Fintan O'Toole: Trump and Brexit are the result when government stops helping people
Decades of deriding public service has led the UK and US into political anarchy
To understand why government in both the United States and the United Kingdom is in such an abysmal state consider the connection between two political utterances. One is very famous, because it brilliantly encapsulates an entire political philosophy in a single, easily grasped sentence. The other is an obscure but quite typical exercise in ministerial verbiage. But one is the offspring of the other, and between them they trace the path towards anarchy in the Anglo-American world.
The first utterance is one of the best-known lines delivered by that consummate performer Ronald Reagan as US president, in August 1986: “I think you all know that I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
It is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively
The second is the Conservative minister of state for housing and planning in the UK, Brandon Lewis, explaining in 2014 why he would not make sprinkler systems compulsory in high-rise housing developments: “It is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively.”
Reagan’s line was funny, folksy and supremely effective – all the qualities for which neoliberals continue to adore him. But it leads, among other places, to the blackened cage of Grenfell Tower that Ed Vulliamy memorably called, in the Observer, “the outrageous crematorium on the skyline” of west London.
Reagan’s quip captured the essence of the Anglo-American revolution that began in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK and gathered pace with his own election, the following year. Wrapped in his down-home charm was a knife to the heart of everyone who needed government to help by providing protection from rapacious exploitation and guaranteeing access to the fundamentals of human dignity: safety, housing, health, education, a living wage, an equal voice in a democracy.
It was a clever, insidious sneer at the very idea of public service: to be “here to help” is to be at best a well-meaning bungler. Government does not enable: it interferes. Regulation is redefined as molestation. Public service is a public nuisance. The freedom to live in squalor or to make money from those who do so is the ultimate value.
Markets are magically self-regulating mechanisms that fail only because they are interfered with by busybodies. Hence privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation
This ideology became the orthodoxy in the UK and the US, and it seeped into Irish politics too: for the generation of Leo Varadkar it defined their conservative faith. “Common sense” dictates that governments do as little as possible. Markets are magically self-regulating mechanisms that fail only because they are interfered with by busybodies. Hence privatisation, outsourcing, deregulation, tax cuts for the “wealth creators”, who must not be demoralised by having to share their wealth.
It corrupted language as it corrupted thought: ambitious bureaucrats and politicians learned that they could not go wrong if they put “market” and “industry” into every second sentence, however fatuous those sentences became.
So a government could not possibly require builders and landlords to install the sprinklers that would have saved most of the precious lives lost at Grenfell Tower. Protecting citizens from fire in their homes became “the fire industry”, and if the government did nothing to interfere with its workings this industry would find a way to “market” its products. Market to whom? Never mind that the only possible market for fire-sprinkler systems is the landlords and developers who would rather not spend the money – the word “market” is enough. Like a prayer, it does not have to make sense, because it opens a channel to holiness and virtue.
Never mind either that the neoliberal sneering at the idea of government being “here to help” was as hypocritical as a pious lecher. Right-wingers who venerate Reagan’s mockery don’t care to notice that in the very same speech he goes on to say that “America’s farmers should know that our commitment to helping them is unshakable”.
Government is ‘here to help’ when banks want to be bailed out with public money or when oligarchs need subsidies.
Tanks and bombs are always “here to help” when neoliberals decide that a foreign regime needs to be changed. Government is “here to help” when banks want to be bailed out with public money or when oligarchs need subsidies. Being here to help is only wrong when “here” is wherever ordinary citizens are struggling to make decent lives for themselves and their kids.
The sneering is no less effective for being so two-faced. Its acid has been corroding democracy in the anglophone world for decades. When government being “here to help” is a contemptible thing you end up with the grotesque reality that, even after a disaster, nobody from government really is there to help.
Theresa May’s inability to go and talk to survivors of Grenfell Tower was not just a personal failing: it was an embodiment of an idea of government that has been reduced to impotence.
If those who seek to govern express derision for government, if they consistently characterise regulation as red tape and action as interference, they destroy the basis of their own authority. Electorates take the hint and aim missiles – Trump, Brexit – at their own institutions: if government is not here to help, why not destroy it?
The right has played with the fire of anarchy, and now both the UK and the US are anarchic states, one in the grip of idiocy, the other of self-destructive fantasy.