None of us is perfect. Even the greatest people make mistakes. On November 11th, as most of the nation’s media wallowed in misty-eyed war-fever, someone at Channel Four Television made a huge mistake. He or she allowed a pseudo-documentary by one Martin Durkin to be broadcast to the nation. The programme, titled ‘Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story’, has to be one of the very worst things that otherwise fairly good TV station has ever done.
Apart from one point, which was quite well made, and to which I shall return later, the rest of Durkin’s work was, at best, trite rubbish, and at worst just completely wrong. I assume he sincerely believes the nonsense he was spouting, so I won’t call him a liar; but that makes him either seriously misguided or a cynical fascist. In either case, Channel Four made a big mistake in giving him ninety minutes of unchallenged airtime. If he had to be screened at all it would have been far more appropriate to give him the same three minutes that is allotted to other far less dangerous people in their Three Minute Wonder strand.
Spelling out what exactly was wrong with Durkin’s dross isn’t easy – not because of any difficulty identifying it, but because there was just so much that was wrong you don’t know where to start.
His central thesis is that Britain has a national debt of £4.8 trillion. He spent quite a long time ranting on about this number, showing how various members of the public struggle to get their heads around the size of it (not unreasonably). He also produced various members of parliament who clearly had absolutely no idea about the size of the nation’s debt, nor the difference between that and the budget deficit. Interspersed with these various talking heads who seem to have been carefully selected for their ignorance of the subject were surreal clips of small children who were either expounding knowingly on the subject, or supposedly protesting for fiscal reform, or being ‘entertained’ on a dismal beach by a Punch an Judy show about fiscal reform. For all this concentration of effort on his core premise not one second of the programme was given over to how exactly Mr Durkin arrived at his figure of £4.8 trillion. For all we know, it was simply a number he plucked out of thin air. This simple trick – not proving his core premise – meant of course that he would not have to defend a position that is basically untenable.
I don’t doubt that some ‘eminent expert’ somewhere did a bit of number crunching for him, as a considerable number of these ‘experts’ were lined up to reinforce Durkin’s position, which I shall come to shortly. We saw at least three Tory grandees who had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. We saw various ‘leaders of The City’, assorted economists and writers who are so right wing they’re almost re-emerging on the left. To provide ‘balance’ we were shown a total of about five minutes of the ex-Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling, and head of the TUC Brendan Barber. (One wonders if Mr Barber is possibly more interested in a comfortable retirement in the House of Lords, where he might rub shoulders with one or two ex-union traitors, than actually fighting for the worker.) In any event, Mr Barber did himself, and more importantly justice, no favours at all by playing the stooge for Mr Durkin.
Moving on to some of Durkin’s more ridiculous views and claims.
Without any doubt, Milton Friedman would have been proud of Channel Four’s film maker, as most of the ninety minutes was pure ‘Chicago School’ economics. All the nation’s problems are of course the direct fault of taxation and public spending. Durkin tells us:
“Public spending will stimulate growth is the biggest myth of the twentieth century, and is the cause of Britain’s economic decline.”
In one of the many patronising and banal statements he made throughout the programme he opines that if public spending could stimulate growth…
“Why doesn’t the government go and hire more social workers and lollipop ladies?”
In an effort to try to prove his claim that the nation’s woes are the direct result of taxation and government spending, and perhaps to try to attach a degree of academic rigour to his Thatcherite nonsense, Durkin cites two cases from history – Britain’s Industrial Revolution and Hong Kong. Like almost everything else in his film, it is a carefully selected montage of, at best, half truths.
Durkin tells us he is from the North East, but sounds as much like a Geordie as Tony Bliar. Wandering around some of that industrial wasteland with one of the numerous right wing extremists that ‘inform’ his film, Durkin waxes nostalgically for the golden years of the Industrial Revolution, when…
“High wages drew people from far and wide to work here.”
“The standard of living from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century improved hugely.”
The truth of course, was very different.
It wasn’t high wages that drew people to the hell-on-earth of Britain’s factories and mines, it was starvation that forced them there. And although the standard of living did indeed improve in the nineteenth century, it simply couldn’t have got any worse, as any authentic history of the Industrial Revolution would quickly verify. Also excluded from Mr Durkin’s history lesson were the facts that people became slaves in all but name because their life-sustaining land had been stolen from under their feet through the iniquitous enclosure laws; and that standards of living had improved not because of wonderful employment opportunities, but because of England’s imperial exploitation of India and Africa, and because social revolutions throughout Europe were giving Britain’s aristocrats real and justified cause for concern.
Much of Durkin’s film came from Hong Kong, whose well-heeled rich clearly impressed him. Hong Kong’s success, we’re led to believe is directly attributable to a John Cowperthwaite, a British civil servant whose main claim to fame appears to be that he did absolutely nothing to improve the lives of ordinary Chinese workers, whilst doing everything he could to ensure that British ‘interests’ were well and truly catered for. Once again Durkin’s use of history is carefully selective. He completely forgot to mention the fact that Hong Kong was wholly founded on the British opium trade, a trade it forced a very unwilling China to comply with by the frequent use of its considerable warships (possibly made by some of Durkin’s ‘well-paid’ North Easterners). The more recent economic successes of the island were not much more creditable, with Hong Kong being one of the more secure havens for the rapacious pirates of off-shore banking scams. Whilst Durkin gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the island’s gleaming underground stations and billionaire media executives, he didn’t waste a single second at the homes of those who have to maintain the subways in their spotlessness, or who keep house for Hong Kong’s version of Rupert Murdoch.
Then there were the parts of Durkin’s film where he used ‘humour’ to try to discredit the principle of public spending. He did this by using children, and cartoon-like examples of whatever point he was making. I’ve already mentioned the ridiculous Punch and Judy scenes, but there was another little piece of children’s theatre which opened with the taxman visiting a restaurant owner. The restaurant owner opens his till and gives fifty pounds to the taxman, who returns to his office and hands the money over to ‘a bureaucrat’, who then spends it at the restaurant. The triviality of this example of how the system works is exceeded only by the fact that the example is these days largely wrong.
The core principle of Chicago school economics, of which Durkin is clearly a leading exponent, is that all public sector spending is wrong, and that all private sector ‘enterprise’ is wonderful. It is a model that has failed the people wherever it has been imposed, from South America to Russia. It provides quick profits for banks and corporations of course, which is why it is so beloved by these institutions, but as for the people who must live in the ruins created by the snatch and run merchants… who cares?
These days, thanks to the wonderful Private Finance Initiatives, a far more accurate example of the children’s restaurant sketch would have had the taxman handing over the fifty pounds to some well pampered billionaire, who would not take it back to the restaurant to spend (where the money would at least stay in the country’s economy), but who would lock it up in his own private vault in some offshore tax haven. Alternatively he could have shown the taxman handing over the fifty pounds to some be-ribboned general who would then happily spend the money buying shiny jets or drones to go bomb defenceless peasants somewhere.
Chicago school economics sells itself as opposing taxation and supporting abolition of government. It ‘reasons’ that this provides the right environment for private enterprise to flourish, which creates wealth by providing full employment. It’s absolute rubbish, and something that the real sharks of ‘private enterprise’, the ruthless psychopaths who run the international banking system and ‘globalised economy’, themselves violently oppose – in deed if not in word.
Although he didn’t say so, Durkin’s passionate hatred of the public sector would not extend to those public services that protect the captains of industry he so admires. For example, presumably he would not object to those public officials who make it almost impossible for workers to go on strike, or for those good policemen who beat up G20 demonstrators and other social activists. I assume he would have no objections to the continued use of armies to wreck other people’s countries for his wonderful bankers and industrialists to plunder; and of course he could not possibly mind the countless no-bid juicy government contracts that are handed over to corporate sponsors of election campaigns. He would have no objection to the public servants who administer ‘justice’ in our courts by contriving and interpreting laws that favour ‘The City’ and Wall St., whilst brutalising poor people. He would not possibly oppose those public servants who help facilitate the multi-billion pound tax-avoidance scams in offshore banking; and of course he would have no objection to the taxpayer gifting hundreds of billions of pounds to failed banks, on terms that no self-respecting bank would ever offer to any taxpayer seeking a loan – or if he does have any such objections they didn’t feature much in his film. It’s fairly clear to see that Durkin and his like do not really object to public spending at all, the only real objection they have is when taxpayers’ money is used in a way that actually benefits the taxpayer, rather than some gangster masquerading as a corporate executive.
However, I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that not everything about Durkin’s film was absolute rubbish. He actually made one good point, but as this point took up only about one minute of the ninety minute production, it’s fairly safe to say that about 95% of it was indeed absolute rubbish. So let me finish on a high, and mention the 5% of this film that was almost worth watching.
At one point Durkin claimed that about seven million people in Britain are employed by the state. Using another of his childish graphics which was for once quite useful, he showed that only about two million of these people are employed in a fairly useful capacity – like doctors, or teachers, or policemen; leaving the overwhelming majority of public servants doing not very much at all that is of any use to anyone other than themselves. Whilst Durkin didn’t demonstrate it, he could have gone much further and shown how much of this number occupies itself in ‘management’. Management of public services is where there is indeed a huge, obscene, and completely unnecessary overspend. As an ex-public servant I’m speaking from personal experience here.
Channel Four TV does itself no favours by entertaining the likes of Durkin and other right wing fantasists. Whilst I’m all for free speech, even for the likes of Durkin, it’s a principle that requires ‘balance’. So we now need to see Channel Four commissioning a ninety minute film from the likes of Noam Chomsky say or Jo Stiglitz, or Ha-Joon Chang, Naomi Klein or George Monbiot even, together with a studio debate where Durkin and his other plutocrat apologists could be confronted by a few people who not only have a bit of knowledge on the subject but who also have a bit of a passing interest in the rest of humanity.
The real horror story is how the nation’s media, who are the public’s main eyes and ears to the world and by far and away the most important formers of public opinion, have all joined ranks and formed up behind the selfsame forces that have devastated the world economy. The media are solidly united behind the voice of power, and resolutely refuse to see how power is shaping the world to its own benefit, and to the detriment of ninety percent of the Earth’s population, and towards the long term destruction of the planet’s fragile eco-systems.
The psychotic lessons of Chicago school economics, so clearly beloved by Durkin, are exactly the same principles of economics that gangsters use – exploitation of the weak by the strong. They are principles that have only one purpose: enrichment of the strong; everyone else can sink or swim.