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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, April 14, 2017

How the Scales Fell from our Eyes

When, some 15 years ago, I was Team Leader of an EC-funded project in Central Asia I tried to formulate what I saw as the “gold standard” for a democratic system – after some false starts, it eventually came as follows -
·         A political executive - whose members are elected and whose role is to set the policy agenda- that is develop a strategy (and make available the laws and resources) to deal with those issues which it feels need to be addressed
·         A freely elected legislative Assembly – whose role is to ensure (i) that the merits of new legislation and policies of the political Executive are critically and openly assessed; (ii) that the performance of government and civil servants is held to account; and (iii) that, by the way these roles are performed, the public develop confidence in the workings of the political system.
·         An independent Judiciary – which ensures that the rule of Law prevails, that is to say that no-one is able to feel above the law.
·         A free media; where journalists and people can express their opinions freely and without fear.
·         A professional impartial Civil Service – whose members have been appointed and promoted by virtue of their technical ability to ensure (i) that the political Executive receives the most competent policy advice; (ii) that the decisions of the executive (approved as necessary by Parliament) are effectively implemented ; and that (iii) public services are well-managed
·         The major institutions of Government - Ministries, Regional structures (Governor and regional offices of Ministries) and various types of Agencies. These bodies should be structured, staffed and managed in a purposeful manner
·         An independent system of local self-government – whose leaders are accountable through direct elections to the local population[1]. The staff may or may not be civil servants.
·         An active civil society – with a rich structure of voluntary associations – able to establish and operate without restriction. Politicians can ignore the general public for some time but, as the last ten years has shown, only for so long! The vitality of civil society – and of the media – creates (and withdraws) the legitimacy of political systems.
·         An independent university system – which encourages critical thinking

I did have the grace to admit that “such a democratic model is, of course, an “ideal-type” – a model which few (if any) countries actually match in all respects. A lot of what the global community preaches as “good practice” in government structures is actually of very recent vintage in their own countries and is still often more rhetoric than actual practice”.
But there was no doubt that I felt Britain was as close to the gold standard as it got. Gradually, however, my naivety was exposed. A year or so later, 
“Public appointments, for example, should be taken on merit – and not on the basis of ethnic or religious networks. But Belgium and Netherlands, to name but two European examples, have a formal structure of government based, until very recently, on religious and ethnic divisions[2]. In those cases a system which is otherwise rule-based and transparent has had minor adjustments made to take account of strong social realities and ensure consensus.
“But in the case of countries such as Northern Ireland (until very recently), the form and rhetoric of objective administration in the public good has been completely undermined by religious divisions. All public goods (eg housing and appointments) were made in favour of Protestants.“And the Italian system has for decades been notorious for the systemic abuse of the machinery of the state by various powerful groups – with eventually the Mafia itself clearly controlling some key parts of it[3]. American influence played a powerful part in this in the post-war period – but the collapse of communism removed that influence and allowed the Italians to have a serious attempt at reforming the system – until Berlusconi intervened”.

These are well-known cases – but the more we look, the more we find that countries which have long boasted of their fair and objective public administration systems have in fact suffered serious intrusions by sectional interests. The British and French indeed have invented words to describe the informal systems which has perverted the apparent neutrality of their public administration – “the old boy network”[4] and “pantouflage” of “ENArques”[5]. A decade later I had to amend my picture further 

In recent years, bankers have become a hated group. However, before the politicians could do any damage to their privileges and excesses, the British right-wing media was able to make an issue of some excessive financial claims made by numerous member of parliament (average 20k) and neuter what remaining power politicians had in that country. It was Harold MacMillan who suggested at a meeting of ex-Prime Ministers that the collective noun for a group of political leaders was a “lack of principles” (He also, interestingly, said that “we did not give up the divine right of kings to succumb to the divine right of experts”!).

The media scandal in Britain (finally) exposed the moral bankruptcy of the “tabloid” newspapers which struck fear into politicians and therefore reluctant to take actions which would offend newspaper moguls. A joke which beautifully illustrates the perversion of these papers has the Pope in a rowing boat with the leader of the miners’ union of the 1980s then in deep conflict with the government. The oars are lost and Scargill (the miners’ leader) gets out of the boat and walks across the water to retrieve the oars. The next day’s newspapers headlines are “Arthur Scargill can’t swim!”!! That scandal also brought police corruption into the frame in England.

So, in the course of 3-4 years, 4 core professions of the British Establishment (or Power Elite) have been demonised – bankers, politicians, media and police. Perhaps the most powerful professional group, however, has managed to stay out of the spotlight – but needs now to be “outed” and ousted from its privileged and corrupting position. And which group is that? They are the (corporate) lawyers. Britain and America have more lawyers than most of the countries of the globe put together – and they basically protect the amorality of corporations. And it is these people who then go to become judges - Craig Murray has written about the amorality of our judges. And those with any optimism remaining for the future of the planet will be disappointed to learn that the majority of graduates these days still want to go into either the finance or legal sectors. If our churches had any morality left they would be focusing on this – and discouraging our youngsters from such decisions.

So I offer you the 5 groups who are destroying our civilisation - investment bankers, politicians, corporate lawyers and judges, tabloid journalists and corrupt policemen. But what about the accountants/economists, academics and preachers??? Damn! There seem to be 8 horses of the apocalypse! Let me in conclusion, offer this quotation from mediaeval times -

Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other human beings - above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends 

[1] Encouraging a strong and free system of local self-government is perhaps the most difficult part of the transition process – since it means allowing forces of opposition to have a power base. But it is the way to develop public confidence in government! 
[2] Ie each of Belgium’s 3 Regions has a both an executive and a “community” structure – with the latter reflecting ethnic issues. Netherlands has long had its “Pillars” which ensured that the main religious forces had their say in nominations and decisions. This has now weakened.
[3] There is a voluminous literature on this – the most lively is Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily (Harvill Press 1996). For an update, read Berlusconi’s Shadow – crime, justice and the pursuit of power by David Lane (Penguin 2005)
[4] published critiques of the narrow circles from which business and political leaders were drawn started in the early 1960s – but only Margaret Thatcher’s rule of the 1980s really broke the power of this elite and created a meritocracy
[5] business, political and Civil service leaders have overwhelmingly passed through the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) and have moved easily from a top position in the Civil Service to political leadership to business leadership.

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