Part one in this series covered the regulation of the press, broadcasting, charities and water and can be viewed here. Part two will look at the regulatory bodies overseeing education, banking and the judiciary.
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) has, for those under its thumb, long been a blunt instrument with which governments browbeat teachers whose aspirations for their students dare to venture beyond strict domain box ticking. The gradual but inexorable erosion of the creative subjects over years has stemmed what might have been viewed as hotbeds of nonconformity and progressive thought.
Following the 2010 election the new Education Secretary Michael Gove replaced an art and design curriculum that embedded critical evaluation and cross-cultural understanding into schemes of work with one which confined historical appreciation to the UK’s national heritage. It was this parochialism which helped inculcate the Brexit mindset.
The continued erosion of subjects which promote divergent rather than convergent thinking, those whose open-ended conclusions require critical evaluation, is straight out of the totalitarian playbook. Culture wars are not effective if people think for themselves.
Jewish American writer Hannah Arendt’s assertion in her 1951 The origins of Totalitarianism echo through the ages (p416):
“Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition. The consistent persecution of every higher form of intellectual activity by the new mass leaders springs from more than their natural resentment against everything they cannot understand. […] Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
Since the introduction in the UK of the Education Inspection Framework of 2019, the government, through its surrogate Ofsted, has given up hiding its ideological mission to rid the schools’ curriculum of intellectual participation in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. This shift has been the result of decades of pressure from the agents of libertarian groups in 55 Tufton street. Indeed, Gove attempted to have climate change removed from the geography curriculum following lobbying by arch climate denialists, the GWPF.
In his thesis, Analysing neoliberal discourse in Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework (EIF) through a Foucauldian lens, Zahid Naz lays bare the ideological and self-serving intentions of the think tanks driving education policy. He notes that, according to the government’s Educational Inspection Framework (EIF), the purpose of schools should be:
“To manufacture, on a large scale, compliant and skilled workers as opposed to exploring students’ emancipatory, political and aesthetic potential. […] Policies are designed to promote an increasingly marketised conception of the sector, targeted towards producing a skilled workforce rather than developing the critical thinking that enables students to make political judgements utilising the moral principles of a democratic society.”
Following the market crash of 2008, governments around the world put in place statutory regulations with the intention of preventing the recklessness of greedy bankers and their share-holders ever again acting against the interests of the electorate.
In the UK the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) was set up in 2013 to work with the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Policy Committee to set regulatory requirements for the financial sector.
But that same pre-2008 greed is once again fuelling the regulatory bonfire that is the 2023 Financial Services and Markets Act, the provisions of which undermine market integrity and stability, and force financial regulators to actively promote “competitiveness” in the financial sector creating the same recipe for excessive risk-taking that tanked the economy in 2008.
It will essentially enable market manipulation, insider trading, reckless borrowing, and price fixing monopolies. It will do this by under-cutting those that retain minimum safeguarding standards: not just relaxing the rules of the sector they were established to oversee but forcing regulators to become cheerleaders of corruption and avarice: gamekeepers forced to turn poachers.
No longer independent, regulators will become lapdogs of the Treasury who in turn will be subject to the whims of those lobbyists with a vested interest in destructive extractive growth.
And, despite the governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey’s warning that climate change poses a huge threat to financial stability, and that regulators have an essential role to play in ensuring that financial institutions are managing these risks effectively, there’s nothing in this act to say they must spend the freed-up capital on green investment.
And who is voting for this? Among them will be the 70 MPs and 134 peers who are, or have been, employed in the financial sector.
When we cut the banking red tape, we cut the lifeboats … a Titanic mistake for those of us in steerage!
Regulation of the judiciary
Much has been written elsewhere of the iniquity of the recent Public Order Act 2023, ghost written and promoted by the conservative think tank Policy Exchange on behalf of its fossil fuel sponsors. What is now emerging is the unabashed revisionism of the law to secure convictions where the government finds the common law inadequate to its needs. Tim Crosland, director of the climate justice charity, Plan B, which supports climate and land defenders facing prosecution, said of the recent trial of the ‘Heathrow pause’ defendants, Roger Hallam, Larch Maxey and Valerie Brown:
“This is the first time I have witnessed a judge changing the legal goalposts after the defendants have given both their evidence and closing speeches. It is the first time I have ever heard of anything like this taking place. It is obviously a gross violation of natural justice and the right to a fair trial. It comes amid mounting evidence that, following a pattern of jury acquittals, some judges are manipulating the court process to engineer guilty verdicts for those exposing the government’s climate lies and hypocrisy.”
During the trial of Extinction Rebellion (XR) co-founder Gail Bradbrook for criminal damage, a perplexed jury asked for details of whether the law had in fact changed since Bradbrook’s arrest in 2019 to deny her a defence as she claimed. The judge fudged the answer saying there had been no change in the law, merely a “reinterpretation”. In fact, this reinterpretation, following the acquittal of the Colston Four, re-categorised criminal damage as a violent crime, thus removing the protections of Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The parallel benefit of this redefinition for the government was the validation of their classification of climate activists as ‘extremists’.
As far back as 2012, Lord Justice Toulson begged a question:
“How is the rule of law itself to be policed? It is an age-old question. […] In a democracy, where power depends on the consent of the people governed, the answer must lie in the transparency of the legal process. Open justice lets in the light and allows the public to scrutinise the workings of the law, for better or for worse.”
Judicial scrutiny of the government itself is now also in danger following the Judicial Review and Courts Act initiated by an administration stung by previous blocks on its overreach. The original bill’s fact sheet explains that the intention is, “that the Courts should […] hold the Government to account in the manner set out by Parliament”. Robert Jenrick echoed this with his recent proclamation: “The law is our servant, not our master.”
And lo and behold, one of measures set out by parliament was the Elections Act last year which gave the government control of the Electoral Commission and consequently freedom to ignore strictures on funding and shadowy donations.
Regulatory bodies and regulatory capture
The term ‘Capture theory’ was coined in the 1970s by the economist George Stigler, who observed the influence the regulated industries maintained over their regulators.
What we have entered now is an epoch where it is the government rather than industry that seeks to control any ordinance or convention that gets in the way of its ideological mission, whether by way of media scrutiny or any block on personal gain. One might in the past have turned to the parliamentary ombudsman (also known as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration) as a last bastion, established to provide a check on government activity in the interests of citizens. However, here the ‘noble lie’ once again loads the dice as ombudsmen are again appointed by the government who use the office as a fig leaf to obscure impropriety.
It is apparent that regulatory repair cannot now be a top-down process and a paradigm shift is occurring with the rise of localised rhizomatic movements to address the democratic deficit where political accountability is wanting.
Community assemblies are gaining traction across the country which, “aim to reinstall trust by taking direct ownership of decision-making, echoing the traditions of deliberative democracy and popular sovereignty that stretch back to origins in ancient past”.
Corporate Watch exists to hold corporate power to account and provide research for people striving for social change. Prevent Watch was established to counter the Islamophobic thrust of the Prevent initiative of the Counterterrorism and Security Act. Bristol Cop Watch has been organised to monitor potential police corruption following extrajudicial actions during the Kill the Bill protests in 2021.
And the network I co-founded, MP Watch, is an initiative set up to promote active citizenship and the regulation of politicians at a local constituency level. In this venture, we seek to celebrate the honest but hold the self-interested to account for their actions. We will do this through exposure of corruption: the direct payment of MPs by special interest groups; the spreading of disinformation as media pundits; the embedding of think tanks in government departments, and the revolving door trade in future jobs in exchange for favours and relaxed regulations.
Jeremy Bentham said:
“Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity.”
So the answer to the more pertinent question, “quis refrenat arbitrium moderatoris?” (“who will control the director?”) is:
We want to hear your views. Please send any comments to [email protected]
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