Lords of a regulation jungle

Blair might think he is the new Tarzan and Mowlam his Jane, but both should be wary of getting into a tangle in the real world.

Those setting out in search of the Government’s “Third way” between a free market economy and state regulation ought to prepare themselves well.

They will need a compass, a stout pair of boots, a plentiful supply of pemmican and lots of Perrier to wash it down. Most important of all, they must carry a machete and a plentiful supply of insect repellent. For the uncharted path along which they will tread is densely overgrown with rules, regulations and red tape, and infested with buzzing swarms of bureaucrats.

There is no other jungle like it. It thrives and grows lush under government after government, yet successive administrations gaze upon its dense, luxuriant foliage with mock horror and declare that something must be done. For they feel sure that somewhere, imprisoned deep amid the choking creepers and winding tendrils, there lies a precious, delicate flower called enterprise, which, if freed and cultivated, could spell success at the next General Election.

But no one who has set out on this mission has succeeded. The last to try was Michael Heseltine. He was famously enjoined by his then master, the Major, to pull on his leotard, grasp the nearest liana and swing, yodelling and whooping, through the vegetation, hacking away on all sides. Alas, he remained imprisoned at the Department of Trade & Industry, stricken, like all his predecessors, with a strange paralysis. And the forest grew ever thicker.

Then came “New Labour”, the “Third way” and a Chancellor of the Exchequer blessed with green fingers and a knowledge of compost that’s unsurpassed.

It is estimated that since the 1979 election the Government has propagated 2,000 new regulations which have cost business more than &£5bn. So when Gordon Brown announced in his pre-Budget statement a lot of complex, legalistic, fiscal measures aimed at “promoting enterprise across the economy”, the boardrooms of UK business echoed to hollow laughter. When this bitter sound reached the Prime Minister’s ears, he was shocked and affronted. How could he and his chancellor be so misunderstood? How, when offered the chance to keep more of their money in exchange for risking their capital, health and sanity, could people be so ungrateful?

But not for nothing is Anthony Charles Linton Blair known as a man of action. He picked up the phone, and minutes later, panting down the corridor, mopping her brow with her wig, trundled Mo Mowlam. Learning from his predecessor and having an eye to practicality, Blair stopped short of asking Mowlam to pull on a leopard skin (which is against Government policy anyhow) and launch herself into the jungle on the end of a frond of vinery. A way through is one thing, deforestation quite another. But the upshot is Mowlam, Slayer of Red Tape, or, to put it more colloquially, don’t make me laugh.

To understand why her mission is doomed you have only to consider why politicians are in power. The answer is contained in the question itself: they want power and, having attained it, the whole point is to exercise it. That is why no government can bring itself to reduce state interference.

They do things differently in the US where government encourages business start-ups by getting out of the way. In fact, the more you look at the extent of regulation in this country and the eagerness with which it is applied by legions of officials, the more astonishing it is that anyone should start a business.

Who in their right mind would want to employ people? You cannot sack them for incompetence without being brought before a tribunal; you cannot promote a man without being accused by a woman of sexual discrimination; you cannot appoint a white without being accused by a black of racial discrimination. If you are a male employer, it is dangerous to look at a female employee. Set up in business and you invite the ceaseless attentions of the local authority, the Inland Revenue, HM Customs and Excise, and a million quangos whose existence you never imagined.

It is small wonder that the Internet, the fastest growing sector of the economy and the one attracting a ferment of entrepreneurial activity, is the least regulated. But it cannot be long before each new Website is visited by a man from the National Cyberspace Agency who, having inspected your operation, will suck his teeth, shake his head in counterfeit sorrow, and tell you you can’t do it that way, not at any rate without first registering an application (the Blue Form CEO76549/BDW) in triplicate to the appropriate authorities, paying the necessary administration charges, and taking the measures needed to ensure your business conforms to the Brussels Protocols.

Mowlam, Blair, Brown – not one of them has set up or run a business. Like the High Court judge who had to have a hangover explained to him, none of them has experienced the matter with which they are dealing. None knows the sleepless nights, the agonising days, the tightrope walk between success and ruin, the three steps forward followed by four back, and, above all, the never-ending disruptions, obstacles, and sheer time-wasting of officialdom in all its petty and manifold guises. But, as she dons her solar topee, pulls on her stout khaki shorts, tucks a bottle of kaolin and morphine into her waistband and strides off into the dense steaming vegetation, let us spare a thought for Dr Mowlam. We shall not set eye upon her again.

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