Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Capitol Capers in the Silly Season

Actor Brian Cox is in the news: he called for Parliament to be sited in a provincial city, such as Wolverhampton. A staunch Labour supporter on the soft left of the party, he makes the reasonable point that the costs of London and its associated lifestyle led inevitably to the expenses scandal. 

This of course got all the local papers going, as well as the region's politicians, never averse to a bit of free publicity earned by spouting some patriotic cant:
Mr McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, said: “I think it’s a great idea. We have plenty of areas in need of regeneration and I am sure all the MPs would get a warm welcome.” 
Wolverhampton North East MP Miss Reynolds added: “If there was a serious proposal on the table to move Parliament outside of London, I can think of no better place than Wolverhampton.
Nauseating enough, but not nearly as bad as (of course) multimillionaire property speculator and MP by 619 votes Mr Paul Uppal:
I think the idea of Parliament moving to Wolverhampton would be very welcome. It would make the whole place less London-centric and introduce more Black Country traditional values. I’ve always tried to bring Wolverhampton common sense into Westminster, if that could be reversed too by Westminster coming into Wolverhampton I think everyone would benefit.”
McFadden's point is simply economic, while Emma Reynolds avoids any substance at all. Both efforts are less appalling than Uppal's lazy attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals. What are 'Black Country traditional values' and 'Wolverhampton common sense'? A strong case could be made for them being old-line socialism. There's also a streak of racial prejudice: Paul's predecessor was Enoch Powell. They're just empty phrases, the usual cant of the professional politician. It's a bit cheeky of Uppal to appropriate the city's supposed values: he doesn't even live in his own constituency and can't vote for himself. Could he point to a single example of 'Wolverhampton common sense'? His voting record is of 100% loyalty to the party line. He voted to cut benefits for disabled children, to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance, to privatise the postal service and to triple student tuition fees.

In this company, Brian Cox looks like an intellectual giant. Whether he knows it or not, he's echoing the sentiments of the Syndicalist movement of the 1910-20s. Particularly strong in the South Wales coalfields, the Syndicalists believed that their political and union representatives were bound to lose touch with the rank-and-file: once dressed up in sharp suits and drinking sherry with the enemy in negotiations, they'd become part of a political class. Here's what the 1912 manifesto The Miners' Next Step has to say
‘All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions…They… become “gentlemen”, they become MPs and have considerable social prestige because of this power.’ 

The leadership then starts to see the rank-and-file as a mass to be controlled for his/her own prestige, rather than as a set of independent thinkers. The syndicalists' solution was to dissolve the state and employers in favour of workers' control of their own industries, negotiating directly with the workers controlling other sectors of the economy.

Cox is nearly there. He sees London as the Great Maw, sucking in innocent politicians and turning them into self-interested cogs in a self-perpetuating machine. This isn't necessarily a leftwing or progressive position of course: plenty of rural Tories – especially those calling themselves the Turnip Taliban – see the city as a site of moral degradation. This is a long-running cultural theme too, hence the juxtapositions of bucolic idyll and urban corruption in Shakespeare and a host of poets' work.

As usual, I'm way ahead of Cox, McFadden, Reynolds et al.. When the Supreme Court was founded in 2005 by separating its functions from the House of Lords, I saw an opportunity. I wrote to my New Labour MP observing that it had no need to be in London. Justice – being an abstract concept – could be served anywhere, and locating the court away from the symbolic and actual centres of power in London would be a good way to communicate the separation of powers (even though Blair's cancellation of investigations into BAe/Saudi arms corruption proves that there is no actual separation of powers). Furthermore, perhaps judges and lawyers conducting their affairs away from the cosy confines of central London, gentlemen's clubs and Establishment haunts might inform their perception of life as it's lived by the rest of us.

JB Priestley said something similar in English Journey. Visiting West Bromwich (which makes Wolverhampton look like Manhattan's Upper West Side), he wrote about the degrading squalor of one street he called Rusty Lane. Despairing of the division between rulers and ruled, he says this:
There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners, at which political and financial gentlemen congratulate one another, until something is done about Rusty Lane, West Bromwich.
The truth is, of course, that the political classes, particularly those on the Conservative side, either never see such places or blame the inhabitants. As Boris Johnson recently said, wealth is the natural product of genetic superiority: poverty must therefore be the inevitable result of congenital inferiority.  There's no solution to that.

Finally, the establishment of a major state institution in a poor city like Wolverhampton or Stoke would be good for the local economy.  It wouldn't just be judges appearing from the train station: lawyers, administrators, civil servants would all settle locally. I pointed out the Irish government's decentralisation strategy (now sadly ended) and suggested that the UK should try the same thing.

Rob Marris replied to me with good humour. Nice try, he basically said, but no chance. He didn't go into any detail, but we all know that the UK's political class considers that it deserves certain associated rewards: Gothic architecture, agreeable accommodation, high security and little contact with the conditions the rest of endure unless under strictly controlled circumstances.

I would support moving Parliament to Wolverhampton, Stoke or any other deprived area. I would fund MPs at exactly the same level our poorest citizens are expected to survive. They could lodge in private rented accommodation and have to prove that they were working hard enough to claim these perks. They should not only see but experience the lives of the hardest-pressed citizens. I would make our representatives much more insecure and end their culture of entitlement. Proportional representation would end the blight of safe seats and key marginals. Second jobs and directorships would be banned and our political representatives would be encouraged to rediscover the privilege of serving the citizens, not 'leading' us like cattle.

But let's not kid ourselves. Britain's political class is a centralist as France's. They're too habituated to moving in a closed physical and social circle. This is just a silly-season story out of season, an opportunity for local big-wigs to get on their high horses and into their local rags. It's a bit of a laugh then our lords and masters will retreat behind their blast walls and smoked glass and we'll forget there was ever another political possibility.


Dyddgu said...

c.f. also, of course, even earlier, Tom Paine in Common Sense:
" If the colony continues increasing, it will become necessary to augment the number of the representatives, and that the interest of every part of the colony may be attended to, it will be found best to divide the whole into convenient parts, each part sending its proper number; and that the ELECTED might never form to themselves an interest separate from the ELECTORS, prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often; because as the ELECTED might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the ELECTORS in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves. And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the STRENGTH OF GOVERNMENT, AND THE HAPPINESS OF THE GOVERNED."

Arthur Adams said...

The idea of moving Parliament outside of the Palace of Westminster is idiotic and nothing more than an gimmick.

The idea of having Parliament in Wolverhampton and the great offices of state in London is insane. And the idea of moving the whole of the political centre of the UK from London to Wolverhampton wouldn't change the problem of cost, it would just transport it north.

The Plashing Vole said...

Well, London isn't the first and only place parliaments have been held, of course.

There's nothing insane about moving Departments - they're major bureaucratic bodies which need large buildings: much cheaper here than in central London.

Yes, it would move the cost North: but that money would be spent in a declining economic area - going further and helping that area, whereas London would survive the departure of these departments quite easily.

Arthur Adams said...

London wouldn't survive for too long. If Parliament moves north, the City will soon follow and then you would have the two main reasons for London to be rich no longer in London.

Moving any government department north is insane. You have to move everything, not just the civil servants and the paperwork. First, You'd have various cities lobbying for them to be the new seat of government, which take an age to decide. Then you'd have to build new building, because how much you'd think they'd use buildings already there, they wouldn't, they want to bulldozer them down and build new ones. This building would be done by a company, which would mean a company would have to be chosen (more taken time in debate). Then the budgets and the length of time to build these new buildings would need to be debated, then extended, then debated again and then extended as the company fails to meet any deadline this side of the apocalypse. By this time, there would be a change of government and an economic crash or war or some crisis of some sort and things would further delayed. Then the company or companies (this would make the building projects more costly and longer to complete) would employ cheap foreign labour, because they are cheaper to employ and aren't likely to go to the authorities, meaning that the locals are unlikely to get the benefit. By this time, you are drawing your pension, I am working (paying eye watering rates of tax to pay for your pension and the building projects) and the Parliament and the government departments would still be in London.

Then there is the situation if the centre of power moves to a city in the Midlands and the North would be prices. The reason why prices are so high in Central London is because of what is there, Parliament and the Government. Moving Parliament and the government north, would cause the prices to rise in the centre of the new city and people would be pushed out. Any benefit the local area gets will be entirely circular, leaving the pockets of the new arrivals and then returning to them.

If you want help develop the declining areas, either pump cash into the areas through Keynesian policies or devolve tax powers to the area and turn the areas into Free Trade Zones. Don't move parliament there.

The Plashing Vole said...

Why would the City follow? It's massive and doesn't need the legislature around any more. London is expensive because 9 million people live there. Further distribution of jobs, power, money and population around the country would be a good thing.

Why would everything have to move? You'd keep the political level in reduced London offices, and have the departments elsewhere. Like the DVLA in Swansea and the HMRC in Nottingham.

Yes, building new accommodation would be a slow and expensive process - but think of the jobs and the boost to the local economy! As to 'cheap foreign labour': there's a minimum wage and it's illegal to hire people a) lower than that and b) by nationality. Also, state contracts now often include clauses about hiring and training the local workforce.

Yes, the opportunities for disaster are there: the Scottish Parliament was a mess, but then again the Welsh one was a triumph.

This IS Keynesian economics. I've read Keynes. Have you?

Arthur Adams said...

Money follows power. It happened when Constantine moved Empire's capital to Constantinople from Rome.

Power is never distributed around a country. It always centres on one area, even in federal systems such as the United States, everybody knows that the real power and influence is in Washington not the states.

The DVLA and HMRC are one thing. The Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Home Office are another. If you move the Foreign Office the foreign embassies have to move will move north, regardless to whether it make sense.

On the workforce, you and I both know that a large companies get around this easily by using recruitment companies that unofficially solely recruit foreign labour with a few local workers on the books to make it look legal. It might be illegal to hire people below the minimum wage, but you and I know full well it goes on, particularly with foreign workers who are generally un-unionised and find it difficult to complain. On the hiring locally, what happens when these projects appear large amounts of foreign workers are move into the area and put down as a local workforce. This was what was done during the building of the Olympic stadium.

Agreed there would be a boost in local economy, but it would be to the area of the economy dominated by building of the new buildings and to service jobs, waitresses and shop assistant. You wouldn't have a growth in the civil service to recruit locals.

Using the examples of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is somewhat misleading. Scotland and Wales were each covered by a single government department each, which meant that it was simple transfer of power of one single department to an area where it already had a large presences. Moving Westminster north would be a different thing. Why are is it people are obsessed with moving Westminster north? Why not create an English Parliament instead or devolve powers to council-level.

Moving Westminster north is not Keynesian economics, it a political gimmick. Keynesian economics would be to setup a works programme to build more council houses, expand the railways by opening up some of the lines closed under Beeching Report, modernise the railways rolling stock, setup up a state-run lending bank for small business, build new prisons or at the very least fill in potholes. That would be Keynesian Economics.