Monday, 5 November 2012

Spartans versus the Death Star

I don't know why it should have lodged in my memory, but I recall Michael Gove, when he moonlighted on BBC2's Late Review in the mid-noughties, once saying that his film of the year was 300, the glossy interpretation of Frank Miller's bonkers comic book about Thermopylae. I initially thought this was something to do with Gove's public school fixation, an attraction to the heady mix of classical Greek, crypto-Fascism and well-oiled male bodies, but I now think it was more his appreciation of arguably the biggest theme in cinema these past 40 years, namely rebels against the empire. This memory was revived by the coincidence of the government's defeat on the EU budget last week, which was preceded by anti-EU noises from Gove, and George Lucas selling-up to Disney.

Star Wars arrived a year after the celebrations of the bicentennial of the US Declaration of Independence, so it was pretty obvious what the main rebels-vs-empire parallels were, though you'll still catch sight of the myth that Lucas was secretly referring to the Viet Cong and the US military in a sort of Buck Rogers meets Apocalypse Now mashup. Such an expansive and flexible trope allowed for many variations, the two main ones being the quest with a happy ending (the rebels defeat the empire), such as The Patriot and The Lord of the Rings, and the consolatory tragedy (the empire defeats the rebels but cannot crush their spirit), such as Braveheart and Gladiator. The attraction of this theme to the anti-government right is obvious, providing a ready-made identity for the Tea Party in the US. While they focus their ire on the federal government (the "evil empire" of the USSR is now but a nostalgic relic), their UK equivalents tend to ignore the centralising tendencies of Whitehall (though I note that Tolkein is now being cited in respect of the Orc-like menace of wind farms) and direct their contempt at the European Union.

Gove is reported to have said of the EU: "We have to tell them if they don’t return some of the important powers they have snaffled from us, we will leave". I love the use of the word "snaffled", which calls to mind the truffle-loving gourmands of Brussels. The foundation myth of the eurosceptics is that what began as a free-trade collaboration of equals (the Common Market) has morphed into the repressive Belgian empire. This transformation is being accomplished through creeping bureaucracy and excessive regulation, which is presented as simultaneously incompetent and malevolent. This explains the ideological importance of the euromyth (straight bananas as examples of eurocrat madness), the subsuming of pre-existing initiatives as "more EU meddling" (e.g. the conventions on human rights and extradition), and the legend that the EU now writes (and imposes) most of our laws.

The non-partisan House of Commons Library reported in 2010 that 7% of UK primary legislation (statutes) and 14% of secondary legislation originated with the EU. It also noted that the Government had estimated "that around 50% of UK legislation with a significant economic impact originates from EU legislation" (my italics). Given the focus of the EU on the single market, that should hardly be surprising, however the figure is routinely quoted as if it referred to all legislation. Most EU regulations are for the purpose of market harmonisation. This means that 27 different regulations are replaced by a common standard. From the perspective of the average citizen, this is a net-zero change, but from the perspective of a business operating in multiple EU states, it's a radical simplification. And that's the point. Most EU legislation is enacted for the benefit of business because the EU is fundamentally a neoliberal endeavour. The primacy of business can also be seen in social policies that focus on working time and parental rights - i.e. it's about creating a level-playing field for business operations in terms of personnel costs. The objective is only partly to establish minimum social standards. The real imperative is to avoid regulatory arbitrage between nation states.

The role of regulation for business was highlighted in Michael Heseltine's report, No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth, which was published last week. As a long-time europhile and champion of state intervention, Hezza took pleasure in advocating both a regional industrial strategy and the benefits of state regulation: "I reject the premise that regulation in itself hinders growth. Good, well-designed regulation can stop the abuse of market power and improve the way markets work". This is clearly directed at the fashionable nonsense regarding excessive business red tape, but it has an obvious relevance to the debate over the EU as well. Unfortunately, the high profile of Europe this past week has rather detracted from the bigger issue addressed by the report, which is the regional imbalance of the UK. Predictably, Heseltine has no real answers to this beyond reprising his previous PR-heavy approach to regeneration on Merseyside in the 1980s. This remains popular, but the reality is that the regions need more than elected mayors and superfast broadband.

Regional balance is, to a large degree, a zero-sum game. You cannot expect Liverpool or Leeds to thrive while London continues to suck in the lion's share of financial and human capital. Heseltine's fence-sitting on London's airport capacity (he merely urges the government to speed up a decision) is emblematic of a willingness to talk tough while avoiding tough decisions. This perhaps explains the warm response from David Cameron for a report that has been widely interpreted as decidedly plan B-ish. For all the Olympian thundering, it's the same old noblesse oblige - "something must be done", with no likelihood of anything beyond the palliative.

The cause of the rebels against the empire is the cause of the periphery against the centre, the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich. The neoliberal d├ętournement of this trope sees the City of London cast as the plucky Spartans to the EU's Persian Empire. The maintenance of the City's dominance and liberty, in respect of both domestic and EU financial regulation, remains the government's chief objective, and the reason for their flirtation with the threat of withdrawal. It also remains the key reason for the entrenched disadvantages of the regions and the imbalances in industrial strategy. The Death Star is a square mile in size.

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