Thursday, 2 May 2019

An undeveloping country?

A House of Lords report this week has concluded that forensic science in England and Wales is “in crisis” and “has now reached breaking point”. This matters, hugely, because it is central to the effective functioning of the criminal justice system and, hence, to the rule of law.

It’s a crisis which has been brewing for a while. I referred to it on this blog in January 2017, but it has been in the making since its privatization in 2012, and the introduction of market competition. The dangers were warned about at the time.

This is an important story in itself, but it’s indicative of a wider and all-encompassing crisis right across the provision of public services in the UK. Evidence of this can be found in relation to legal aid, prisons and young offenders’ institutions, the probation service (£), housing, the National Health Service, the railways, bus services, and schools. The list could go on and on, but just in relation to the last of them we now have schools where one day a week the lights are turned off to save money.

Scratch beneath the surface of any of these separate stories and you find, invariably, funding shortages but, equally invariably, failed reorganizations and, almost always, contracting-out to the private sector. It should not be thought that these are separate explanations, because what would in any case be hard-pressed services because of funding cuts are made more so by the money wasted on reorganization and contracting out. What little money there is gets wasted.

The ideological roots of what is happening lie in market-managerialism – that strange ensemble of the ‘classic’ neo-liberalism of privatisation and its country cousin of private sector disciplines in the public sector which morph, bizarrely, into precisely the ‘bureaucratic red tape’ that neo-liberalism was supposed to be averse to. As such, it has a 40 year history in the UK.

The effects are disparate and disjointed, so that it is easy to see each story in isolation, and because they have unfolded over a long time period it is easy to miss their cumulative effect. But there is a cumulative effect, and it is neatly captured by the concept of Britain being in a process of ‘undeveloping’, which has been analysed by researchers at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI).

Their argument is that the notion of a country as ‘developed’ mistakes a fluid process for a static category. Development in not a uni-directional process which, once achieved, is fixed. Rather, it is possible to ‘go back’. The SPERI argument is that Britain, having been the first nation to develop in the modern sense is now the first developed nation to be undeveloping – to be, if we think of development as linear – going backwards.

In support of that argument, the SPERI researchers cite a range of issues not all of which relate to the theme of public sector reorganization, although many do. Their analysis draws attention to the myriad of ways in which daily life in Britain seems to be getting worse, using macroeconomic indicators like productivity and measures like food bank use and road pothole incidence. Taken together, these make out a compelling case for their ‘undevelopment’ thesis.

Like all compelling ideas, it’s not new, though. The great economist J.K. Galbraith made a similar case in The Affluent Society (1958) where he introduced the notion of private affluence co-existing with public squalor. It’s a book that still speaks to our present situation. In a similar way, what might be seen as the counterpart of Galbraith’s macroeconomic analysis at the level of work, Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949), is seeing a widely-acclaimed revival on the London stage.  Its themes of insecurity and fantasy still speak  – or speak anew – to the world of zero-hours contracts and fantasies of success.