of the new Japan/EU Free Trade Agreement offers three choices. First, with the tariff on car exports reduced, cars can be shipped to Europe directly from Japan. It doesn’t mean that they will, especially if manufacturing costs in Europe are competitive with those in Japan. Second, there is the option of moving car production into the remaining European Union, to benefit from remaining within the Single Market space.

It’s the third choice that is exercising some. At some point, Japanese car manufacturers operating in the United Kingdom were offered assurances by the United Kingdom Government. We don’t know what they were, but it might be reasonable to assume that the question of financial risk was at the heart of them.

Can the United Kingdom really offer an open-ended commitment like that, and how many other foreign investors would want to strike similar deals in return for staying in the country? That’s a challenge, and one which got little in the way of calm attention.

I don’t know how much of British industry is now owned, actually or effectively, by foreign investors, or how much of their production is sold within the EU-27, but I suspect that such companies employ a lot of people, many of whom will have been persuaded to vote Leave, even where their employers publicly acknowledged the problems that Brexit would cause them. The argument that, “they’re only saying that, they’ve invested too much in Derby/Oxford/Sunderland to move now”, is only valid where the impact of tariff barriers is, or is seen as likely to be, less than the cost of new plant and machinery somewhere in the European Union. And Slovak labour costs weigh that calculation against, say, Sunderland.

It could be that, in voting to leave the European Union, Sunderland inadvertently voted for the world to leave it. The bitter consequences of democracy, I fear, but with choices come consequences. Nobody ever said that they had to be desirable ones, but now is not the time for triumphalism. It never will be...

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Attempting not to yield to despair...

There is a bargain to be had in public service. In return for my loyalty and faith that what I do has value, the Government runs things with a degree of competence. I may not agree with what they choose to do, or to prioritise, but they are the elected ones, and what they get through Parliament goes, at least until someone else comes along and changes it.

This is not complex, although I accept that, for those of you who haven’t given more than three decades to professional public service, it might smack of “following orders” - and we know where that can lead.

But, assuming that the Government adheres to a set of democratic rules, and obeys the law, the Civil Service, and thus individual civil servants, carry out the tasks assigned by Ministers without obstruction or dispute. And, if you can’t do that, you quit.

Ministers need to be able to presume upon that compact, for they rely on civil servants for accurate, dispassionate information, for their best judgement on how any particular aspect of public policy might be delivered, and for honest appraisal of the available options given the resources available. And, despite whatever personal doubts they may have, our public servants deliver that.

But I sense that, as events and, increasingly, social media, expose lack of knowledge, false assumptions and, occasionally, outright untruths, the question of competence becomes more challenging to presume. The ability to fact check politicians means that, if what they say is demonstrably contrary to the facts, you wonder if they are lying or ignorant of the truth. Either brings questions of competence and good faith into stark relief.

And, regardless of which side of any debate you find yourself, for decision making to be optimal, you need either to understand the consequences of particular decisions, or be willing to accept the risks incurred by a lack of that understanding. More important, for an informed democracy, the wider polis requires access to accurate facts and data.

Now, as a public servant, you cannot fall into the trap of thinking that your political lords and masters are malicious liars, for such an acceptance makes it difficult for you to serve with a clear conscience. But is it worse to believe that they actually don’t know enough to make good decisions and, when confronted with facts, deny them credence?

I admit, I worry about such things. Professionally, I crave competence over flair, understanding over ideology, empathy over bombast. I like to think that, where difficult decisions are to be taken, the impacts of each option are carefully assessed.

But Brexit seems to be immune to that sort of quiet reason, and increasingly the debate within our body politic is fractious, angry, unthinking. The space for people to have honest doubts about the issues we face as a nation appears to be shrinking by the day, and there are good grounds for doubt or, at the very least, some serious philosophical musing on the direction our country should take.

Parliament must accept some responsibility here. The debate has been tactical, rather than strategic, designed to get the players to the end of the week still part of the game. Opposing things, rather than actually calling for a specific, detailed course of action, unpopular though that might be.

Meanwhile, I’ll be at my desk, possibly under it, but doing my job with a slightly unsettling sense of dread. But it will be alright, won’t it?...