As the debate over the economic crisis continues, public sector cuts are sharply in focus. The Conservatives have had the public sector in their sights for a while, but oddly David Cameron has decided to pick on one quango in particular, Ofcom, declaring that it will “cease to exist” as we know it under a Tory government.
In the Evening Standard Roy Greenslade argues that the Conservative leader has mistaken an overgrown and overreaching regulator for an absence of political leadership in media policy, while The Guardian’s Maggie Brown sympathises with Cameron and feels that the regulator has no business investigating (and criticising) pay-TV services such as Sky.
Northern Ireland also has too many quangos, but our First Minister cannot abolish them even if he wished to because our special status as a post-conflict zone requires us to have commissions galore to administer our collective recovery. The public sector in general is cause for great concern because for decades the policy seems to have been that the public sector should act as a job creation scheme, in the absence of growth in private business. This comfortable safety blanket is something that we still cling to, even after a decade of alleged peace and prosperity. There is the handy argument that the province will be shielded from the worst of the recession because so many in the population (32%) are employed in the public sector, but this misses the point.
Economies are about wealth creation, and public sector jobs do not create wealth. In fact, they do the opposite, in creating an ever-larger burden on the public purse for years to come because of sheltered salaries and pension agreements.
At least in Britain politicians are talking openly of cuts in public spending. This is something that has yet to be addressed at Stormont, but we should not be surprised. Our politicians seem to be genetically unable to digest the reality that cuts need to be considered and implemented, the sooner the better. A few weeks ago the reasonably diligent Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy, announced proposals to defer water charges for a further three years, a truly head-in-the-sand proposal if ever there was one.
Nobody wants to pay water charges, the same way as we would all rather not pay taxes. But somebody has to pay for it, and right now only two things are certain: Westminster can no longer afford it, or rather no longer feels it should have pay for it; and Stormont cannot afford it, at least under existing budget limits. The shyness for the economic actualité which exists in our political class should be cause alone for a public outcry.
Newton Emerson captured our little big problem perfectly in The Sunday Times at the weekend:
“As Britain and Ireland brace themselves for the first real spending cuts in a generation, Northern Ireland is still living in a fiscal fantasy world…The prospect of having to implement cuts fills Stormont’s provincial politicians with horror…The near-guarantee of permanent office should have emboldened those parties to take difficult steps. Instead, it has turned the normal political contest for power into an endless exercise in dodging blame, claiming credit or just cynically undermining supposedly collective decisions.”
This approach to our budget problems is attributable to our ongoing experiment in consociational government, stuck with an administration severely limited in its financial powers, with no effective or official opposition, where all parties are in it together, afeard to speak out (and that’s assuming anyone would want to) in case the whole thing topples over. Again.
The problem is that, like Scotland, we have become too used to a limitless flow of money from the Treasury that coming off this thirty-year high will be extremely difficult and extremely messy. But at least Holyrood has a bit more fiscal authority than we do, and can continue to fund free healthcare for the elderly and all the rest while dreaming of one day liberating their North Sea oil revenues from the Sassenachs.
Speaking of Scotland, remember Ewan McGregor coming off heroin in Trainspotting, screaming in his bed as that demonic baby crawled towards him across the ceiling?
Now imagine Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in bed (sorry Iris, just bear with me for a moment), screaming at each other in agony as Baby Osborne crawls closer and closer, waving his abacus furiously. Not a pretty thought, but that is just what it might come down to unless our elected representatives can kick the habit of a lifetime.