by ammophila

Many readers will already be aware of Manos as the volatile spirit who keeps us constantly alert in the office. To our mingled regret and relief, he has been absent for the past week and may be away for a good while yet, pursuing yet another of his brilliant schemes for acquiring wealth, though to be honest we doubt whether this one is likely to bring him any more success than the proposals for velcro banknotes, food-free restaurants, or his very unusual ‘mental indigestion tablets’. But as he is hoping to ease this plan into the slip-stream of a governmental engine obviously firing on all cylinders and with bunting flapping from all available projections, perhaps we are wrong. The business of selling off public assets to remedy government deficits is now well entrenched in western politics as the only non-violent way for governments to present a decent set of figures to the public when their management has resulted in a hefty loss. But Manos wishes to tweak this basic strategy. He was inspired by the success of what was once somewhat derisively known as the ‘Nudge Unit’. This was set up by David Cameron in Downing Street in 2010 with the revolutionary idea of importing intelligence into the processes of government, and incorporating careful experimentation and analysis into the application of government policies. A number of ministers were impressed by the way that they could take advantage of its work so as to circumvent the citizen’s normal defences against doing what the government wants. Indeed it was so successful that it was raised to the rank of ‘Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills’. But not for long. (It is interesting by the way to notice that in the past few decades British government successes have had on average a life span considerably shorter than the career of the average lap dancer, while government failures hang heavy round the collective neck of the population for many years.) In short order the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills became a privately owned commercial firm ‘Behavioural Insights Limited’ (a remarkably infelicitous name on the face of it) which recently reported profits of some £1.8 million and now is well regarded across the world. However, Manos proposes that rather than relying on the natural development of events, he, with a group of like-minded collaborators, should deliberately set to work to develop previously non-existent public assets with the sole and avowed aim of subsequently working them loose, detaching them from the rest of the governmental machine, and taking part in their subsequent disposal to suitable buyers. (Obviously we have not yet reached the point at which we will be offering easy terms to Chinese tycoons for parts of the Royal Air Force; ‘very smooth performers, these; outdistance most rivals you’re likely to meet; never yet used in aerial combat; regularly serviced; only ever flown by one highly trained pilot’.) Naturally the government will expect to make a bit of money in the process, but Manos is as ever confident that he could do very well for himself if things fall out right. All he needed to do, he said, was to strike up acquaintance with a few fellows having an outlook like his own and a zeal for enterprise (he insisted that it was very important to keep using the word ‘enterprise’, said it increased the chances of acceptance by 20%, just as ‘patriotic’ does in America.) No need for anything actually effective, just a matter of cobbling together a programme sufficiently impressive in presentation and sufficiently imprecise on content, and there would be a wide range of ministries open to infiltration. From some remarks he made before leaving, he had a specific target area in mind, namely a project to instal proportional voting, but in a radically different sense to that favoured by the Lib Dems. This would depend on boldly assuming widespread and thorough ignorance on the part of the electorate, and high incompetence of voters at coming to sensible decisions on public issues. As it happens, since he left, the OECD has issued a report which would greatly strengthen his case. It placed the UK last of 23 nations in both literacy and numeracy; for instance nine million out of some fifty million adults ‘may not be fully able to understand the instructions on a bottle of aspirin’ or to read the petrol gauge on a dashboard.   How this lamentable state of affairs arose will be disputed; some will blame it on the social media plague, others on a lack of vitamin C in the diet, but we might observe that Manos himself arrived on our island as a monoglot Greek and within a year had five A* passes at the higher A level. This could suggest that a lowering of educational standards has been delivering the wrong sort of success. However that may be, he and Karela sketched out a scheme whereby all who registered to vote would be tested for political competence. Those who passed with full marks would get a full vote, or perhaps even two; those who were found to be still trudging towards the petrol station would be allocated a token 0.1% of a vote. They both seemed very hopeful that such a scheme would be welcomed enthusiastically by members of the political class whose support would be needed to put it into action, notwithstanding the substantial administrative apparatus that would have to be set up, and I fear they may be right.

            ‘It will go down like a hot dinner in a cold Eskimo” as Karela rather distastefully likes to phrase her enthusiasms.