Well, I wrote a little while back about the DUP’s economic policy in the light of the global financial crisis, and this opens up a line of thought. How’s an entrepreneurial party like the DUP (with its estate agent leader) going to function in an economy which is taken up by the public sector to the tune of 63%?
DUP economic policy, for rather a long time, has been defined by two things. Firstly, the staunch defence of farming subsidies, as exemplified by Papa Doc’s long sojourn in Strasbourg. Secondly, the policy pioneered by Robbo on Castlereagh council, which was to keep rates low by providing as few public services as you could get away with. Of course, it also helped to have a few money-spinning assets around like the Dundonald Ice Bowl or the modestly named Robinson Centre, which is perhaps why other DUP-run councils like, say, Ards haven’t been quite so successful in following the Castlereagh model.
Then the public sector’s disproportionate share of the labour force, which dates back to the British “bread and leisure centres” policy during the Troubles. One side of this was the building of a succession of leisure centres, on the theory that giving the kids something to do would stop them rioting. Au contraire, they pumped iron by day and rioted by night. The other component was a massive expansion of public sector employment for the unskilled, with the clerical side in particular providing massive social employment for the hitherto underemployed sector of Catholic women.
There has been quite a bit of discourse for a while now, from academics, from some politicians and from media pundits, about the need to slim down public sector employment. There’s anecdotal support for that from the expansion of the retail and services sector. At the start of the peace process Belfast had no Tescos, now you can’t move for them. Nor had you Asda or Sainsbury’s or Starbucks or Costa Coffee. There was, I think, one McDonald’s. Lidl hadn’t yet begun its takeover of the working-class wallet. The opening of the Virgin Megastore was a huge event. Tanning and waxing salons were unheard of – the spit-and-sawdust barber still ruled the roost. And that’s before you get into the upper end of the market as exemplified by the new Victoria Square development.
The trouble is, as I keep saying, your retail sector depends very much on the public sector pay packet. And actually, there has been a downward pressure on headcount in the public sector proper – the civil service, the NHS, schools and other state bodies – but that’s been achieved via natural wastage and pensioning off the chronically sick rather than slash-and-burn tactics. As you would expect, bearing in mind that Robbo has to marry his Thatcherite instincts with the fact that public sector workers have votes, and there are an awful lot of public sector jobs in East Belfast. So a soft landing is called for.
The real expansion has been in the grantocracy, but it seems to be impervious to market forces due to the demands of the peace process. Any weeding out there would involve a lot of Provos and loyalists losing comfortable if not exactly lucrative positions heading up funded community schemes. The peace process requires that these guys be kept very much on the payroll. (There’s even a little spin-off for the left, as the Socialist ‘Workers’ Party is now deeply ensconced in the community sector, although one presumes the two governments didn’t plan for that.) Moreover, if it was up to the local parties the community sector would be expanded even more, and you can just imagine the howls of outrage from Stormont if there were any serious proposal to take a hatchet to it.
Then you come to the other aspect, which is Stormont’s unwillingness to pay its way. On the water charges issue, Conor Murphy has argued that the Brits left the water service in a shocking state – which is true – and therefore they should pony up for any modernisation of the infrastructure. On the civil service equal pay claim, Nigel Dodds argues the Brits allowed the unequal pay structures to develop – which is true – and therefore they should foot the bill. So, every time something needs paid for, the Executive goes cap in hand to Westminster to ask for the money.
This is where I feel a bit sorry for Alex Salmond. Alex, a banking economist by profession, has spent much of the crisis complaining that if Gordon Brown, a history lecturer by profession, had bothered to listen to him, a lot of trouble could have been avoided. This sounds plausible to me, more plausible at least than the Daily Mail hailing Gordon as an economic genius. But when Alex asked for a billion-pound stimulus package for the Scottish economy, New Labour told the Scotchies to fuck off.
This probably had a lot to do with party politics, but on the other hand, the small size of our economy might work in our favour. Nigel Dodds can go to El Gordo, put on the poor mouth, and ask for fifty mill here or a hundred mill there. Since this is small change for the imperial government, it probably seems a small price to pay to keep us quiet and keep the peace process on track.
I suppose it’s a bit like Gibraltar, where Westminster basically pays the inhabitants to stay contentedly British. And you know, it might even work. But that’s entrepreneurialism out the window.