Sending Off the Ref

The government’s disastrous new deregulation programme means that the poor will be fouled by the rich.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th July 2010

Twelve bookings and one dismissal: the World Cup final wasn’t pretty. Both sides argued with the referee, but no one was stupid enough to believe that the match would have been a fairer or a better one without him. Yet we have been asked to imagine that the outcome of the power struggle between corporations and the public would be fairer and better if there were no referee.

The referee is government. It is always biased and often bought, but in principle in a democratic society it exists to prevent us from being fouled. More precisely, it is supposed to prevent those who have agency – the rich and powerful – from planting their studs in the chests of those who don’t. When the government walks away from the game the rich can foul the poor with impunity. Deregulation is a transfer of power from the trodden to the treading. It is unsurprising that all conservative parties claim to hate big government.

This one has just lit its long-promised bonfire of regulations. The Conservatives claim that deregulation will save money and relieve business of unnecessary burdens. But the government’s new policies go far beyond simplifying a cumbersome bureaucracy.

Last week the health secretary Andrew Lansley sought to shift responsibility for improving diets and preventing obesity from the state to society. He blamed the problem on low self-esteem and deplored what he called “a witch hunt against saturated fats, salt and sugars”(1). In future poor diets would be countered by “social responsibility, not state regulation.” From now on, he announced, communities will be left to find their own solutions. The companies which make their money from selling junk food and alcohol will be put in charge of ensuring that people consume less of them. I hope you have spotted the problem.

This is care in the community for public health, whose outcomes will be similar to those of the previous Tory government’s care in the community for mental health. Volunteers have neither the power nor the motivation to fight slick, well-financed PR professionals working for big business.

Lansley would do well to read the analysis published by the Government Office for Science. “For an increasing number of people, weight gain is the inevitable – and largely involuntary – consequence of exposure to a modern lifestyle. This is not to dismiss personal responsibility altogether, but to highlight a reality: that the forces that drive obesity are, for many people, overwhelming.”(2) Advances in neurobiology, it argues, show that the hunger drive is far stronger than “satiety cues” (knowing we’ve eaten enough), and easily exploited by advances in taste technologies and presentation.

The same study points out that obesity rates are much higher among the poor than the rich; that they are likely to double between now and 2050(3), and that, by then, the problem will cost the NHS £10bn a year at today’s prices, and the economy £50bn. This was all before the food companies were let off the leash. So much for deregulation saving money.

Lansley’s assault on public health is just one skirmish in the Tories’ new war on regulation. The government has now set up a task force to deregulate the farming industry(4). Farming is the major cause of the loss of biodiversity in the UK. It is one of the two top causes of water pollution. It has the highest rates of death and injury of any industry in this country(5). Now the industry has been asked to police itself.

The chair of the task force is the former director general of the National Farmers’ Union. His deputy is a senior NFU official. The rest of the task force is composed of another farmer, three corporate executives, a county council official and … well this is where it gets interesting. The eighth member, the government tells us, is “a Nuffield Scholar who has been involved with developing an animal welfare scheme”(6). In reality he is yet another farmer, who supplies milk to Sainsbury’s. This selective citation suggests dishonesty on the part of Caroline Spelman’s food and farming department. The last member is the head of public affairs at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. This group purports to protect wildlife, but it runs fox snaring courses(7) and gives advice on setting spring traps to catch smaller predators(8). There is no one on the task force representing rural workers, and no one outside the industry seeking to defend the landscape or the wider environment, water quality or animal welfare.

Private Eye reveals this week that the government may scrap property developers’ obligations to provide social housing(9). This won’t save money or streamline the state, but it will allow developers to create enclaves for the rich and ghettos for the poor, ensuring that the UK becomes an even more divided society. The department for transport tells me that it will be discouraging local authorities from erecting speed cameras(10). The department’s own studies show that deaths and injuries are reduced by 42% where cameras are deployed(11). This, among more obvious benefits, saves the NHS and the emergency services a packet. Again the poor will be hurt most: pedestrians in the poorest areas are three times more likely to be killed or injured by cars than pedestrians in the richest areas(12). Drivers will instead be urged to regulate themselves: the department tells me that it wants councils to use “more publicity campaigns” instead.

As the economist Willem Buiter observed, “self-regulation is to regulation as self-importance is to importance.”(13) The financial crisis was caused by government expectations that the banks could police themselves. That provoked the state spending crisis, which the government is now using as an excuse to administer more of the poison which started it.

The difference in approach between this government and the last is quantitative. New Labour capitulated to the corporations across all the industries I have mentioned here, but it didn’t go as fast or as far. The Tories can carry off this coup partly because the opposition has squandered the moral authority required to fight it. Hearing Andy Burnham criticising Andrew Lansley for deregulating the health sector is a bit like watching the Dutch side going into conniptions about a Spanish foul: they might have been right, but by that stage in the game it wasn’t a credible protest.

So here’s what’s going to happen. The failure of big business to police itself will cause a series of crises: in public health, social provision, quality of life, the environment. The state will have to shell out billions to put them right. Eventually (think of BSE, the railways, tobacco advertising) the government will be forced to re-regulate, but not before large numbers of people have been hurt. In the meantime we’ll be instructed to pull our socks up and take responsibility for issues out of our control. It’s an age-old story from which governments learn the square root of nothing. It happens as predictably as a punch-up when the referee quits the pitch.


1. Andrew Lansley, 7th July 2010. A new approach to public health. Speech to the UK Faculty of Public Health Conference.

2. Government Office for Science, 2007. Tackling Obesities: Future Choices. Project Report, 2nd Edition.

3. It suggests that “By 2050, 60% of males and 50% of females could be obese … . The proportion of men having a healthy BMI (18.5–25kg/m2) declines from about 30% at present to less than 10% by 2050. Similarly, the proportion of women in this ‘healthy weight’ category drops from just over 40% to about 15% by 2050.”






9. Private Eye, 9th July 2010, page 3.

10. DfT press office, 9th July 2010.


12. DfT Road Casualty Statistics 2007.