Silence of the Wolves

By refusing to engage with its critics, the government makes reason redundant.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 11th September 2001

This is a day like no other. For perhaps the first time since his election in 1997, Tony Blair will be forced to respond directly to our complaints. At the TUC conference he must defend the creeping privatisation of public services. For a prime minister who has managed to disregard most of the public criticism his government has attracted, it will be a traumatic experience.

Discussing an issue like this in public offends every principle of modern news management. Blair will speak only because there are millions of pounds of Labour Party contributions at stake. Otherwise, the government has learnt, the best means of dealing with your critics is to ignore them, in the hope that they will go away. It’s a policy which presents grave dangers to democracy.

The strategy has been, until now, especially effective when applied to the issue Tony Blair will confront today: the private finance initiative, or PFI. I must confess to a certain personal frustration here. A year ago, the first edition of my book Captive State was published. It showed, I think for the first time, that under PFI, hospital modernisation schemes are being rejected because they’re too cheap. Perfectly viable hospitals are being demolished and rebuilt elsewhere, solely because that’s more expensive, and hence more profitable for the private backers.

The only way the NHS can afford this is by cutting the numbers of both beds and staff: every £200 million spent under PFI will lead to the loss of 1,000 doctors and nurses. I showed that PFI has survived only because of institutional corruption at the heart of both the Department of Health and the Treasury.

These findings were, I fondly imagined, enough to bring down Alan Milburn, the secretary of state for health, and to cause Gordon Brown a few sleepless nights. With a certain trepidation, I waited for the backlash. And waited. The Guardian diary’s subsequent campaign to force Milburn to respond to the news that Britain’s first PFI hospital was falling apart even before it opened has also been tackled with silence. The government has discovered that the best means of deflecting unhelpful responses is not to spin them but to bin them.

This silence of the wolves leads inexorably to the silence of the lambs. For when ministers are not obliged to respond, neither are they obliged to understand.

In the Guardian yesterday, the foreign secretary Jack Straw suggested that anti-globalisation protesters “have no intellectual alternative beyond a return to isolation and autarky”. For years we’ve been putting forward exciting ideas for democratising the global economy: a world parliament, for example, an international clearing union, a reverse world trade agreement. Straw is unaware of these proposals only because, relieved of the need to respond, he has no need to listen. We are silenced by his refusal to engage us. This leads to the very dangers of which he warns: the government, lacking contact with intellectual alternatives, becomes isolationist and autarkic.

Perhaps the most alarming sign of this growing isolationism is the government’s ostracism even of its own expert advisers. Last week the Guardian revealed that the foot and mouth vaccination programme recommended by the chief vet and the chief scientist was vetoed by the head of the food processing firm Nestle. The company was worried that its exports of powdered milk to the developing world might be disrupted. The opposition of a foreign firm, seeking to sustain one of the most controversial of all corporate activities, appears to have cost Britain thousands of jobs and billions of pounds.

Now, I have discovered, Blair’s government has just done the same thing on behalf of the car manufacturers. Britain is obliged by the European Union to devise a labelling scheme, to show consumers whether or not the cars they buy are fuel-efficient. The government commissioned two of the country’s foremost research groups (Napier University’s transport research institute and Oxford’s environmental change institute) to work out how the scheme might best be run. The report they produced showed that the only fair and clear label would be one which allowed prospective customers to compare the car they fancied with competing models.

But before the researchers handed in their report, the government, prompted by the society of motor manufacturers and traders, launched its scheme. The new labels offer customers no means of telling whether one model has a greater or lesser impact on their wallets or the environment than its competitors. The result is that the industry can continue selling big, inefficient and very profitable cars.

The research groups imagined that the new labelling scheme might be changed in the light of their findings, not least because, on August 13th, the government launched a public consultation. What the consultation document failed to explain, however, was that there’s no point in responding: the legal instrument enforcing the motor manufacturers’ version has already been issued. The results of the consultation will, like the academic report, be binned before they’ve been read.

To ensure that ministries ignore public protest and listen only to the corporations, every decision a government department makes must now be reviewed by Mr Blair’s Regulatory Impact Unit, which determines whether or not it will adversely affect business. The unit employs 60 people. According to an insider, Blair himself rings round the ministries every fortnight or so, to make sure that they are doing as it instructs. Only three people, by comparison, are employed by the government to assess environmental impacts, and they are ignored by everyone.

The results of this political seclusion are everywhere apparent. Over the past two years, the Confederation of British Industry has achieved more political change than the rest of the electorate put together. CBI lobbying ensured that a government proposal which would have given people a right to return to part-time work after taking parental leave was scrapped. So was the obligation on employers to conduct equal pay audits, to make sure they aren’t discriminating against women, ethnic minorities or disabled workers. So was the plan to allow British companies to be prosecuted for certain criminal activities overseas. The pounds180 billion transport programme the CBI proposed has been adopted in its entirety. The lobby group has persuaded the government to curtail our rights to object to major developments. It has had supplementary business rates scrapped; it has secured massive new corporate tax credits. Every one of these victories for business represents a loss to the public realm.

By responding only to the corporations, the government has signalled that reasoned argument is now redundant. It forces us to become, in other words, the unreasonable people that Jack Straw claims we are. The public hand raised in objection becomes the public hand raised in attack. So if, at the end of this month, protesters seek to break into the Labour Party conference, to overturn the corporate stalls and disrupt the McDonalds reception, it won’t be because, as ministers will doubtless claim, they have no arguments, but because argument no longer works.

George Monbiot’s book Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain has just been published in paperback by Pan, at £7.99.