Saturday, 28 February 2009

Whither the national interest?

Back in the dim and distant past of the pre-New Labour era we used to hear a lot about the balance of payments and the national interest. They were central to government policy yet they have now both disappeared from view.

The balance of payments was the difference between the value of stuff we exported and the value of stuff we imported. Figures were broadcast every month for tangibles and invisibles. Very often we were in the red in tangibles (actual things like cars and cabbages) but in the black for invisibles (such as banking and insurance). It mattered because we were competing against other countries and needed to know how we were doing. At least we thought we needed to know, that we don't get any figures these days suggests it might not have been necessary at all.

Except that it was necessary. It was necessary so we could judge whether we were getting things right or wrong. Just as a business needs to know whether it is making a profit or a loss in order to be able to judge its performance and make any necessary changes, so the country needs to know the same if it is to address systemic problems in the economy. Of course the figures have been available, they just haven't been published as widely as they used to be.

The national interest was the overriding concern of government, however dismally any individual government protected it. The UK government held a mandate from the people of the UK and felt it necessary to act in what it perceived to be the best interests of the UK. If France or Germany or, if it comes to that, Swaziland proposed something considered detrimental to this country the government would speak against it. Act against it less often, but speak against it every time. The concept of the national interest recognised that we are in competition with other countries. It also recognises that the first priority of the UK government should be to protect the interests of the people of the UK.

We just don't hear about the national interest these days and we don't hear about how well or badly this country is doing in its economic dealing with other countries. Instead we hear all about global this and European that, as though every other country is governed to protect the interests of international organisations and ideals rather than its own people. It's ok, we needn't worry, the EU or the UN will come to our rescue if something goes wrong. All we need to do it strengthen these bodies and we need never worry about anything again. This strikes me as a peculiar way to go about things and to be fundamentally wrong both in fact and in principle.

It is wrong in fact because many governments are assiduous in protection of what they consider their national interest, the USA and France are perhaps the most obvious examples of this but it goes far wider than that. Do you think the former soviet-bloc countries have joined the EU out of a sense of altruism or to further the political strength of the EU Parliament and Commission? Of course they haven't, they have joined because they see it as potentially beneficial for their people. Beneficial in two ways. First by giving them access to markets across Europe without the handicap or import taxes or restrictions on the right to work, and secondly by giving them access to hand-outs from the EU's pot of gold. If they were to become net contributors they wouldn't give a second's thought to joining the EU. They joined because they considered it in their own national interest to do so.

The reason relying on more and more international bodies to provide protection in times of difficulty is wrong in principle is that standards differ about what is a difficulty and what is the right way out of it. It's easy enough with something like NATO, a military alliance, because dealing with a military threat does not (except in the most esoteric way) involve cultural values and different interpretations of what is a threat and what is beneficial. Once diplomacy fails, either you shoot back or you get massacred; having more people with guns on your side is plainly beneficial. But you can't apply the same universal standard to economic or social matters. What areas of the economy should the government be involved in, what part should government play in sports or the arts, how should health care be funded, how should children be educated? There is simply no single answer on which everyone can agree. What is acceptable to the people of one country can be wholly unacceptable to another because of their differing history and culture.

Once decisions are passed to an international body it can become a supra-national body. Instead of being a meeting point for heads of government to see what common ground they can establish (as is still he case with NATO, for example), the body itself starts to form its own agenda and countries are required to fall into line or suffer sanctions. Instead of EU policy being a summary of those things all the member nations agree on, it is now something the member states are required to comply with whether they agree with it or not. This creates both practical and political problems.

On the practical side we have such things as current EU laws and directives on so-called health and safety. Health and safety is a balancing exercise between risk and reward. You can't just say "you must reduce the risk in this way" if that impacts so much on the reward as to make the whole exercise onerous or pointless. Of course people sometimes fall off ladders or chairs when changing a light bulb but the risk is pretty small, to require the erection of a scaffold tower and for all around them to stop work and stand well clear would be disproportionate to the risk. Did you know you cannot lawfully change a light fitting in your kitchen or bathroom without having the work certified by a properly qualified person? That's all very well for Mr Rich who would hire an electrician to do it anyway, but it's onerous for Mr Poor who saved for weeks to buy a nice light fitting and now has to fork out the same amount again for someone to fit it or check how he has carried out the most simple of jobs. There is no single standard of what is appropriate for everyone in all circumstances. Yet the more powers that are passed from national governments to supra-national bodies the more uniformity will be required and the more cases there will be of central edicts being inappropriate or absurd when put into practice.

The political problem arises from the inevitable democratic deficit of these bodies not being answerable directly to the people their decisions affect. This breeds mistrust because people don't remember the things the body got right only the things they got wrong. An ever-growing list of perceived errors combined with no effective means of changing the membership or policies of the body, can result in widespread discontent. Think back to 1979 and 1997. In each of those years a stale government was ousted and the result was that the very people who felt most let-down by the old were invigorated by the new. Yet how much actually changed about overall government policy on the 4th of May 1979 and the 2nd of May 1997? Twenty percent, ten percent, five percent? Maybe not even five percent. What changed was the general emphasis of policy much more than its details and, most importantly, all the failings of the old governors were sent out of the door and the new lot started with a clean slate. Between 1979 and 1997 the Conservative's slate filled with chalk dust, bits of fluff and dried chewing gum, and between 1997 and today Labour's slate has undergone the same transition. The mere fact that we voted to change our governing party gave continuing legitimacy to the whole system. Without the possibility of such change it is inevitable that legitimacy will disappear, thereby negating the only thing any government can rely on as its ultimate authority.

The aftermaths of the 1979 and 1997 general elections also show that there can be a radical change in certain basic aspects of policy to correct systemic problems encountered with the established way of doing things. Mrs Thatcher's central message in 1979 was that the old way of doing things wasn't working. The country was bankrupt and she argued for business and industry to be allowed to show what it could do without some of the centrally-imposed constraints which had become the norm. Not everyone agreed with her. It was essentially a matter of opinion not fact, but enough agreed with her to allow her to be given a chance to put her ideas into practice. Something else was tried because the former consensus no longer held sway. A similar change occurred after the 1997 election. Mr Blair argued that The State was doing too little and could do more to improve peoples lives. Sufficient agreed with him for his ideas to be put into practice. The system allowed new ideas to be put into practice because the old ones were no longer perceived as appropriate to modern life. Today there seems to be a sizeable body of public opinion that a change is needed again and an opportunity to vote for change will arise within the next fourteen months. We learn what works and what does not work by trying new things and seeing what effect they have. Even if 95% of policy remains essentially the same from one government to the next, the other five percent can make a huge difference - perhaps beneficial, perhaps not, that's a matter of opinion; there is always another election coming along for those who make a case against the incumbents.

How do you change the policies of a supra-national organisation when the existing ones do not suit the people of a particular country? The answer, of course, is that you can't. It is inevitably one-size-fits-all, like-it-or-lump-it; uniformity is seen as a benefit in its own right regardless of its practical effects. We often hear government ministers saying they are merely implementing EU policy when something daft or unpopular is brought in, as though that is an excuse. To my mind it shows the great problem with removing powers from Westminster and giving them to Brussels. Not only is there no way of giving EU government new legitimacy when it has lost our confidence but there is no effective way of changing EU policies that don't work.

Through all of this, we little people are concerned with how things affect our lives. Those who live in a village are concerned about how political decisions will affect their village, townsfolk and city dwellers ask the same about their town or city, they all do the same again when county-wide issues arise and we all do it on matters that affect the whole country. The national interest is not a political fiction, it is a reflection of the real concerns of the little people. When a factory closes in Birmingham there is a problem for those who lose their jobs and for those whose businesses and jobs depend on the Birmingham factory (such as shops close to the factory who relied on trade from the workers as they arrived and left each day). It is also a problem for the UK as a whole because increased domestic unemployment reduces UK tax revenue and increases the claims made on UK taxpayers. It has no effect whatsoever in Paris, Frankfurt or Warsaw, and the governments of France, Germany and Poland are too busy trying to protect their own people to worry about it.

Even though we are trapped within the money-sucking vampire known as the EU, we still have a national interest and there are still a few ways in which it can be promoted. Currently, all over Europe, national interests are being asserted afresh from the bottom-up. More of the same centralised power cannot answer these interests because British, French, German, Polish and all other EU manufacturers and other businesses are not playing for the same team, they are in direct competition. Our countries as economic units are also in direct competition.

I hope we hear a lot more about the UK national interest in the run-up to the next election. It is far too important to be left in the hands of the EU or the UN. We are best at deciding what is right for us. We might not be very good at it, but we still do a far better job than any unaccountable body concerned more with its own power than with improving life for us.

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