The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 1st, 2009

Watch out, quangocrats – our patience is running out

Beware the fury of a patient man, as the poet said. The British are patient, surprisingly so. We are slow to fury, and slow to public demonstrations of rage, unlike the French, who are quick to man and woman the barricades, as we saw last week in the mass demonstrations all across France. But we too are capable in the end of fury, as we also saw here last week, and when British patience is finally thoroughly exhausted, and when British fury is really aroused, I suspect we will see widespread public unrest. The author of those famous words about the fury of the patient was John Dryden, writing only 30 years after the end of the English civil war; he saw the beginning of it as a young boy of 11. Dryden’s warning that rage which has overcome years of patient repression will then burst out with particular fury makes all too much sense. Last week hundreds of workers all across the UK rallied together in demonstrations, sympathy strikes and walkouts. They were protesting about the employment of foreign workers at an oil refinery in Lincolnshire, and about the betrayal of Gordon Brown’s empty and dishonest promise: “British jobs for British workers”. Angry faces appeared on television, talking with a rage that I haven’t seen for 30 years. Public sympathy for these workers may be muted, even though many other people are now afraid for their jobs. Fellow feeling is undermined by the fact that it is not illegal to employ EU workers here, that many British workers get employment abroad, that protectionism is not good for the economy and that an employer has a right within the law to make the best contract with the best workers, painful though that may be to some. However, even though this uprising has failed to arouse much public indignation, except among those closely concerned, there are other things that certainly will. Sooner or later these things will exhaust the patience of great masses of people, and rouse them to profound anger. I don’t mean the repeated lies of the government, or the folly of a prime minister who appears not to understand the destruction he has brought upon us, or the shameless greed of the bankers who have ruined us, or the corruption of parliament, the profligacy of Eurocrats, the rape of the voting system, though there is enough of it about to make us all feel sick with fury. Those things don’t exactly have a great unifying theme, a clear indication of Them and Us. The people responsible are all over the place; they don’t have an easily identified status, occupation and address at which to direct united public fury. There is one group that does, however. It is the vast and growing army of state sector workers – public servants, civil servants, whatever you call them: I mean the actual providers and arrangers of public services. You can find them in any town hall or local authority premises and in the bloated offices of quangos. Of course, I know that some of them are indispensable and truly inspiring and we are all grateful to them – good nurses, social workers, doctors, teachers and good administrators as well. Others are pretty much good enough, and conscientious. But there are all too many who are not. Whoever they are, however, and whatever they do, these public servants are distinguished by three facts, unique (when united) to them: first, the taxpayer pays for them, second, their jobs and their pensions are protected (by the rest of us) and third, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sack them. Some of them do crucially important things, and some of them do those important things well; but many of them do important things badly, and a lot of them do things that do not need to be done at all, least of all at public expense, and with impunity. Think of those transgender sexual inclusion outreach workers, that potato promotion quango and the irresponsible mentality that promotes such waste. Predicting public unrest is usually best avoided. All the same, I’d like to put a case in which one might well expect it. (Supporting evidence available upon request, or indeed upon regularly following the news or looking at the TaxPayers’ Alliance website.) If, for example, very large numbers of state sector people are indeed doing wasteful non-jobs, which we don’t want to pay anyone for doing; if the government keeps on creating these jobs despite constant, informed protest; if so many state sector people are so deeply, institutionally incompetent and yet very rarely face the consequences of their failure and indeed can sue for large payoffs (as in the case of Baby P in Haringey); if they get secure pensions and security of employment; if they can take early retirement; if they do regularly take such very early retirement on full pensions; if more and more of them are getting as good as or better pay than private sector workers; if our earnings will soon be very highly taxed to pay for public sector pensions; if (unlike public sectors workers) we are forced to carry on working, in any job we can get, by the disappearance of our pensions and savings; if therefore our retirements will be impoverished while theirs are safe; if they in their swollen numbers vote for the government that hires and backs them, depriving us of political redress; and, finally, if we are in the beginning of a very serious long-term recession, and Britain faces the highest debt in Europe as a result of throwing many billions at the public sector, without very much result, then what would you expect? A sense of Them and Us? A sense of institutionalised injustice? A sense of something wholly unacceptable? The kind of thing that drives a patient man or woman to fury? I think so. Let’s not exaggerate. This is not Zimbabwe or even Italy. This is a free and and relatively honest country. It is true that we are fast slipping down all the international league tables of things that matter, but ours is still a good country. However, non-jobs and make-work in our state sector are a terrifying waste of public money, and, worse than that, they lead to more of the same. Those who deny this should look carefully into all the “positions” that any town hall or any quango is filling or creating. I can hardly believe the point still needs arguing. These things are a national threat in themselves. What’s more is that the whole state sector is institutionally incompetent and institutionally unfair to the rest of us. We may not continue to be patient about it. Those who impose it upon us and those who are part of it should beware.