Futures Forum: Brexit: and a bonfire of EU red tape
But this is being drowned out by other, louder cries:
‘Deadlier than terrorism’ – the right’s fatal obsession with red tapeFrom deaths caused by the financial crash to unsafe buildings such as Grenfell Tower, an ideological commitment to deregulation costs lives. So how did the idea that we are being ‘strangled’ by petty rules become so pervasive?
veryone loves to hate “red tape”. The EU rules and regulations that supposedly restrict Britain’s freedom were the primary theme of the non-racist wing of the leave campaign during the referendum. Brexit, we continue to be told by its champions, is a golden opportunity to make a “bonfire of red tape”. Red tape supposedly hurts everything from small businesses to individuals’ job prospects and the grand projects of visionary governments. There has been a concerted campaign against it for decades. But how bad is it really?
Such questions have been lent new urgency in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. The Daily Express, with spectacular perversity, suggested that EU energy-saving regulations were to blame for the installation of the cladding to the outside of the building. In fact, regulations on building materials and fire safety are a matter for national governments. (The chancellor, Philip Hammond, suggested last weekend that the flammable cladding used might be illegal in the UK, as it is in other countries such as the US and Germany.) But what is known, as George Monbiot points out, is that in 2014 the government rejected the idea of obliging construction companies to install sprinkler systems in new buildings – as part of its commitment, it explained, to a “one in, two out rule for regulation”. It is surely just a coincidence that, according to Property Week magazine, the Conservative party received more than £1m in donations from property and construction companies in the year to the 2015 election.
That “one in, two out rule” was part of the tape-burning zeal of the last Tory government, summed up most piquantly by the 2011 Red Tape Challengeinvented by former David Cameron adviser Steve Hilton, wherein a mass of citizen “armchair auditors” was supposed to help identify bad regulations. He and the rest of the “new Tory right” dreamed of transforming Britain into a Singapore-style paradise of minimally regulated offshore swashbuckling. In 2013, Cameron himself stood in front of a banner exhortation to “Cut EU red tape”, so he could hardly complain three years later when such arguments were deployed mercilessly against him in the referendum.
The phrase “red tape” originally referred to the actual red ribbon used to bind official documents in the UK and Europe from the 16th century onwards, and then became a metaphor for the lethargy and pettifogging of government bureaucracy. In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, the hero explains how he once worked as a parliamentary reporter: “Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape.” This general sense of red tape as the dullness of endless discussion and paperwork survives to this day in the satirical Ladybird Book of Red Tape, which is primarily about the horrors of office life.
But red tape is also used to mean the regulation of companies, which may lead to unhelpful confusion. “Red tape is indeed used as a catch-all phrase in a sometimes unthinking manner,” agrees Gillian Tett, the financial anthropologist and author of The Silo Effect. To parse the differences accurately, she suggests, you would need to come up with new language, or maybe contrast “red tape” with “white tape” . But perhaps simply the more neutral “regulation” would do for now. Red tape, by contrast, is tying our hands, or is sometimes visualised as literally strangling us: so, the language activates a frame of personal restriction versus liberty, and then illegitimately projects it on to a far more complex subject. (The Telegraph, for example, recently got rather feverishly S&M: “Cut the EU red tape choking Britain after Brexit to set the country free from the shackles of Brussels”.)
The phrase’s conflation of very different things begins to look like a deliberate rhetorical subterfuge. Bureaucratic pedantry and the form-filling hoops that citizens have to jump through to do simple things are an age-old source of justified complaint. But red tape also means regulations that protect citizens, at a certain cost to companies that otherwise have little incentive to sacrifice some profit to mitigate risk. It is because of red tape that you cannot buy a flammable sofa, and that you are very unlikely to die in an air crash.
Much red tape, indeed, is the frozen memory of past disaster. Modern regulatory regimes as a whole came into being in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of public outrage at the dangerous practices of unrestrained industry. In February 1906, Upton Sinclair published his novelistic exposé of the American meat business, The Jungle. In June of the same year, Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act, which created the US Food and Drug Administration.
“I would not want to claim all regulation is perfect,” says Tony Yates, professor of economics at the University of Birmingham, “but the positive case for it often does not get a hearing. Sometimes, as with food safety, health and safety, and fire regulations, they are there as a way of solving a problem of information-collection – how safe is this thing I’m going to do or buy? – that some may be ill-equipped to do themselves, or it may be inefficient for them to have to do. We can all avoid being food safety experts if the state does it for us. At other times they avoid what economists call an externality – so fire safety regulations are partly there because the cost of one builder deciding to cut corners is borne not just by them but by all around.”
Nor is safety-conscious red tape purely the result of meddling by a nanny state. Daniel Davies, a financial analyst and co-author of The Secret Life of Money: Everyday Economics Explained, observes: “In terms of accident prevention, it’s interesting that we appear to have developed an entire secondary and privatised regulatory system, run by insurance companies. A very huge proportion of the things people disparage as ‘health and safety’ are in fact conditions placed on events and institutions by the underwriters of their public liability insurance. Safety regulations are nearly always minor commemorations of some disaster or other, and even if the public memory fades and the rulebook is changed, the past disasters don’t ever disappear from the actuarial record.”
It is quite remarkable, when you think about it, that the very phrase “health and safety” has become a joke, since health and safety are usually considered rather desirable. The idea has become an unreal bogeyman in just the way that red tape and also political correctness have. In each case a few plausibly absurd examples (whether true, exaggerated or just made up) are dishonestly presented as representative of the vast majority. The locus classicus in the case of EU regulation is, of course, the banned bendy banana and other falsehoods promulgated in his early career of imaginative journalism by the present foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. He and other fantasists have also claimed, for example, that we are now “forced” to use lower-powered vacuum cleaners owing to a 2014 ruling on energy efficiency. In fact the industry backed the new rules and the UK government supported them. But the anti-red tape fanatic is nothing if not a slick post-truth operative. The point is to create a general atmosphere in which any and all regulation seems absurd.
No regulatory regime is perfect. Regulations can grow into a thickety network of ad-hoc rules, of which periodic pruning and rationalisation is a good idea. Also, Davies points out, “the processes of the regulators” can be onerous even if the rules are beneficial. Some regulations themselves, too, can look like “random pointless hobby-horses of the regulators”. (Davies cites the ban on selling Swedish chewing tobacco outside that country while cigarettes remain available everywhere.) Others are “basically disguised restraints of trade”, such as those that protected incumbents in the trucking and aviation industries in the 1970s, and which became targets for the modern wave of “deregulation” (or, as some prefer to term it, re-regulation in lobbyists’ interests) promoted and expanded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
“In the early days, it looked like there were some big economic wins from getting rid of them,” Davies says. And in order to get political backing for continued deregulation, it seemed useful to “massively exaggerate the just silly or obviously anticompetitive”.
This generates its own momentum. “Once you have built up the political movement and got deregulation and red tape ingrained as a vote winner,” Davies adds, “you need to keep doing it.” But the obvious candidates for removal quickly run out. So then it is tempting to start attacking those that actually protect the public, whether physically or financially. The latter are aimed at “stopping businesses from chucking part of their costs on to the public or the taxpayer”. Removing such regulations was a big win for banking in the 1980s and 90s. “The financial sector was huge in this,” Davies says. “The basic rhetorical form was to assert that highly paid and high-calibre banks knew how to run their own businesses better than speccy civil servants, thank you very much, and that all these capital requirements and conduct rules were just things that had been dreamed up in a backroom somewhere by someone with no real understanding of the business.”
That basic rhetorical form led, eventually, to the global crash. And what is less visible than outbreaks of poisoning or accidents, but just as real, is the fact that such rhetoric can be fatal. The crisis that resulted from deregulated casino banking led to at least 10,000 “economic suicides” in the years that followed, according to a 2014 paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Add to the death toll of the financial crisis and those who die in unsafe buildings the scores of thousands who die yearly from pollution and extreme weather events attributed to global warming, owing to the under-regulation of energy industries, and one thing becomes very clear. An ideological commitment to destroying regulation kills many more people than terrorism, around the world and all the time.
The difference is that such fatalities are usually invisible, unlike those in the Grenfell fire. The vast majority of deaths caused by deregulation are silent and stealthy. But so, contrarily, are the life-saving virtues of good regulation: when it succeeds, nothing obvious or mediagenic happens; it’s just that fewer people die, or get sick, or become permanently disabled, which doesn’t tend to make the headlines. And so it is easier to forget that an uncompromising hatred of red tape in all its forms is one of the most dangerous ideas in modern western civilisation.
‘Deadlier than terrorism’ – the right’s fatal obsession with red tape | Politics | The Guardian
The letters pages follow up the same themes:
Health and safety is no laughing matter | Letters | Law | The Guardian
Guardian letters on regulation, health and safety and austerity | East Devon Watch