Sod the Overton Window

First, if you were wondering why the blogging has been light, a short recap…

After thirty months in Downing Street, I left with the rest of the May administration, having advised on pretty much everything economic beneath the level of the Pound. (The Pound I left to Douglas, who is still in post –  so blame him for your thinning holiday wallet.) 

It was thirty months more than I had any right to expect.  

I had been a spad before, but a LibDem reporting to Vince Cable, and had quit in 2014 to write leaders for the FT. I saw out the 2015 election at ITV, waiting six miserable hours for Owen, Isabel and Fraser to do their bit before they let me comment dolefully on Vince’s ejection from Twickenham. TV media is brutal in its focus on the relevant, and I wasn’t. Within minutes of the exit poll, the only question left for LibDems was whether Paddy Ashdown would indeed eat his hat. The party that had hired me crept under the ten seat mark, and my prospects of being a spad again evaporated with every loss. 

When the May administration formed, I saw much to approve of: fiscal loosening, industrial strategy, even an outward concern for the less well-off. I preferred her to Cameron and Osborne, and even predicted her victory, three months early.  But I had no reason to expect this approval to be reciprocated. We appeared to face Brexity Tory rule into the distant future, and I was no Tory.  And while I never got to write editorials about Brexit, they would have taken the FT’s europhile line, but ruder. (Lex columns made my views clear, amidst charts and overuse of the word ‘ebidta’.)

The miracle/scandal of how the LibDem author of a few hundred Brexit-sceptic tweets was hired into the “Brexit means Brexit” Downing Street deserves a post of its own. But not now. 

To the present. 

Most spads, once dragged back into the light, have an urge to tell the world how things really are. I am no different. This was a hugely important job. Nothing a wonk might do comes close to the impact of being a spad. And I found the government a deeply weird place to work, the rules of the civil service like nothing else, the politicians’ feet of clay going right up to their armpits. Power and absurdity are inseparable, above all in the mismatch between the weighty matters decided and the arbitrary humans doing the deciding. The absurdity of spads deserves its own chapter.

So I would love to find a way to write about it all.  But my problem is a rather obvious one. Most of the stuff of government is of a rather small sort, and it is only through its steady accumulation that the importance emerges.  The days usually pass wrangling tiny sums of money, on the wording of Cabinet write rounds, or in meetings about powerpoints to guide other meetings about other powerpoints. Most days, it’s not Paine vs Burke or capital versus labour. When the phone is slammed down it is more likely to be about getting a policy note past an uppity private secretary, a minister bribed into signing off an appointment, or whether Barchester can declare its own Net Zero target. All important enough within a niche, but the niches are pretty small.   You beaver away, fuelled by the righteous delusion that a zillion accumulated actions will end up making things better. 

I’d still love to write about it – the actual stuff of government, the whole reason for all the politicking, is still an underwritten topic. But at this very moment, the Big Thing is overshadowing all.  Tiny steps forward, obliterated by one giant leap back. Whatever happens with No Deal swamps every policy I ever worked across. What is the point of sharpening the competition regime, when you’ve severed and cauterised ties with European competition? How can we cant on about the Future of Mobility when the automotive supply chains are being shattered? Good luck attracting billions into new energy investment with the pound pogoing off $1.05. It would not matter if we nailed those zillions of tiny actions, No Deal would wipe it away. There is no Industrial Strategy available to Britain that makes up for an 8 percent GDP loss. 

I was never involved in Brexit policy; maybe this is why I am still so easily shockable. Proximity has not dissolved my bafflement.  Three years ago, had you accused any of Brexit’s champions of willing No Deal, they would have accused you of a grotesque distortion of euroscepticism. Stop fear-mongering! All we want is an escape from political union, economic closeness, a Brexit smooth as melted butter, don’t be so melodramatic …. Now having watched in horror as the government almost stumbled out in March, I cannot find words for one that would eagerly pursue such a failure as a conscious policy.  

No Deal is failure. So what if the Overton Window has shifted? Sod the Overton Window. Constant repetition of the phrase should do nothing to diminish the catastrophe. Far too much political energy is spent conning people into swallowing the unacceptable. We have squadrons of advisers expert in putting a gloss on policy, far too few interested in what the policy really should be. They found a way of pretending three more years of steepening public sector austerity was fine (“It’s just one percent a year”). It wasn’t. They managed to kid us that losing our seat in Brussels gives us more control. It doesn’t. Now they think they can work the same magic with No Deal (“it’s Clean! It’s the WTO! GATT XXIV something something!”).  

For a developed country to attempt this is extraordinary.  I cannot think of any historical analogy to do it justice. Fighting my jet lag, I am reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the rat’s nest of pre WWI Great Power entanglements. That time was full of its clowns and rogues, but at least you could say  “well this was damned complicated”. This time it really isn’t. 

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

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