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19 January 2018
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The siren call of ‘bring-backery’

There is a pernicious and increasing trend towards a belief that things were ‘better in the past’. This must be combatted if real progress can be achieved

From Brexit through to the election of Donald Trump, the rise of so-called populism around the world has a number of different drivers, but one that unites them: a feeling among certain sections of society that things were better ‘before’.

Before what, however, remains far from clear. But all the analysis of the Brexit vote has shown that the idea of an independent island that fought the dark powers of fascism across the sea – and against the odds came out victorious – played at least a part in some people’s thinking. The raft of films on that very subject over recent years shows that Hollywood has certainly tapped into that feeling.

This world view has also found its way into politics, as demonstrated by the success of Trump and his pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’, with its assumption that America used to be ‘great’, but has more recently been less so. Again, when exactly America was great – and indeed, when it stopped being great – is far from clear.

Former universities minister David (now Lord) Willetts had a term for all this nostalgia pervading into modern politics and shaping the policies of the future: bring-backery. For decades, wistfully looking towards the past for the ideas of the future never ventured from the fringes of politics, but today it has become much more mainstream.

Here in the UK, this week’s events have also provided a platform for this pernicious dogma to take hold. The collapse of Carillion, and its subsequent fallout, has been fallen upon with glee by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, which has used the event as a prime example of why it is so right to want to bring PFI contracts back in-house.

However, another incident this week has somewhat undermined Corbyn’s unwavering belief that everything is better in the public sector – although this appears to have flown much more under the radar in the current climate of attacking those nasty private sector profiteers.

For it has emerged this week that living conditions at Liverpool prison are among the worst that inspectors have ever encountered. Had this facility been run by Serco, G4S or the like, there would have been an even greater outcry from Corbyn and his team over the evils of private sector involvement in public services.

Awkwardly for the Labour leadership’s world view, though, Liverpool is run by the public sector.

What this shows is that the belief that public is always better may not always be the case. And while I’m not arguing that the private sector will in every case perform better than the public sector, taking a hard line approach on either side is surely missing out on the opportunity to find the best solution for each individual case.

Corbyn’s bring-backery has also been notable when it comes to the trains. But perhaps notably, his slogan has not been ‘Bring back British Rail’. Given that British Rail was often the punchline of jokes in the decades before privatisation, such a notion would probably be quite quickly dismissed. That should serve as a reminder that just because something happened in the past, there may actually be some good reasons why society stopped doing it that way.

So how do we move forward?

When it comes to the world of PFI, there is a growing acceptance around the world now that each project needs to be considered on its own merits – and not be based on an ideologically driven approach that only one method can provide value for money.

This is, at least, recognised by Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, who said in his statement to Parliament on the Carillion situation: “It is not a question of private-public, one good and the other bad; it is a question of seeking to drive forward the highest standards, whatever the form of provision.”

Making sure that those in government recognise this will be an important part of ensuring that the lessons of the past are learned and that the future approach is not simply a case of dogma, but is about deciding which approach can provide the best value and benefit.

 

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