The Bonfire of the Red Tape: the Reckoning
It is a standard trope of neo-liberal, Brexit, and often Unionist ideology that all our ills require but a single solution: the bonfire of ‘red tape’. Britain is open for business, it is claimed in this seductive story; but business is drowning in red tape, and the solution is combustion: the bonfire of ‘red tape’, which releases innovation and allows free enterprise to prosper unencumbered by pettifogging rules. Allow me to provide an example of the term ‘red tape’s use from the wide neo-liberal press portfolio available to us, merely as illustration: “Today, the Telegraph calls on the Conservative Party to promise a bonfire of EU red tape in its 2020 manifesto to put Britain on a radically different course.” (Daily Telegraph website, 28th March, 2017: the article refers to ‘red tape’ four times). Such examples are not hard to find. The Daily Mail (Online, 20th March, 2012) simply headlined a piece “Red Tape UK”. The term is used no less than seven times in a single article; along with “blizzard of employment laws”; “bonfire of red tape”, and “tsunami of regulations” (accompanying a photograph of a businessman literally tied up in red tape); the metaphors form a cliche-sodden damp squib as soggy as the thought that inspired them. You catch the drift; unimaginative, repetitive, sweeping, unspecific, outraged and relentless. In this sadly ill-informed polity such crude techniques are often surprisingly effective. Its success relies on the fact that nobody ever checks the facts. There is no audit. Nobody disturbs the ashes. Memory in neo-liberalism is necessarily short term. Newspapers rely on everyone hastily moving on before they think about what precisely has been written, what is actually being claimed, or what it all really means.
If you wish to understand why there is any need for ‘red tape’, I can expedite that matter in two words: ‘drones’ and ‘Gatwick’. The causes of chaos at Gatwick airport, a consequence of drone activity, should not become lost in the detail of the event, but perceived as a general threat to public space and public safety by the virtually uncontrolled growth of drone use, and potential misuse (with numerous recorded near misses with aeroplanes in recent years), as a public regulation issue that was foreseeable and preventable. This is why we need regulation, standards, and proper enforcement. This is what the press shoddily reduces to ‘red tape’; a synonym for pointless bureaucracy that is a travesty of fair comment.
On the matter of ‘drones’, Lord Toby Harris has attacked the Government in the Upper Chamber of Parliament for its mishandling of the issue, and on Twitter he has written this: “There is technology tried and tested elsewhere in the world that can disable drones and bring them safely to the ground. UK Government has been slow to take action to address security threats from drones despite repeated warnings over last few years.” (Harris, Twitter 20th December). The Huffington Post has commented on the Gatwick fiasco: “The laws regulating drones simply haven’t kept up with the commercial popularity of the devices. Rob Hunter, Head of Flight Safety at the British Airline Pilots’ Association: It is clear, after the incident at Gatwick today, that there is still a long way to go to make airspace safe when it comes to drones. It is something that pilots have voiced their concern over for years. BALPA has called time and again for the Government, the regulators and airlines to take the issue seriously, before a fatal crash occurs.” (HuffPost, 20th December).
In the modern world all major logistics systems, whether goods or people, throughout the world, no longer have any ‘redundancy’ built in. It takes only minimal scale effort (the illicit use of drones near an airport for example), to paralyse a major transport hub, with a chain-reaction affecting large numbers of people and their lives. This is not fixed by meaningless bureaucracy, but by necessary modern regulation; standards, regulations, are far more important to our welfare, to our liberty, freedom and safety than a few trite tropes about ‘red tape’ by ill-informed politicians, or the special pleading of vested interests. The chaos at Gatwick has been said to be caused by Government ‘dragging its feet’, or through the laxness or complacency of Home Secretaries over the years; but more fundamentally it derives from the crude assumption that regulation is just ‘red tape’ and all red tape is bad, and bad for business. This goes to the root of the matter. The ‘red tape’ proposition is intellectually lazy, it is false, it fundamentally misunderstands the critical nature of regulation (whether in medicine or food safety, or in a laissez-faire attitude to drones). It also deeply misunderstands the critical nature of the intervention of government in innovation itself, and in encouraging the expansion of modern industries.
I shall not here attempt to explain the last point; of the close relationship between Government and innovation in modern, technical, growth industries because that would require a different, and much longer article; but for those who wish seriously to engage with and explore the real issues (understood well enough by the neo-liberal businessmen who have exploited the opportunities Government has presented in the past readily enough, but who are not prescient, or often interested in any future but their own, or wish the public to understand the facts): I recommend this book – Mariana Mazzucato, ‘The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public versus private sector myths’.
We can have the benefits of free enterprise and entrepreneurship without abandoning our capacity, through the agency of responsible Government to encourage innovation (often far more than the private sector is willing to risk), and ensure our well-being by avoiding the folly of a free-for-all led by simple greed – or worse.