Technocratic, unelected governments are the ideal

 

The inheritors of Reagan and Thatcher have prevailed; our salvation is to be won by entrepreneurs

FOR IRELAND, 2011 was an anti-climax. Sovereignty had been ceded at the end of the previous year, the incumbent government was combusting internally and the imminent election outcome was predetermined.

The lines of official policy were not just set in stone by the “Memorandum of Understanding”, they were preconditioned anyway by that new political culture that had become embedded in the Irish political psyche: the nurturing of the “tall poppies” at the expense of the forgotten “forget-me-nots”.

Only pedantically was the February election an upheaval – the usual pre-election promise extravaganzas, followed by the usual post-elections denials, prevarications and lies. The old, worn adage: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, amid the familiar promises of a new politics.

There was a brief expectation towards the end of 2008 that the crisis was an opportunity for radical change – change in our institutions, change in our politics, change in the political culture.

That expectation is gone. There will be no change that matters to our institutional structures and there will be no change to the political culture, for yet another generation at least.

The inheritors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have prevailed; our salvation is to be won by entrepreneurs, the wealth and job creators, who have to be mollycoddled by tax exemptions, huge salaries, preferential healthcare, easy access to the centres of power, media control and status.

For their encouragement there has to be more “flexible” labour markets – ie lower wages and more insecure tenures of employment for the masses – weaker social protections, so as to lessen the “burden” of “taxpayers”. And accompanying all that a language that fortifies the culture of laissez-faire.

Isn’t it remarkable how easily we buy into the lingo that underpins a culture that is so pernicious to so many?

For instance, the mechanism society uses to correct the clear injustices of how markets distribute income and wealth, ie taxation, is casually and ubiquitously referred to as a “burden”. And those whose incomes are thereby corrected are referred to almost as victims, “taxpayers”?

And as for a change in our institutions and our politics, no hope. The single most crucial change in our political structures is the simple one to make government accountable.

This can’t happen unless the Government’s control over the institution to which it is supposedly accountable – ie parliament – is ended. And this cannot happen because Government controls parliament and can ensure this will not happen.

There are rumblings of discontent among left-of-centre commentators about the technocratic unelected governments imposed on Greece and Italy. Certainly how these changes came about is disquieting. But I have come to believe technocratic, unelected governments are the ideal. My reasons for so believing are these.

Politics here now is about which side gets office, which gets the plum ministerial jobs, the cars, the other perks, the status, the sense of importance.

It is hardly at all about what changes we need to make in society; how to create a happier and more contented society or even a more dynamic society. Yes, these issues do get talked about, but, as we have seen, this makes no difference when the office-holders change. Faces change, policies don’t.

If parliament was where policies were decided and a technocratic executive arm were directed to execute those policies and be held entirely accountable for doing that, then we might have democratic politics and accountable politics.

But it won’t happen. The big jobs will survive and there will be no accountability and, in the meantime, there will be lots of chat about quite meaningless political reform.

Garret FitzGerald was open to such changes and his passing was one of the unhappiest moments of 2011. Most of us will have other unhappy memories of the passing of those close to us.

One of the people I have most admired in my life passed away also in 2011: Declan Costello, author of the Just Societydocument for Fine Gael in 1964, which spoke of making a reality of two concepts: liberty and equality. I don’t think anybody else in Fine Gael, including Garret, actually believed the purpose of politics was to make a reality of equality or substantive equality – equality of outcomes – as did Declan.

The death of Gerald Barry in March, formerly presenter of the This Week programme on RTÉ radio, was a deeply unhappy time for those of us who worked with him and were close to him and who so admired his intelligence, his insights and his gentle disposition.

Another friend, Michael Nee, formerly of Athlone and later a dentist in London, died suddenly in April. His disposition was not always gentle but he had a humour, outrageousness and zest which were enchanting, at times.

And 2011 also brought the death of Bridie Daly of Loughegish, Co Monaghan, a close relative and friend throughout my life, who was resilient, effervescent and so very able.

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