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Efficiency bad. Red tape good.

November 17, 2020
Artwork by the incomparable Hunt Emerson

One of the promises made by those who persuaded us British in 2016 to leave the European Union was that Brexit will result in less red tape once we’ve cut through the impenetrable jungle of EU-imposed bureaucracy.

It turns out that this will not be the case. Apparently we are having to hire or redeploy 60,000 people to handle the intricacies of trade between our newly-liberated country and our hitherto largest market across the channel.

I thought of this when my wife and I spent a hilarious couple of hours on the phone to National Savings and Investments, the government body that runs the Premium Bonds. It seems that NS&I have decided that it’s better for us that that they deposit prizes, which used to come in the form of cheques, directly into our bank accounts.

In order for this to happen, since we both have Premium Bonds, it was necessary for us to make separate calls, and each go through a security process that appeared to be a dialogue between several disconnected parts of the same brain.

At each of the three stages we were required answer security questions. First, to establish our identities, then to provide bank details, and finally to tell the institution how we wanted to be notified of our unexpected enrichment which, in the vast majority of cases, is the princely sum of twenty-five quid.

Most of us are familiar with the process of setting up phone or on-line banking that requires us to provide answers to security questions – mother’s maiden name and all that rubbish. But in the first phase, our interrogators went a step further. They clearly had our Experian credit rating information to hand. Armed with this information, they started asking us questions that were directly related to our banking arrangements, using multiple choice. “How large is your bank overdraft facility? None, five thousand or five million?” I’m exaggerating here, but I wonder how they would deal with Donald Trump. Is there a five billion option?

Before they started asking the questions, they told us that if we got any answer wrong we would have to go back to the beginning, which would have wasted an hour of our precious lives. By the end of the process I felt as I once did when I passed my driving test. A mixture of relief and exhilaration.

At each stage we were asked for our names and the first line of our addresses. Not once but several times. A testy “But I’ve just told you that” was met with the explanation that they had to enter the information in “the system”, which presumably they hadn’t done the first time. Was this the equivalent of detectives asking a suspect to run though his story again and again in order to catch them with an inadvertent lie? Who knows?

My wife had gone first. By the time I arrived on the scene she had been going through the process for at least an hour, perhaps because one of the call centre operators, by his own admission, was on his first day of work.

By the time the whole exercise was done, she had steam coming out of her ears. She then handed over to me to start all over again, warning the person that I had a short fuse and didn’t suffer fools gladly. As if they cared. But still, after asking me to answer the same questions twice, as the procedure demanded, he asked if I was OK. I wanted to answer that if they’d got the impression from my wife that I suffered from a particularly nasty form of dementia that made me unreasonably aggressive, they’d got the wrong end of the stick. I wasn’t about to chew the carpet or launch into a murderous assault on my beloved for putting me through this ordeal. But thanks for asking.

In the end, my turn on the grilling machine lasted a mere thirty minutes, thanks to prompting from my wife and the information she had gathered as the result of her interrogation. I remained Jupiter-like in my calm and good humour while she went into fits of laughter beside me at the prospect of the imminent self-combustion that she detected from my facial expressions.

Afterwards, when I looked back on a torturous process that involved three call centres and was clearly designed to stop some scamster from siphoning my hard-won wealth into a bank account other than my own, I had a thought.

What if bureaucracy was good, not bad, as we’ve all been taught to assume? What if all those thousands of jobs created to handle Brexit, ward off cyber-criminals and trace COVID infections were actually saving us from even worse financial privation, or even civil chaos?

After all, the people recruited into these jobs might otherwise be unemployed and thus eking out life on benefits. Instead, they’re drawing salaries and spending them on their mortgages, on Tesco weekly shops and Amazon deliveries, thus keeping the economy and Jeff Bezos’ bank account ticking over.

I’ve seen bureaucratic bloat before. Saudi Arabia’s public sector employs far more citizens than its businesses, which prefer to operate with cheap labour from other countries. Without the hundreds of thousands of jobs for pen-pushers and desk jockeys, the country would collapse into a seething mass of unemployment and seditious discontent.

Since we in the United Kingdom seem to be floundering in the midst of a pandemic and with no clear idea of how after Brexit we’re going to restore our fortunes beyond the vague aspirations voiced by our slippery leaders, perhaps we need to retreat further into our bureaucratic past.

By introducing more red tape we employ more people. If the cost of such employment has to be born by us consumers in terms of transaction fees and higher prices for goods and services, surely that would be more palatable than some blood-soaked finance minister sucking away our wealth by means of overt measures such as tax increases?

So perhaps we need to go back to the system beloved of Foyles, the mega-bookshop in London’s West End, who until recently insisted that if you wanted to buy one of their books, you had to get a chit from one place, and then take it to another place that would accept your money.

Perhaps we should start hiring bus conductors again. And train guards. And putting police back on the beat. And while we’re at it, reintroduce National Service, so that we can counter the imminent threat from Outer Mongolia. We could then deploy more troops to vaccinate us, shore up our dams and prevent the invasion of immigrants from across the channel that threatens to inundate us with unwanted foreigners. That, of course, would require us to expand the command structure, so, joy of joys, more jobs for majors, colonels and generals.

The possibilities are endless. All we have to do is turn ourselves back into a nation of functionaries and jobsworths. We might have to borrow a bit more money, but at least we can keep the workers employed and docile while we figure out what the sunlit uplands will look like.

And then, once we’ve forged a new country in the white heat of technology, we can employ an army of consultants who will help us slowly wean ourselves off all the bullshit jobs we’ve created, and shepherd us into a new era of Universal Basic Income, that allows us, uncritical and cow-like, to graze the pastures of prosperity created by artificial intelligence without the need for human intervention.

Well that’s a plan, isn’t it?

So the next time you’re asked to provide your mother’s maiden name six times in the course of one phone call, ask yourself if you’d prefer that your interrogators should turn into starving zombies stumbling through the streets of your neighbourhood, rifling bins in search of half-eaten Bic Macs.

And repeat the slogan of the age: Efficiency Bad – Red Tape Good.

  1. Ha ha, well done!

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