Sep 5, 2008

World - Britain as a benevolent totalitarian state

It’s kinda boring. How many times can I go on about the recession and credit crunch? But that is all that anyone here seems to be concerned with. This week’s big deal is whether the government’s announcement of a £1 bn relief package to prop up the stumbling UK housing market, will work or not. The general consensus is it won’t, and we’re officially headed for a recession. The pound is tumbling, and everyone is very ticked off with poor Mr Brown and Mr Darling, the chancellor. Well, whatever. I’m going to use this opportunity to revisit one of my favourite puzzles about the Brits. The nanny state syndrome. Britain, is what we call here, a nanny state; that is the government and the powers that be (TPTB) have intricately twined tendrils that control and affect almost every aspect of an ordinary citizen’s life. If I had to translate that to a term anyone in the rest of the world would understand, I’d opt for something like benevolent totalitarian social control. With due apologies to political theorists for murdering their concepts, to those of us who come from clearly capitalist — like the US — or ostensibly socialist but essentially functioning anarchies like India, it can be as inscrutable as, say the Chinese. We’re totally not talking about the flow of money or assets in the system; this one’s about social and political control. The underlying social contract, seems to be that the state takes care of all the needs of every citizen — physical, economic, emotional and societal — from cradle to grave, and therefore can tell you what to feed your kids for breakfast. The implicit assumption, then, is that an ordinary citizen doesn’t know as well as TPTB how to run their lives, or bring up their children, or make any informed choices, and needs to be guided and shepherded by the state, for their own and everyone’s good. That sounds vaguely familiar, but then I always failed political theory classes, so I’m probably getting my Marx and Spencers muddled. Of course, the big difference is, that in Britain, unlike some parts of the EU and Scandinavia, everyone incessantly argues about what is good for themselves, their neighbours, and the rest of the world. The only axiom is that whatever it is, the government has to do it. For those of us who come from cultures where we automatically assume the characters we elect to parliament are a necessary evil, but in no way competent to run our personal lives, it can be a bit funny. Technically, the government here doesn’t tell you which doctor you can go to if you’re willing to pay for it privately. But it makes it virtually impossible, with a series of regulations, for most people to bypass the set NHS procedures. It tells you when and what to feed your children, where to school them, how you can bring them up or discipline them, what music or entertainment you can listen to and by whom, what you should eat for breakfast, your browsing habits, what your kids should be watching on TV, and so on and so forth.

It’s highly possible, yes, to incorporate a company here with two pieces of paper in 24 hours. But the minute you hire your first employee, be prepared to get into unending spiral of regulations. There are, really, no entry barriers for most industries — but many of them are regulated, at an operational level, right up to rules for office Christmas parties. Most Britons hate it. In fact, quite large swathes of the UK population actively dislike the fact that EU membership has brought with it tonnes of even more social regulations. For instance, UK has been diligently avoiding the working hour restrictions of the EU, which limits the number of hours anyone is allowed to work to something weird like 4 days. Again, every time any local council decides it can monitor your phone records, there are howls of protest. But the counter argument, of course, is that if every time anyone falls down and scrapes their knees, even in cased of corporate greed like Northern Rock, the government is expected to pick ‘em up and put things right, they’re going to want some degree of behavioural control. Take the last set of property sops. Mr Brown & Co have announced a series of measures, like raising the exemption level for stamp duty, giving free loans to first time buyers, and so on. All the experts think it’s rubbish, and won’t do anything to revive the moribund property market, or the economy. Everyone is also agreed that property prices are unrealistically high and need to fall, but at the same time all the li’l angels who made stupid financial decisions must be taken care of. I’m now expecting, naturally, another set of regulations from the government that will ensure future controls over property market activities in some way, so they don’t have to deal with this mess again. That’s what anyone would do.

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