I looked at the front pages of all the Sunday papers this morning in the newsagent, as I tend to, and it struck me how many of the stories were about health and safety regulations.
There was the story about parents having to accompany their teenage children to the loo in Glasgow cafes (unlikely, that one). There was the lead story in the Sunday Telegraph warning us that clearing the ice outside your house can open you up to legal action. Not to mention all the stuff about gritting being banned for similar health and safety considerations.
Before I dismissed the whole lot as the kind of nonsense you get in Sunday papers, I wondered whether – actually – this might not be the key issue after all.
I don’t mean to suggest that we need no safety regulations. But there is something about the health and safety regime which has been constructed by New Labour, on the foundations of the regime built by the Major government – a mixture of American contract culture and Taylorist checklists – which is actually corroding some of the social networks which actually keep us safe.
The ruling about not clearing ice is a good example, set out by the professional body of health and safety officials. The actual effect of this kind of regulation is to make us less safe. The actual effect of much of the safe-guarding regime is to corrode the informal ways that neighbourhoods actually watch over children. It corrodes the way that frontline staff take responsibility and initiative, by chopping their jobs into tiny slithers, and subsuming them into intractable and controlling software.
So this isn’t just a story of how successive governments corrode social capital. It is the core story of why Blair and Brown invested such huge sums in public services, and yet rendered them so intractable, so elephantine, so narrowly focussed on symptoms rather than causes, and – over the long-term, therefore – so hugely ineffective and wasteful. That is the issue, really. No other issue is more important for the future of the nation.