This Week in the Media: Government Private Sector Bailouts, and the Furore Over Sharia

February 22, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It’s a bad thing when government-funded youth projects are not run as well as they could be and a worse thing when chunks of cash apparently go missing.

For that reason, while there’s no evidence that he’s been personally responsible for what’s gone wrong, even many Ken Livingstone supporters will have been frustrated by the recent problems at the London Development Agency.

But, if you’ve been reading the “mainstream” media over recent weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that well-intentioned but poorly run multithousand-pound youth projects are a bigger issue than the taxpayer bailout of multibillon-pound private-sector disasters.

Hot on the heels of Northern Rock, which wasn’t completely Gordon Brown’s fault, comes the collapse of Metronet, that unequivocally was.

Many readers may remember the period before and after Livingstone became mayor of London when he unsuccessfully battled the Treasury to avoid the implementation of a farcical public-private partnership to revamp the capital’s Tube network.

Metronet, the company which was meant to be carrying out around two-thirds of this work, went into administration last July and, last week, the government paid off its £1.7 billion worth of outstanding debts, clearing the way for Transport for London to take its maintenance contracts back in house.

Cynics may suggest that a key factor in Metronet’s inability to do the job on budget may have been that it was a consortium made up of the companies responsible for delivering the work that it was carrying out.

Generally, one of the key issues for comrades who favour the marketisation of public services is the need to tackle entrenched “producer interests.”

I’m a big fan of most public-sector workers, but I wouldn’t advocate giving them a 30-year contract and then letting them choose how much to pay themselves.

If you replace public-sector workers with shareholders of private companies whose aim is to extract the maximum return for their company in the shortest possible time, this doesn’t sound like a perfect recipe for success. It wasn’t.

Brown pushed through this monstrosity for purely ideological reasons despite the fact that, even if it had worked, it was bound to end up being a worse deal for the taxpayer than public ownership or even real privatisation.

Why is this a smaller story in London than some allegedly mismanaged youth projects?

Maybe it’s because it’s OK for white people to waste loads of taxpayers’ money, but, more likely, it’s because no-one in “mainstream” politics or their media allies can bring themselves to admit that attempting to create markets where they don’t exist is as inefficient as it is stupid.

I don’t believe in God, but I’m a big fan of the Christian socialist Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

In fact, in recent years, the leadership of the Church of England – the Archbishop of York John Sentamu is progressive on many issues too – has been considerably closer to the centre-left of British politics than the leadership of new Labour.

Unfortunately, the fact that Williams is a good guy does not alter the fact that his suggestion that sharia law could be incorporated into British law is a bad idea.

A broadly sympathetic piece by Riazat Butt in Saturday’s Guardian rightly explains that his bishopness was clearly not advocating flogging on the streets of Bradford.

What he probably was advocating – much like political “kite flying,” theologising is often short on specifics – was giving devout Muslims the right to refer to sharia courts in what the Butt calls “matters of divorce, inheritance, commerce and marriage.”

The info box attached to Butt’s article highlighted some problems with that, not least that, when it comes to divorce, “men have the right of unilateral divorce. A divorce is effective when the man tells his wife he is divorcing her.”

On the other hand, “a woman wanting divorce usually needs the consent of her husband. But most schools allow her to get a divorce without her husband’s consent if he is impotent.”

There are already informal sharia courts in Britain making judgements on this basis and, assuming that all parties involved are consenting adults, the British state has neither the duty nor the ability to do anything other than let the participants get on with it.

But the idea that parts of sharia promoting gender discrimination should be rubber-stamped and given legitimacy by a government committed to universal human rights is deeply troubling.

You don’t have to believe that sharia law is fundamentally wrong to believe that its discriminatory aspects have no official place in the modern secular democracy that we’re hopefully trying to create.

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This post was written by David Floyd

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