More ramblings about the Forestry Commission sell-off I'm afraid. What has intrigued me about this new policy (one incidentally not in either the Lib Dem or Tory manifesto) is the absolutely half-arsed way the government have gone about trying to defend it. Any attempt to paint it as a fiscally driven initiative ceased rapidly- the sell-off will make little money. It has become rapidly clear that it’s an ideologically driven policy, a classical liberal/libertarian abhorrence of any involvement of the state in an area where the ‘market’ could apparently make a better job. Caroline Spelman has flagged up the tension between the FCs role as regulator of the British forestry industry, as well as a major commercial contractor, yet never satisfactorily explains why this should require the selling off the forestry estates rather than simply setting up an independent regulator (Off Plank?)
This issue is important, for several reasons. First, of course, our forests are important cultural and natural resources and not simply financial seams to be mined. However, it is also a lens through which we can better understand the problems with the condem ‘big society’ agenda and its promotion of free market alternatives to all forms of state activity. In theory, the ‘big society’ is a wonderful notion, right up there with motherhood and apple pie, but it’s stymied by the friction of reality. Of course, people should get involved with their communities and take responsibility for things. However, just because people get involved in making decisions, does not mean that there are the resources to make these decisions actually happen. If the government really wants to see the ‘big society’ happening, we would be seeing them investing in funding schemes aimed directly at the voluntary sector, we would be seeing initiatives to provide community groups with training in employment law, health and safety, and writing business plans. If they were serious, we would see them ring fencing local government funding for voluntary groups. If they really wanted this to work, we should see increased funding to bodies like English Heritage and the Citizens Advice Bureaux. We would see them working with insurance companies to provide subsidised insurance for community events. Instead, it is precisely these kind of funding streams that are being cut at every turn – it is not surprising that Liverpool has withdrawn from being one of the pilot areas in the ‘big society’ project, citing lack of funding as one of the key obstacles. Support the ‘big society’ by all means, but don’t expect it to also save money. Let Cameron support choice, but let’s see him stump up the cash to pay for the decision-making process and to fund the choices once they have been made.
We also see with the woodlands sell-off the weakness of the market. Whilst for the Tory’s the freeing of the market is the ultimate panacea to all our woes, by saying that they will embed safeguards regarding conservation and public access in the long-term forestry leases, they are explicitly acknowledging that a completely free market won’t meet these needs without an element of compulsion. If the free market is so perfect why do we need child labour laws and health and safety legislation? Why do we need OFWAT, OFCOM and the Office of Free Trade? Commission, the Office of Fair Trade, OFWAT and OFCOM? Why do banks need bailing out? Because, simply, the results of a truly free market leads inevitably to a lot of sheer bloody misery for a lot of people and huge financial rewards for a minority. One only has to look at the periods in British history when the market was probably at its freest, the mid-19th century, to also see a period where child labour was at its highest, pollution was at its worst and the most industrial deaths and injuries occurred. We could equally turn to areas of the developing world today, where existing legislation over sweatshops are often not enforced, to see the incredibly poor conditions endured by workers. The free market may be the best way of making money, but, banally obvious as it may seem, there is more to life than money. The frustrating thing is that the government clearly realise this themselves. If they really wanted to follow the small state theory to its obvious conclusions, then they should seek to remove all immigration control and abolish the army and replace it with contracts with commercial security firms such as Blackwater. Of course, they won’t, because they too recognise that there are limits to the efficacy of the market,and by following its inexorable logic leads to socially unacceptable conclusions . However, rather then entering into a real debate about where the limits of the state are and how to recognise them, they blithely assert that the state is bad thing and the market a good thing without ever exploring why.
If ever I feel a need to get really angry and shout at things, there is nothing like a brief listen to Radio 4’s Any Questions to get me suitably splenetic. Only caught a couple of minutes this evening, but that was enough to leave me in a foul mood. Its worth listening to the odious (and looking at his blog, deeply self-pitying) James Delingpole purely for the opportunity to throw heavy objects at your radio.