The Screwtape economy

Sometimes, you have to reach for metaphysics to explain the sheer idiocy of large centralised systems. I speak of the way that government policy seems designed to undermine the economic self-determination of our cities and regions. This is reproduced from my localism column in Town & Country Planning magazine.

As readers of the books of C. S. Lewis will know, Screwtape provided instructions in perversion and temptation for his demonic nephew. And you may think these things are gone and forgotten, but some explanations require a dash of Screwtape to fully understand. And it so happens that – after deep investigation – I have discovered a similar letter to a species of minor demon who inhabits the refreshment areas of HM Treasury, seeking to influence Whitehall. It is pretty instructive.

Dear Bilgewater (for it is he)

As I have no doubt mentioned many times before, there is no more certain way of buttressing the sheer constipation that comes from tight centralized control, and therefore strangling the sense of efficacy that  a healthy nation ought to have, than throttling all the local economies except for London’s.

So next time you manage to creep into the ear of your mandarins, here is what I suggest you whisper.

Remove bank branches. Or to be precise, what you need to persuade your masters is that banks are hopelessly out of date and will soon be replaced by some cashless nonsense – there is no sign of one, of course – and then give the wink to the banks to shut their branches. And of course, along with the branches, the branch managers go too – remember those people who used to know enough about the local economy to be able to invest local money in local business. I tell you what, you can always say that people can bank their cheques and their days takings in the post offices. Only make sure they don’t stomach any talk of the banks paying the post office network for this service, because that would undermine your next move…

Remove the post offices. This is clever, isn’t it, Bilgewater. The next stage is to close the post offices all those local businesses had been depending on since they lost their banks. I’m sure you can come up with some completely irrelevant metric – they are not selling enough insurance or something. We know they only do that in places that don’t actually need post offices. Once you’ve closed them, then there will be no local infrastructure to underpin local business, and – on the rare occasions they might possible get a bank loan – there will be some deliciously boneheaded regional software which makes the decision instead. It really is very final.

Build an out-of-town shopping centre. Alas, this move seems a little difficult to justify, even for your clients, Bilgewater. But in its day it was extremely effective way of sucking the sheer energy out of the small businesses in a town, and making sure that people spent money that was directed instead to the offshore accounts of some multinational or other. Unfortunately, it is now pretty obvious, even to the most corrupted, that that the days of shopping centres – in town or out of town – is pretty much over.

Organise a rigidly high criteria for local contracts. This is quite an easy one: the last thing your clients want to encourage is any kind of risk. So I tell you what, why don’t you suggest that the only companies that are allowed to bid for building or cleaning – or any other public procurement contract you care to mention – must have a market cap of at least £1 million. That should undermine local competition and squeeze the local economy even dryer.

Make sure spending cuts are organised fairly across all Whitehall departments. Let’s say across the board cuts of five, ten or even twenty per cent. It sounds fair and, of course it is in a sense. But the great thing is that not only does it mean the Whitehall departments start fighting amongst themselves, but that they pay far less attention to the wider knock-on effects of their own cuts on each when they get to local level. It really is quite extraordinary how blind your average civil servant can be to the way that their own cuts interact with others locally. In fact, if you are clever, you might be able to put so much pressure on social care spending that you might be able to unravel the NHS completely – which will have its own knock-on effects on local economies too.

But here’s the rub, my dear Bilgewater. If you can destroy the local economies of towns and cities – and it really isn’t difficult to do – then they will be that much more dependent on the centre for funds, and you can make them look completely feckless. And once you do that, our sclerosis by central control is pretty safe – and you know what that means…

Good luck, my dear pupil!

Your affectionate mentor,


David Boyle is the author of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a radical psychiatrist (The Real Press). This column is dedicated to the complete buffoon who decided to close the main post office in Shoreham-by-Sea.


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