The Time Is Out of Joint

The Time Is Out of Joint

Remain or Leave, next Thursday will be a day of decision and whichever way the vote goes the watchword of the winners will be "Reform". What that means will depend on who they are. For Leave, it will be a sweeping the cupboard bare of EU regulation, a freeing of UK law from the barnacles which Brussels has imposed. For Remain (who, if they win, will have done so on the basis that the EU can be changed from inside) the Reform will be of the EU itself: reform of its financial controls; reform of agricultural policy; completion of the market in financial services; and, maybe, ultimately, the holy Grail now espoused by some of the Labour Leadership, reform of the rules permitting free movement of workers.

Worthy as much of this may be, it is only one half of what is needed. To be sure, these are the reforms which have been forced into our consciousness by the referendum campaign, but in the end that defines their nature - a series of limited reforms addressing particular questions of international relations. That doesn't make them wrong but it is important to remember that limit, and to look beyond them to a more fundamental debate about how we are to live in the 2020s and beyond.

Fundamental reform of the political system is something which happens periodically. Typically, it is preceded by a period of pressure when the old system does not seem to be functioning very well. For a time it can be patched up, but each repair reveals another gap so that the exercise is rather like trying to cover a roof with a tarpaulin which is just a little too small. The apologists for the system have a gradually harder job. Then there is a catalyst, a war perhaps or a general feeling of frustration among the public, the sort of frustration that they felt with a union-dominated Britain in 1979. It is the catalyst which finally focuses the pressure and pushes a new generation of leaders to the fore. They implement new ideas, probably going a little too far in their anxiety to achieve some sort of tipping point. The next stage then is often a little trimming back and matters are broadly set for the next generation.

This process occurs periodically and the first sign is a feeling that the old approach has become tired and is no longer delivering. If you look at things as they are now, there are obvious signs of this.

There is clearly a crisis in our economic system. No, not the banking crisis, although that might be symptomatic, but something deeper. Young bright people are having great difficulty in finding jobs. That has always been the case, of course, but it is harder now, both because of mechanisation and also because people are retiring later. The opportunity to work is becoming a scarce commodity, and progress in robotics and medicine mean that that is going to be exacerbated. How does that fit with a welfare system which, as we are continually told, is designed to get people into employment? It is not necessarily inconsistent but the question of what is to be regarded as gainful employment needs to be carefully rethought.

Then there is the educational system and the pressures imposed by the market towards career-based degrees. You can understand it, of course. If people are to pay for their degrees they will have to earn enough to pay off the debt at the end of them, but one effect of that is that education is becoming too specific. In a fast changing world, careers can be expected to involve a number of different roles, butcher, baker and candlestick maker, for example. Once you get to the candlestick making stage, your degree will do you little good if it was all about cutting up dead animals. To serve you properly throughout your career it should concentrate on teaching you to think and giving you the ability to learn new things. Should we perhaps divide education from training, possibly following the American model of a more general first-degree with anything else being tacked on later?

Then let's look at care for the elderly, an increasing drain on the nation's energies and, if recent scandals are anything to go by, an area in which there are some pretty patchy results. It cannot be long before this area is wholly transformed by developments in robotics but that itself raises questions. What is the point of having old people looked after by robots if there are lots of young people looking desperately for jobs?

Those who hope that this article is going to answer any of those questions will, I am afraid, be disappointed. There are, however, two points which stand out. The first is that whether you look at Britain or indeed at the world at large, it is hard to escape the feeling that "The time is out of joint". That is a clear indication that reform is needed on a scale far more fundamental than anything flowing from Leave or Remain.

The second point is that if any programme of reform is to be successful, we will need to alter our mindset as far as mechanism is concerned. One of the sillier comments in the Health Service debate is that private capital has no place in the system. Equally foolish, is the "sanctity of the market" approach where state guidance and regulation is regarded as necessarily introducing inefficiency into the economy. It is a great pity that state intervention and market economics have been espoused by different political factions. Actually, they are just tools, and to favour one over the other as a matter of principle is like a carpenter preferring a screwdriver to a hammer. Of course both have advantages. They have disadvantages too, and those have to be weighed up in deciding how to use them. In the end, however, these, and other systems too, are simply part of the toolkit available to us all, a toolkit we should use as we work together in a common pursuit of one great objective, to build a future, both in Britain and elsewhere, fit for the next generation to live in.

Republished from the Shaw Sheet


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