Around twenty years ago, when I served as Parliamentary aide to David Mellor, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he frequently lambasted the Opposition by reminding the Commons that “Dogs bark, cats miaow and Labour puts up taxes”. This was to happen increasingly from 2001, when Tony Blair surrendered domestic policy to Gordon Brown, and particularly from 2005 when Labour abandoned Conservative spending plans, the next decade proved how depressingly prescient Mellor had been.
Under Gordon Brown’s stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, government expenditure or “investment” as it was disingenuously dubbed – rocketed unsustainably taking up well over 50% of our entire Gross Domestic Product. By 2011, Britain had fallen to 89th of 139 countries in the World Economic Forum’s survey on burdens for business, and the Red Tape Challenge (much trumpeted as Labour’s solution to regulatory overload) was quietly abandoned. A decade long tsunami of European regulation, (comprising an estimated 100,000 pages), and the UK legislative gold plating that followed in its wake, had brought British economic growth to a near standstill.
Over the past five years, and despite in some areas being hobbled by its Lib Dem coalition partners, the Government has tried to reverse this, cutting the budget deficit in half and introducing the well meaning but ineffectual ‘One in, two out’ deregulation campaign.
Unfortunately, the problem is deeper rooted and more enervating than just economic. In 1791, Thomas Paine wrote that ‘Governments arise either out of the people or over the people’. For the next two centuries, Britain successfully evolved a system of government, efficient and powerful enough to fight two world wars and to satisfy the demands of a new Welfare State. That state was none the less characterised by individual liberty and an aversion to State interference rooted both in common law and, crucially, in good old fashioned British common sense.
Sadly that balance is now being eroded, a process which is accelerating and could be irreversible. Consider recent examples. A restaurant owner in Essex was reported to his local council and then warned by it for standing on a chair, rather than a ladder, to fix his Christmas lights on grounds of Health and Safety. Meanwhile, applications for much needed urban housing are burdened by up to 25 separate reports, (most unread but insisted upon by planning regulations) while housing starts to languish.
Over mighty regulators, like the Financial Conduct Authority in the credit sector, which set the rules for trading ‘fairly’, interpret them in practice and then enforce them without any effective means of appeal.
Speed cameras have burgeoned convicting those who may go above the speed limit, in order it seems to tax with no regard for improvements in road safety. And most recently the controversy over internet surveillance has again led to major concerns. The list is long and growing constantly.
Unconvinced? Then consider that barometer of regulation and legislative overload, the legal profession itself. In 1987 there were just 42,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales. By 2010, 118,000. Now, after 5 years of supposedly avid deregulation from our Coalition Government, there are a record 132,636.
Small wonder that the political class, and the legal and administrative acolytes who feed off their hyper activity, are seen as other worldly and self serving. No surprise too that support has leached from the ‘establishment’ political parties to UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.
Our traditional freedoms, bloody minded individualism and basic common sense are being constrained, confined and threatened by an overweening State and its client class of regulatory jobsworths. ‘All men would be tyrants if they could’ warned Daniel Defoe … and nobody is doing a damned thing about it.
*Anthony Coombs is Chairman of S&U Plc and was Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest from 1987 to 1997.