Waiting for the Barbarians

Why are we in the mess we’re in? Plato probably summed it up when he said; “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Someone drew my attention to the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” and it did the most dangerous thing a poem can do, it started me thinking.
At the moment we are ruled by a political class both introverted and incestuous. The leaders of the three main parties are all millionaires, (although inflation has devalued that tag). One party cannot offer more than a continued squeeze, another wants to go back to the 1970s and the prices and incomes policies that worked so well then. The third still struggles to cope with newly achieved political relevance and responsibility, a reality which appears to be anathema to many of its electorate.
We even have ‘millionaire Marxist academics.’ (Am I the only one who finds the term confusing?)

We have a serious problem. It isn’t just that successive governments have been lying to us; we’ve been lying to ourselves. We’ve got to the stage where we expect infrastructure and stuff to be paid for by the fairies.
Back in 1964 I was sitting in the kiddies chair in Ernies, getting my hair cut. One of the men in the queue was a local councillor and there was a discussion going on about the sewers in the town. (Before old Ernie died, I actually asked him about this discussion, just to make sure I remembered it correctly, and Ernie had remembered it as well.)
Basically this town got by because we tipped raw sewage into the tide. Even then the councillor informed us, there were plans for a proper sewage system, but neither party would suggest it because it would mean an extra 2d on the rate and they’d be out of office. This was the sort of attitude which means we got left with a lot of slowly decaying Victorian infrastructure. Now we’ve privatised a lot of things, and because the enforcement agencies will act against private companies when they never acted against public agencies, we’re finally getting caught up with maintenance. Guess what, it costs money.

Now there are two side issues here. The first is the culture of entitlement. It’s costing more than it should because all these companies have expensive layers of management that expect good money. This differs from the NHS and other government agencies exactly how? Too many people in management positions expect to be paid far more than they’re worth. That is an area which needs dealing with. Just don’t expect the BBC to lead the campaign.

The second issue is that government has kept putting expenses ‘off the books.’ Because private companies have to pay to fix the sewers, the money is collected via charges, not via rates. It’s the same with wind-farms and alternative energy, it’s being subsidised by adding to people’s bills, not out of taxation.
Then we have the private finance initiative. Only a fool, a politician, or a bureaucrat could find that a good idea. Build it now and leave it for our children to pay off the debt.
But this raises two problems. The first is that if something is paid for out of income tax, it’s potentially basically fair in that the poor pay less. Pay for it like we are doing and actually the bill falls more heavily on the shoulders of the poor who pay a larger proportion of their income for these essentials.
The second problem is that when government stopped paying for these things, in theory they didn’t need to collect tax to pay for them, so tax could have fallen. But it didn’t, they found other black holes to pour our money into. So if government took these things back on the books, tax would have to rise again.

And now we’re getting to the time of reckoning. The bills are pouring in, the proportion of national income spent on debt repayments continues to rise, and at the moment our political masters are more interested in curbing ‘the power of the press.’
You can see their point, after all it’s the press that holds them to account.

So for want of better, we sit here waiting for the barbarians.

Waiting for the Barbarians
By Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933), translated by Edmund Keeley
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

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