Life on Airstrip One

Christopher Harvie
5 February 2007

The Economist would say that, wouldn't it? The house-journal of the City of London's republic of nowhere is a world apart from Adam Smith's "sympathy", and it shows.

For the rest of us, do we have a "failed state"? Not yet. But the United Kingdom depends on the international financial disorder that wrecks other polities to colonise London, aided by chancellor Gordon Brown as "useful idiot".

At a cost: the reports by Nicholas Stern and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) dramatise New Labour's failures on transport and the environment, while the recent "carousel" VAT frauds show how imperilled the state is.

The latter's perpetrators were local hoods, equally detached from Smith's "sympathy", who used the grey economy where sharp business practice meets what Eric Ambler called "able criminality". The result was an adept use of legitimate financial institutions habituated to bend law and government to their own purposes, from the banks' credit-card and warranty overcharging to tax-evasion and offshore/onshore havens, PFI premiums, and corporate slush-funds (to name only these).

Also in openDemocracy's debate on the Economist:

Isabel Hilton, "The "Economist" and Britain's future"
(2 February 2007)

Merril Stevenson, "Britain and globalisation: a good marriage"
(2 February 2007)

Tony Curzon Price, "Economist redux"
(5 February 2007)

The Economist report, "Britannia redux, is written by Merril Stevenson and published on 2 February 2007

The Economist's self-declared aim since its founding in 1843 has been to take part in "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress"

Financial services - Smith's "conspiracies of merchants" - attracted cash to London because Brown's "policeman state" was anorexic, and oversight by Walter Bagehot's "efficient" cabinet government was split. After the Granita compact in 1994, policy divided into "Tony's" and "Gordon's", a non-communicating dyarchy sold through apparatchiks to a selected electorate.

True, real wage increased in Tescoland, through retail "rationalisation" and cheap (often dumped) imports. Employment "success" was faked by expanding dead-end and part-time jobs (25% of the UK workforce against 15% in Germany), and incapacity benefit. The loser wasn't just manufacturing, or bungled infrastructure (from the west-coast main railway line to the NHS computer network), but the firm as community; for evidence, look at the dire state of research and training, or the collapse of company pension schemes.

And values? Not just a tiny CEO/dealer elite cashing in and pissing off, but at the bottom a loutish culture - from neet to chav - whose lower depths meet the UK's "bottom-up" illegalism: gambling, drink, drugs, all running at well over the European level.

Have we evolved an amalgam of 18th-century "old corruption" and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four? Party politics merges with government contractors, arms-dealers, offshore finance, feeding into consultancies, adland and PR: bypassing democratic structures, creating "officials' parties" dependent on executive power. Their "mass observation" and muscle would have stunned Winston Smith.

Europe and devolution might have federalised Britain but didn't. Westminster's wealthy exited to the City, leaving "high politics" to Scots and Welsh careerists, with MSPs and AMs as their house-elves. Local government continues to decline. In Northern Ireland, sovereign power gives sectarianism and gangsterism consultative roles. If the state can't solve the country's biggest bank robbery, can it ever nail the carousel men?

Our intellectuals: a trahison des clercs? The irresponsible "postmodern irony" of metrocult can live with a tenfold growth of spin-doctors in Whitehall and a cultural private sector into marketing, not quality; with foreign owners controlling about 80% of publishing and increasing swathes of electronic media.

The actuarial sustainability of this "system" - in orthodox balance-of-payments terms or those of Stern/the IPPC's environmentalism - I haven't even touched on.

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