Richard North, 26/08/2020  

I was mildly entertained by the tale, replicated in a number of newspapers, that Johnson was going to do a runner once TransEnd is done, pleading ill-health. It's the sort of story that could be true, but we'll never know.

In many respects, though, it doesn't make any difference one way or another – at least, not in the short- to medium-term. Whatever deal, or non-deal is done by the time the transition period ends, I would imagine we are going to be stuck with it for a while. There is no particular reason for the EU to rush to our aid.

But there is also the problem that changing a prime minister won't necessarily change the way that a Tory government thinks about Brexit. We could thus end up with more of the same, with no possibility of any significant shift in policy and no expectation of any movement from Brussels.

The greatest difficulty we might have, though, is that no government really has any sensible ideas of what can actually be achieved from our relationship with the EU. But it's probably the case that the EU has similarly unrealistic ideas about the sort of relationship that the UK could accept.

This is probably the reason why the political agenda is so flat at the moment. Even Guardian commentators have noticed that Johnson is quick to articulate what he doesn't like – viz Public Health England – but has nothing in the way of a coherent (or any) vision.

One can recall those days of the Thatcher regime, where the collection of her ideas and policies were sufficiently credible that they could hang together as a whole to become Thatcherism. I couldn't begin to imagine that anything the current prime minister has to offer could ever be called "Johnsonism".

What Thatcher had going for her was an intellectual base, one which relied largely on think-tanks, and two in particular – the CPS and the IEA. They had some serious ideas on privatisation and union "reform" which defined her premiership.

And that is where we are seeing a massive difference between then and now. There exists an almost complete intellectual vacuum. Political parties themselves used to have significant research and policy-making resources, but it is a long time since we have seen anything interesting or useful come from that direction. They are now home to ambitious party interns, cranks and shysters on the make.

Politicians themselves have become shallow and obsessive and some are quite obviously struggling with the intellectual demands presented by crafting a single tweet. There is no salvation there.

And the clutch of think-tanks that defined Thatcherism have either lost their way or become shills for an extreme form of Brexit which lacks the slightest element of intellectual rigour. Academia has largely consigned itself to irrelevance while the traditional policy-making structures, such as Royal Commissions and Working Parties have long fallen into disuse. The UK no longer seems to have any credible policy-making capability.

And here, we can look to the EU for some of the problem. A huge amount of public policy is now crafted at European level, across a wide range of subjects. So much is done and through Brussels that our national abilities have atrophied. Look at the hundreds of policy documents pouring out of Brussels and then look at what our own government is doing. The contrast tells us a great deal.

With the end of the transition period shortly on us, conferring us supposedly with a new-found freedom, the policy space should be buzzing with ideas, with different sections of society coming together with new and interesting ideas on how to make life better.

As just one small example of where we're going though, we are currently being asked to look at a waste management plan for England, which is open for consultation.

Until recently, waste management was an exclusive EU competence and, until the transition period has ended, we are still bound by EU law. But, once freed from the 'dead hand' of the EU and we are able to take back control, we can craft our own policy. That's what the mantra says - that's Brexit was supposed to be about.

Yet, given that freedom, the entire might of Whitehall, with all the resource available to it, can only come up with five "strategic ambitions" for our new policy.

The first of these, believe it or not, it "to work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025", an objective which, even if technically feasible or desirable could not be achieved in such an insanely short period.

The second "ambition" is to eliminate food waste in landfill by 2030, which rather illustrates that we are carrying over the EU's obsession with ending landfill, instead of taking advantage of the cheapest and most effective means of waste disposal.

We then have three "apple pie and motherhood" points, which are not so much strategic ambitions as vague, feelgood aspirations, with a decidedly green tinge. We are supposed to eliminate "avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Environment Plan", double "resource productivity" by 2050, and eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050.

As to eliminating "avoidable plastic waste", this seriously begs the question of what is avoidable, and swerves round the economic issues. Much of the current ideas on dealing with such waste are wildly expensive, so much so that we lack the capacity to deal with the waste already produced.

This is why much of the waste is exported to less-developed countries, where some is sorted by women and children working under vile conditions for a pittance, while much of it either ends up in landfill in the destination countries, or in watercourses and the sea, thence to pollute the oceans.

An honest ambition, in this context, would be to commit to a policy of being able to process the waste that we already produce, in this country, without dumping it on the third world.

Without labouring the point – that this is an utterly facile plan – one cannot ignore the ambition of doubling resource productivity, this being "a measure of the value (in terms of GDP) we generate per unit of raw materials we use in the economy". This indeed is a noble aspiration but, if consumption remains consistent, that means that we must halve the qualities of all raw materials we use.

One cannot even begin to convey the enormity of this task, covering food, energy, construction materials, metals, plastics and much, much else. This would require something on the scale of the industrial revolution, in a span of less than thirty years, and a complete redefinition of the way the economy is structured.

Coming back down to earth, anyone engaging in a discussion of waste policy in the real world will very quickly bump into one of the most pressing issues of our time – the massive epidemic of fly tipping. Not only is this blighting the countryside and urban spaces, it is massively expensive for landowners and local authorities to clean up.

As much to the point, though, this blight is almost entirely the result of existing waste management policies, where disposal of waste has become so difficult and expensive that fly-tipping has become a viable option and, for some, so lucrative that criminal gangs can make more money out of illegal disposal than they can from selling drugs.

But then, when one explores the current plan, there is not a single mention of fly-tipping that I can find. The one issue which can be dealt with, and desperately needs to be addressed, isn't even considered.

Lacking glamour though it might be, this type of issue is at the very heart of public policy, part of the essential "invisible government" that defines a functioning civilisation. It is such issues which form the bulk of EU policy, from which we have sought our freedom. And yet, when we get that freedom, we don't know what to do with it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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