Rise of the technocrats

Last night I watched “Yes Prime Minister” at the Guilgud theatre in London. Hilariously funny, morally complex, EU focused, one particular element really stood out. In the prime minister’s Civil Service Bill, it proposes that the arts educated generalist civil servants be replaced by professionals e.g. teachers in the department of education, doctors at health (they didn’t mention bankers at the treasury but I assume that’s because the writers wanted to imply that this was a fundamentally good idea…).

In a related issue, the Eurozone crisis raises interesting questions for politics students, and not just because they wonder if they’ll ever get a job after all their study to repay the cost of doing so.

Democracy, said Churchill, is the worst form of government excepting all others.
In my post a few months ago, I tried to explain how – once the political system of a country is propped up through the financial support of others – democracy becomes not just an issue for the voters of the country being propped up but for the proppers too.
Why is it thought to be fair and legitimate for the voters of one country to demand international subsidy but expect the voters of other countries to give it without comment or expectation?

This is globalisation in its real sense.
This is not just about multinational firms moving jobs around for the comany’s benefit – to take the most negative view of it.
Nor is it just about increased prosperity for all through the breaking down of trade barriers – to take the most positive view of it.
No, we need to realise that globalisation has already affected all of us, we are interconnected to a degree that we perhaps did not realise.  Our sovereign debt is owned internationally, and as such our obligations as global citizens to honour the promises made in our names to get the money that is now owed.
If we feel that this financial system and arrangements were made without our knowledge and consent, then there is an issue here.
What did we feel we were voting for at the elections we voted in?  If we didn’t vote at all, do we think we perhaps should have done?

Perhaps some people feel that those standing as candidates to represent us are only a limited selection, that everyone’s centered around a general acceptance of the way the world should be?  Well, that seems to be the guiding principle behind the Occupy protests, but within a democratic system, the proper way to secure change is to stand for election and get a popular mandate. Otherwise you are also just unelected, unrepresentative self-appointed people who believe you are right.
Part of the question we have to ask ourselves is whether our democratic capitalist system is in fact corporate capitalism and whether we’re happier with that than with all the other types of capitalism available.

So how should we feel about the installation of Mario Monti in Italy?


The thing is democracy comes in lots of different forms.  The list system used in Italy’s national elections allows the maximum party control and voters little- UK voters have some experience of this with the party list system chosen for use in the European parliament elections here. It is always possible to argue that the version of democracy used where you are or over there is insufficient or somehow less “pure” than the version you prefer. That’s why people are always able to insist that a referendum is better than representative democracy, or similar.

Mario Monti’s government is not designed to be long term, nor democratic. It is a government of specialists: a banker at the finance ministry, lawyers, professors, and (to Jim Hacker’s fictional horror) yes, civil servants. Because if you need to know where the levers of power are, you could do worse than use the skills of those who know. What his cabinet does not have is elected politicians.

As Papandreou showed in Greece, the problem that elected politicians have is two-fold. They feel beholden to the people that have elected them. They also frankly want to stay in power. These two factors must surely have been behind the odd decision to put to a referendum a decision taken at a Eurozone meeting. The point about representative democracy is that elected representatives sometimes have to take decisions that are unpopular, and the brave ones take them even when warned that doing so might put them out of power for a generation.

In Italy and in Greece, we are seeing the rise of the technocrats (albeit that the ones in Greece are elected). Without public accountability, you have to hope for benevolent dictatorship, putting your trust in experts. Experts can be amazingly blind to real world consequences – as “Yes Prime Minister” puts it- putting your trust in experts’ computer models is a risky business. And with so many EU countries only a generation or so from not so benevolent dictatorship, this must all feel very uncomfortable indeed.
And with the unfortunate comments from the German CDU parliamentary leader about the whole of Europe now speaking German… all I can say is while intellectually I endorse the need for strong leadership to keep the Euro and its economies from total collapse there needs to be a very limited time for this alternative.
So Churchill has it right. Democracy, in all its forms, is the least worst option. Let’s hope the technocrats include a few with a real understanding of political theory.

Boris, Foster and the cross-channel metro

Contingency planning. Never sexy, always worthwhile. In tonight’s evening standard, there’s a double page spread on future London airport capacity. Alongside the by now well known Boris island idea sit plans now developed by Sir Norman Foster for a mega transport hub at the isle of grain in north Kent. Four runways would sit on top of the UK’s newest and biggest high speed railway station with links to London, northern England and continental Europe.
This seems to me by far the most sensible plan for expanding UK airport capacity. But it was the diagram of the rail connections that was interesting. At last! These plans would give purpose to Ebbsfleet International station!
And that’s my reason for blogging. Because this project which would be jolly good news for Ebbsfleet- if it happened- would be another nail in the coffin for East Kent, and specifically Ashford International station. Ashford’s future potential is reliant on its strong situation as the gateway to continental Europe. Otherwise it is just another town with a dying high street and no significant employers, acting as a dormitory for London workers.
Ever since the building of Ebbsfleet, the Ashford service on Eurostar has appeared to be under threat.  Unless Kent County Council acts quickly and decisively to demand that Ashford as well as Ebbsfleet stops be a feature of the continental link, a highspeed hub at the isle of grain could ironically end up leaving Ashford and the rest of Kent outside medway more cut off.
So what has this to do with a cross-channel metro service? Well, I mentioned contingency planning. And if the omens with Eurostar services seem ominous, Ashford’s council needs to look seriously at how to keep Ashford viable. The obvious thing to do is to look to your neighbours. At its closest point, the French coast is just 23 miles away from the Kent coast. That’s closer than Ashford from Ebbsfleet. Lille, France’s third city is only 40-odd minutes away from Ashford, and Calais’s closer than that. A real metro, with trains frequent enough to commute on, could make a real difference. Of course early talk about this in the press described the idea as exporting France’s unemployment problems to the UK for resolution. Thanks, guys. But think, why shouldn’t Kent residents travel as easily for 40 minutes in one direction as in another? Language? Zut allors, ceci est la 21eme siecle! Needing a passport? The sea? No, the real barriers are cost, train frequency and the need for there to be jobs to go to near the stations en route. Eurotunnel has said slots can be made available. shouldn’t trans European networks funding, and regional funding be for just this type of project?
May be the final barriers are of creative entrepreneurship, bureaucracy and mindset. But I fear that we must overcome these to be ableto contingency plan…