Freedom’s Prison

It’s not us the government intends to liberate. It’s the asset strippers, money launderers, property developers and oligarchs on whose behalf it operates.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 2nd February 2022

To adapt Ronald Reagan’s adage, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’ll set you free.” Every time this government says freedom, it means freedom for someone other than you.

Seeking to distract us from his own pursuit of freedom during lockdown, this week Boris Johnson announced what he calls a Brexit Freedoms Bill. Its purpose is to accelerate the removal of EU rules from our legislation, and to “cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses”.

This announcement happened to fall on the first day of the final stage of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, which will investigate the role of government. It will explore the long history of “cutting red tape” that is likely to have led to this disaster.

A timeline published by Inside Housing shows how the process began with Margaret Thatcher’s 1984 Building Act, which deregulated the industry and part-privatised building control. It continued with the decision by Tony Blair’s government to ignore the recommendations of a parliamentary committee, that all cladding should be “entirely non-combustible”. Later, in 2005, Blair’s government transferred responsibility for assessing fire risk from the fire service to building owners, a classic exercise in self-regulation. In the same year, it relaxed restrictions on the use of combustible insulation on tall buildings.

In 2011, David Cameron announced a programme to “cut red tape”. His government later boasted that, under this scheme, “businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from 6 hours to 45 minutes”. In 2012, his minister Eric Pickles repealed crucial fire safety measures in the London Building Act (1939). In the same year, Cameron announced that he would “kill off the health and safety culture for good”. No new regulation, he decreed, could be introduced unless two were removed. In 2014, the housing minister Brandon Lewis used this rule to justify rejecting the call by MPs to make sprinklers mandatory in tall buildings.

In 2016, Cameron’s rule was ramped up: three regulations would have to be removed for every one introduced. The Conservative MP leading a government review into “cutting red tape”, Oliver Letwin, toyed with the idea of scrapping building regulations altogether. On the morning of 14 June 2017, a panel working for Letwin’s review met to consider whether EU rules on the fire resistance of cladding materials should be dismantled. A document produced for the review described these rules as “red tape folly”. As the panel discussed the issue, Grenfell Tower burned, and 72 people were killed.

When politicians like Johnson, Cameron and Blair inveigh against “red tape”, as often as not they mean the public protections that permit a safe and decent life. These include the rules that prevent workers from being exploited and elderly people from being scammed. They include the rules that stop food manufacturers loading their products with sugar and fat, and prevent tower blocks from being incinerated. They include the rules that stop our rivers being turned into sewers and the air from poisoning our lungs.

Freedom for the builder is jeopardy for the residents. Freedom for the boss is exploitation for the worker. Freedom for the driver is death to the pedestrian. Freedom for the food business is sickness for the consumer. Freedom for the water company is rivers full of sewage. Freedom for the oil company is an uninhabitable planet.

Interestingly, the government press release announcing Johnson’s Brexit freedoms bill also celebrated “ending free movement”. Clearly, Brexit’s freedoms are not universal. In fact, the bill appears designed to circumvent democratic freedoms, using Henry VIII powers to cut regulations without parliamentary scrutiny. It also seems to have terminated some of the democratic freedoms of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as their governments were not consulted.

But this bill is the point of Brexit. The multimillionaires who funded the campaign to leave the European Union sought freedom from the decencies they owe to other people, freedom from the restraint that defines civic life. Our country has been torn apart in the civil war within capitalism: between the businesses seeking stability and predictability, and the asset-strippers and oligarchs who want to rip everything down and then sift the rubble for gold.

While the Conservatives attack public protections, genuine red tape – that is, pointless form-filling and officialdom – has boomed. A central feature of the neoliberal revolution that brought Boris Johnson to power is a proliferation of corporate and governmental bureaucracy: new barriers to obtaining public services, an impenetrable thicket of train franchises and test-and-trace companies, the life-consuming nightmare afflicting people stuck in unsellable flats clad in flammable materials, the paperwork in which importers and exporters are now drowning, the endless queues at Dover. As a paper in the journal Safety Science shows, deregulation causes chaos, and chaos causes bureaucratic overload. Far from liberating the nation from red tape, government assaults on public protection tie us up in knots.

It is not we who are being set free. It is a particular class of capitalists, who fund the Conservative party and protect the politicians who deliver for them, regardless of public disgust. I’m talking about the property developers, money launderers, suppliers of dodgy PPE, newspaper proprietors and the other wealthy ghouls who have formed a square around the prime minister. Freedom for them is misery for us.