Tuesday, 28 June 2011

You can't avoid a hangover by carrying on drinking

Barroso and Rompuy: from 'managing decline' to 'accelerating destruction.'
This blog has often pondered on the question of how the Islamic world, once the most enlightened, scientifically advanced and wealthy civilisation on the planet, could have become a by-word (however lazy) for poverty, despotism, intolerance and all-round backwardness.

Think it can't happen here? Think again. Societal collapse is often such a protracted process that few even notice, let alone accept it, but the study of declines and falls - from Edward Gibbon to Niall Ferguson - are very clear on their cause; a combination of declining civic virtue and growing government interference.

Few now deny that the west is in decline relative to the new power and wealth of the east but some saw this - and a more absolute decay - sooner than others. In his 1918 Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler saw around him a society in which logic and reason had been sacrificed for an unattainable goal and, after the war, Evelyn Waugh bewailed what he felt was a coming 'dark age of the common man'.

Europe, as the oldest custodian of western civilisation, is naturally the most at risk and there is a mounting body of evidence which suggests we are well on the way, after 500 years of global dominance, to following our middle eastern neighbours. The present crisis over Greece and the euro is quite the most perfect illustration of this.

Already in Europe we have allowed a caste of largely unelected rulers to emerge at the pinnacle of a system that is willing to sacrifice absolutely everything - democracy, the rule of law, even a whole nation's livelihood - at the altar of an idea that, at every available opportunity, people overwhelmingly vote against.

Not that there is much reason behind domestic economic policies, either. At a time when the United Kingdom owes a crippling £4.8 trillion in debt, for example, the government has committed itself to twice as much spending in two eurozone bailouts than it has saved through cuts to public services. At the same time, it has led the country into yet another costly desert war in Libya.

And yet even this insanity is not quite enough for some people. Public sector employees are now striking because they believe themselves to be so special that their gold-plated pensions ought to be excluded from changes taking place in the private sector - at great public expense, of course.

And only a month ago - as damning revelations were made about the future cost of elderly care - Ed Miliband criticised the government for its attempts to reduce the deficit by warning that his children's generation risks becoming one which will not become richer than its parents' and would 'bear the burden' of the government's decisions - presumable intimating that more government spending was the solution.

Well, they're bearing a burden, alright. A great deal of fuss has been made lately about the amount of money young people will have to borrow if they choose to go to university but this completely ignores the fact that every child born in Britain today already owes £17,000 before its first day of life which - when the hangover finally does come - will have to be paid through astronomically higher taxes and even more greatly reduced public services.

And Mr Miliband's colleague, Tristam Hunt, compared - almost to the point of comedy - the government's spending cuts to the misery of the Victorian workhouse. But what he and Miliband seem completely unable to comprehend is that their addiction to more and more and more public spending as the solution to all ills is the single most likely thing to return our society to that nightmare scenario - a future in which the state is so bankrupt, so owing in debt, that it is forced to discard all provision for the poor, leaving them once more to fend for themselves.

It's an old adage, certainly where I live, that the best way to avoid a hangover is to keep on drinking. But any sensible person knows this not to be the case - each drop makes the inevitable pain even worse one it arrives and, if you do manage to avoid it, it's because you're dead.

Given that the present cuts, though painful, will not even pay off a penny of our £4.8 trillion debt and the government has decided to borrow an extra £485bn, it's worth keeping this in mind.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Big Society up north

Chapeltown Baths, near Sheffield, shows amazing things can happen when the state steps back
It’s a phrase that’s in danger of becoming a cliché in today’s media and, to be fair to my fellow journalists, people do say it a lot. It generally goes along the lines of ‘this Big Society thing? We’ve been doing it for ages.’

It’s a good line - and I have to admit to quoting it once or twice myself - but I’m quite certain David Cameron is already aware of the fact. The point of the Big Society, as far as I understand it, is not to take credit for these people’s invaluable work but to encourage more than the current handful to take part in it.

Of course that doesn’t stop people - particularly in this neck of the woods - using the old ‘fig leaf for cuts’ argument. But a thing to remember about Barnsley is that, rightly or wrongly, it is a town heavily dependant on public spending and, with swingeing cuts to council budgets beginning to be felt, its removal is having a marked effect on many peoples’ lives. But, like great bush fires, it is often from the greatest devastation that the strongest shoots will grow.

Take, for example, one of Barnsley Council’s most unpopular decisions of late - the closure of three loss-making public baths and leisure centres across the borough. One of these fell on Penistone - a Tory heartland (and island in a sea of red) - where a few of the rural town’s residents had an idea: if it’s closing, why not run the leisure centre ourselves? Wasting no time, they have already been in talks with the council over devising a business plan for a not-for-profit company and reckon they can have the doors open again by autumn.

It was not an original idea, however, and the fate of Chapeltown Baths a few miles down the road has greatly buoyed their spirits. The 50-year-old building was itself earmarked for closure as long ago as 1995 by Sheffield City Council but was taken over by a similar band of concerned residents.
More than 15 years on, it is still run by the same community foundation - an impressive achievement.

But what is truly remarkable is that it is doing so far better than the council ever did. As chairman Kath Burgess told me; more people are using the baths, its workforce has tripled and - most importantly - annual turnover has increased. Where the council saw only desert, the community has made it bloom. And, interestingly (though this will come as no surprise to business owners), it is the perennial insecurity of the enterprise that Kath attributes to its success.

“We’ve increased use and turnover,” she said, “but that’s because we’ve had to. We’ve had to look at everything we use - space, energy, staffing - and ask ourselves how we can make it more efficient. We’ve put in energy efficient lighting, utilised rooms for meeting areas, a solarium, exercise rooms, holistic therapy, a gym - we’ve added a few strings to the bow all to bring in a secondary income.”

Survival is one of the most powerful motivators for a business and, where the entrepreneur is sustained by the promise of financial and personal success, not-for-profit enterprises like Chapeltown Baths can be driven by the sincere desire of its stakeholders to preserve a much-loved pillar of their community.

This is what the Big Society is about - not just alleviating government coffers at a time of austerity but giving people greater control of the services they use and, as often follows, improving them, too.