Hot on the heels of the Scottish Independence fiasco we now have the party conference season upon us. With a general election looming and the commitment to a new settlement for Scotland the unfortunate British (i.e. mostly English) population can look forward to a further deluge of political slogans masquerading as policy and fraudulent financial statements pretending to be a basis for the economy. We may, or may not, see the end of the West Lothian question although its space will be filled by the European argument.
It probably is time to address some of the flaws in the method by which we are governed. However I do not think that this is best done by politicians with an election to win. Rather we need an independent view of how government works, reporting in a timetable concomitant with a sober and thorough appraisal of all the evidence and capable of making sensible recommendations for change. This may, or may not, include a switch of voting system and it should also include an assessment of the proper role of the House of Lords. It may well be that the changes would need to be put to the public in a referendum. Certainly no current Member of Parliament has a mandate for implementing any change. Nor can MPs or the political parties be relied upon to deal with the role of Scotland as Labour have a vested interest in Scottish MPs having wide powers while the opposite is true of the Conservatives. It is unfortunate that the major parties have already started treating the reforms as a political football, although one can’t expect anything more from them.
Our current political structure and processes are little changed since women over 21 were given the right to vote in 1928. Likewise the split of tasks between district and county councils and central government have not changed substantially in concept, the presumption is that central government will have all the power, although increasing amounts of it are either devolved to local government or ceded to Brussels. In some cases the split between district and county councils is fairly arbitrary. For example, district councils collects household waste, but county councils dispose of it. Given the rise of UKIP and the Scottish farce a review of government structure is long overdue.
Perhaps the first question should be “what do we expect of government?” I would argue that given that the overwhelming evidence of history is that socialism does not work (even in Glasgow) and thus we can make the simplifying assumption that free market capitalism is the name of the game. Its effective operation relies fundamentally upon the rule of law and its enforcement. The creation of law is the prime role of Parliament – indeed it is the only thing that MPs can do. This is important, as simply passing laws achieves little. Murder has been illegal since time immemorial, but still happens today. More politicians may well produce more laws, more debate and more democracy but that does not translate directly into more or better government. My answer would be that each level of government should only do what only it can do. That limits it to making the law, starting (or, preferably avoiding) wars and providing a welfare system. It must also collect taxes and set a balanced budget. Bar the odd national policy on transport and providing funds for health and education that is about it.
What the government should not do is provide services. Those of us old enough to remember British Leyland, British Rail and the other nationalised industries know this from bitter experience. Unfortunately those born post the Thatcher revolution don’t understand this. It is incumbent upon us to explain.
Perhaps the best example in a rational world would be the NHS. The 2015 NHS budget is about £100 billion. That is around £4,000 per household. You can buy a fair amount of health insurance for that. It’s not as if the NHS is problem free, although its senior staff seem immune to the charges of corporate manslaughter that would arise in commercial organisations that killed people though negligence and neglect.
Everything else could be done at a lower level of government – i.e. country and district. Again, if we’re going to investigate how this country is governed then it may be that given the advances in technology both levels are not required – Wiltshire, for instance, now has just one layer of government. Schools would be paid according to the number of pupils and the head left to run it answerable to its board of governors, which might have to be strengthened. This is how private schools work, and indeed police constabularies. The innate centralising nature of government would be removed. To be fair, this is happening in some parts of government when no-one is looking.
We would also have to investigate how political parties are funded. State funding is abhorrent to all except professional politicians. But why should the public sector workers (who are in effect the only unionised workers left) fund their own political party? Much of government service is good, but far too much of it forgets that its purpose is to serve the public, not the other way round.
Why is it that the directors of a company seeking finance have to publish a prospectus which is verified and, upon pain of prison, certify that it represents a “true and fair view” while the SNP can produce a manifesto that is blatantly dishonest (and they’re not alone)?
Finally, any such review should consider any reasons for lowering the voting age. Lowering from 18 produces the real risk of “representation without taxation” – the inverse ended badly for England and if the result is years of socialist government there is no reason to suppose that voting at 16 will end well. As someone said, “anyone under the age of 18 who isn’t a socialist has no heart. If they’re still socialist at 21 they don’t have a brain either.”
Friedrich von Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” should be compulsory reading for every teenager.