From schools to health inspectors, the institutions that ensure our wellbeing are under unprecedented attack. This political poison harms us all, say the authors of the new book Dismembered.
Just as he reaches the end of his inspection, the environmental health officer spots the meat pies. A stack of them have tumbled on to a shelf on the floor of the storeroom, not in the chiller. A flicker of alarm crosses the transport cafe owner’s face. Pies are big on his menu. He sighs. “Well, it’s complicated,” and the story unfolds. The pies used to be made by so-and-so but the company owners split acrimoniously and it’s all a bit chaotic now.
“Ah, yes,” says the inspector. “I know this one.” He has the local background and, as he probes and prods, the cafe proprietor admits sheepishly that the pies arrive with a scrappy piece of paper, no official invoice, dubiously labelled “organic” with no list of contents, paid for in cash to an old chap called Gramps off the back of a lorry.
Here in Huntingdonshire, the number of environmental health officers has been cut by a third over the past five years. “But the number of food outlets grows, 1,300 on our patch, with a high churn in ownership,” says the chief officer.
These public servants are a quiet lot, meticulous, precise; just another workaday arm of the state that goes unnoticed. It’s the taken-for-granted state. If a waiter swears the chicken tikka masala contains no peanuts, we expect someone to have checked, as the wellbeing of those with severe allergies depends on it.
But austerity is sweeping all this away. Local knowledge and expertise dissipate. Who remembers, before new building starts, the location of contaminated land, industrial waste, disused gas works? Pest control is on the wane. There is no out-of-hours anti-noise service.
The fast-disappearing environmental health officer – in England, their numbers down by 25% over five years – is just one example of how the state is shrinking, its capacities dwindling and its fabric stretching thin. This is not just a regrettable deficit-reducing necessity, but a long-term political project to return us to a pre-second world war dominance of the private realm. And so far, that seems to have worked, with relatively little complaint from a public that has widely accepted the story of the exchequer’s “maxed-out credit card”. Opinion polls suggest a sense of resignation that has allowed the functions of the state to be dismembered, fragmented and degraded as deliberate policy.
Diminished trust in the public realm is part of the explanation for the Brexit vote. “Take back control” was a perverse slogan that cleverly captured a feeling of things falling apart. That is because the idea of the state has been systematically disrespected and derided as a concept to be regarded with suspicion. People may rely in their daily lives on myriad unseen state services, yet they are encouraged to despise the bureaucrats who keep everything running.
The shrinkage was no emergency operation to balance the books: it was the realisation of a 40-year rightwing project to downgrade, downsize and disparage the public realm. David Cameron and George Osborne committed to push the state down to 36% of GDP or less, for ever, and Philip Hammond repeated that target in the March budget. Current spending is now just under 38%, with the target of 36% to be reached in 2020. Getting there means a volume of public services greatly smaller than in equivalent European countries.