The MP for Maidenhead made a very interesting speech this weekend. Theresa May set out what some observers perceive to be her stall in a future contest for the Tory leadership. (Sad isn’t it, that the chatter is about what British politics can do for her career and not what she can do for British politics?) At the heart of her speech was a call for corporatism: still more private sector involvement in the provision of public services, coupled with, curiously, strategic industrial planning by the State. She denied, of course, that what she intends is anything like corporatism. (It’s always the best way to lay a false trail.)
Her recipe is more interesting for the hidden ingredients than for those listed. The ever-greater exposure of public services to market forces has long been presented as motivated solely by a desire for greater efficiency. (Because, of course, services run by the British State are inherently inefficient, whereas they miraculously become efficient when sold to the French State.) In fact, the rules are routinely distorted to prevent in-house, public sector bids from succeeding, even where they clearly represent better value for money. It’s not about efficiency at all but about shovelling taxpayers’ cash into the pockets of those very private companies that are the most enthusiastic donors to Tory funds. Or it could be LibDem funds. Or Labour’s. All three are equally receptive to stale old ‘new ideas’ with an unerringly familiar theme. None apparently has the wit to recognise that if the best managers are in the private sector then the answer is to recruit them for the public sector. It isn’t to dismantle what's left of democracy.
What are we to make of the sudden re-emergence of that very un-Thatcherite phrase, a ‘strategic role for the State in our economy’? Perhaps we are to make of it that the very richest in our society have decided that free enterprise isn’t making them rich enough. The banking ‘crisis’ has revealed the weakness at the heart of the market: that in a big, generous country like the UK, banks too big to fail are not too big to bail. State planning of the economy can produce returns that are less volatile but also inherently more profitable, mainly by favouring some sectors or scales of business at the expense of others. There is an appetite for this among those in public administration who see the banking scam as horrifically disruptive of the public finances, which it is. But there is also an appetite among politicians to diversify the UK economy away from its dependence on the City of London casino. Rising energy prices are already beginning to force a re-localisation of manufacturing away from the Far East. There are prizes to be won by countries that manage the transition well. And for those companies who can get the Government to do their marketing for them.
So what’s our view on industrial planning? The first thing to point out is that the private sector plans all the time. If it doesn’t look ahead, it doesn’t survive. We believe in co-operation, not competition, so we have no ideological objection to industries considering needs as a whole and organising production accordingly. If the result is not to be a cartel put together to exploit the consumer, then industrial planning is something that needs to be done under the full glare of public scrutiny. It will be found that you cannot plan what you do not control, and that very often you cannot control what you do not own. A large public sector is not something to be ashamed of, any more than democratic accountability is something to be ashamed of. It is in fact the only effective way to ensure that economic interests do not elbow environmental and social/cultural ones out of the picture. What’s more, a decision not to plan is still a decision, and so still, unavoidably, a plan. Whether the captain of the ship of state steers it onto the rocks or lets the waves take it there unaided, he or she still bears responsibility for the consequences.
The past century has revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of State planning of industry, which is another way of acknowledging that the phrase encompasses a wide range of possibilities. To start with, is it ‘bottom-up’ or is it ‘top-down’? On that, all else depends. Is it about enabling our transition to a more ecologically conscious, decentralised society, or a final desperate attempt to preserve the opposite? Is it about strengthening the regions by winding-down their links to London, or is it, like HS2, about shackling them all the more tightly to their exploiter? Between the 1930s and the 1970s, successive UK governments practised a travesty of regional economic planning that zoned heavy industry in the peripheries, research and development in the Home Counties and the top management and financial functions in London. Much of Wessex got designated as the tourist and retirement zone. We can do without any more of that. It wasn’t just that centralist controls were ineffective in shaping regional economies for the long-term; it was also that they were far too effective in suppressing any local initiative that might actually have worked. Powerful elected assemblies in the regions would have pointed that out straight away. If we'd had them.
It isn’t only actions that get suppressed; values and visions get smothered too. We are proud to be a nimbyist party, with genuine concerns about the urbanisation of Wessex. We stand with those communities slandered as ‘irresponsible’ for not accepting London’s surplus population into their midst. We fear for their future once Theresa May’s State planners seek to draw media attention away from London’s chronic inability to act sustainably. We fear for their future once she points the magic wand of power at sites for a rash of new towns right across eastern Wessex. It WILL happen, if we have correctly interpreted what the London regime – us first, old chap – unfailingly understands by State planning.
Does the community benefit from its own destruction? Clearly not, but the community will never have a real say in any planning system designed primarily for private benefit (as all in the UK are). We know precisely who does though. Planning of all kinds, carried out in the public interest, depends upon absolute probity. Yet we seem to be sliding further and further away from that ideal as private enterprise becomes ever more pushy, public servants ever more corruptible, and the media ever more lax in its duty to scrutinise. The Daily Telegraph has been a shining exception to the rule and led yesterday with a story about a Tory councillor in Devon caught offering his services as a planning consultant, as one who knows what strings to pull to get that lucrative permission. It seems it’s not illegal to take money for insider information in this way. But perhaps the voters will judge him more harshly than the law will?
David Cameron yesterday responded to the jailing of Chris Huhne by trotting out the usual platitude about no-one being above the law. Another one we often hear is that those who make the law shouldn’t break the law. The real problem comes when those who make the law know where the loopholes are. They can frame legislation and other processes from which they can ultimately derive personal benefit. The crooks have always done that. What should especially worry us is when they become increasingly open about it and start drawing lines that the State may cross but democracy may not. Mrs May’s big corporate society is looming over the horizon. And one old definition of corporatism, from the 1970s, remains true today. It is ‘fascism with a human face’.