“The lunatics are in my hall
“The papers hold their folded faces to the floor
“And every day, the paper-boy brings more” (Pink Floyd, Brain Damage)
More than forty years after Pink Floyd released “Dark Side of the Moon”, the lunacy continues and only the faces in the photos have changed. Each day, I read the newspapers with increasing concern. Is it old age? Or am I right to be so stunned that I struggle to find the coherent thread that links the stories? And so I decided to explore that link.
The Prime Minister has declared her hand regarding the timing of the exercise of Article 50. This might mean that she must box with one hand tied behind her back. Except the Courts have now ruled that she cannot act without Parliament’s approval – and that will tie the other hand firmly behind her back too. European politicians lay down hard talking threats, seeking favour with each other or their respective publics. While in Germany, wise men are urging people to play nicely, our own politicians, having determined that ”Brexit means Brexit”, are inconsistent about its consistency: hard or soft.
The words of a 92 year old, pre-Referendum, “it doesn’t matter; either way the politicians will mess it up”, seem ever more prophetic. As were the words of Roger Waters in Brain Damage, though my papers are delivered by Internet, and the lunatics are on my screen. How ironic, then, that this screen will now deliver tax information straight to government without so much as a ‘by your leave’.
In other news
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, America is excruciated by the choice between the least bad of the two candidates, and the world holds its breath.
In the UK, Brexit is not the only trouble. When the Secretary of State for International Trade suggests that British business people are lazy, the Home Secretary announces (and quickly retracts) the idea that companies should disclose their foreign employee numbers and HMRC announces that they wish to regulate tax advisers, it may well be time to run for the hills.
Hunger to blame and penalise abounds: HMRC want to penalise tax advisers who get tax planning advice wrong. Companies, however, will be penalised where they fail to prevent fraud, or if they fail to export. Enquiries start into enquiries. The list of lunacies continues to grow, such that we cannot distinguish the impractical good ideas from the ill-conceived good intentions.
And what binds it all together?
Against this backdrop, what then, is the thread?
The theme I see with dismay is a swing towards an interventionist Big State. Where once we laughed at the insanity across the Atlantic, condescending rhetoric of the EU politicians, back-stabbing dysfunctional behaviour of our own politicians, now we fear. It is ever more extreme. Extremism in anything is dangerous. Extremism in politics is lethal, and it does not arise – it never has arisen – because of a groundswell of popular opinion. It comes into being when a few people find themselves unopposed. It multiplies when unmoderated access is available to a wide audience – perhaps through the Internet, and the groundswell follows. Scapegoats are needed. These have become the so-called “wealthy” (many of whom are not wealthy at all), and the “foreign”. The language of punishment and intervention is ever more pervading. At least there is no religious connection.
And the themes appear: lack of opposition, lack of moderation, access to the public to whip up opinions, each allowing ever more extreme views to rise to the surface.
The vacuum on the Opposition Bench in the Commons is there, but political opposition is only important if it opposes, and much of their stance is for greater State intervention. The true opposition to government always comes from those who understand (the Professions) and those who enlighten (the Press). That is why every totalitarian regime in history has dismantled the professions and press.
Successive governments have all but castrated the professional classes, who in turn have bent over to allow that process for fear of losing their status. The cheerleaders for this process, sadly, were the Press, but the scalpel is now poised over them too. And consequently, attention is being drawn to the so-called “Public Interest” as the Press obsesses over company and personal tax avoidance, rather than focusing on the important matter of government failure to get the legislation right in the first place.
I expect the public would be surprised to think that the professions, alongside a Free Press, are often all that stands between them and government control. The professions are painted as money grabbing and greedy, yet the professions are the ones with the knowledge and ability to stand up to government. So in the end, the thread I see is one of a faltering independence of the Press and the Professions, yet, these two must remain independent of government, and must take back the right to self-regulate.
The question is whether we have what it takes to do so. The signs are not great, but the ability of the Courts to take government to task over Brexit – whether or not you agree with Brexit – is at least a sign of light.