How red tape was invented

To understand the world of the deregulation agenda it is useful to understand the history of red tape.

In the 16th and 17th century the administration of Spanish King Charles V started identifying the more important documents of state by binding them with red ribbon rather than rope. This became a standard practice over Europe. When complex matters of state cropped up suddenly there would be red-bound documents everywhere. By the end of the American Civil War the practice was normal across the western world and when Civil War veterans wanted to get a hold of their military records (a time-consuming task by all accounts) they found them also bound in red ribbon. But long before this the phrase ‘red tape’ had already become a shorthand for excessive institutional bureaucracy.

This usage held fairly consistently for centuries. By the 1970s it remained a phrase which described paperwork, unnecessary bureaucracy, forms in triplicate, foot-dragging, hair-splitting, procedural obsession and so on. The meaning at this point was largely cultural; it described mainly the experience of individuals faced with bureaucracy, be that someone trying to get a decision from a local authority or a secretary having to type out the same form over and over again. It was an expression of the relationship between the individual and a bureaucratic institution. But that was all to change.

The phrase ‘red tape’ was becoming like a snowball, gathering new meanings by the day.

By the mid-1970s the political orthodoxy was shifting radically with the rise of the Chicago School and the neoliberal revolution they were espousing. One of the great underpinning philosophies of this movement is the belief that the perfect market is the perfectly ‘free’ market. By ‘free’ they meant that no actor in that market should be inhibited from any action (other than relating to the most basic laws) because markets are self-regulating. So interference with those markets is inefficient and unjustified in economic theory. In fact, since these are True Believers we are considering it is probably important to add that they believed this to be unjustified morally – this is the libertarian part of neoliberal. It’s not just venality, it’s a way of life. It isn’t like regulation was ever popular with business, but it was more willingly accepted as part of the post-war settlement. No longer; regulation was to become a morally-repugnant, politically unacceptable function.

Except of course that wasn’t possible, since the definition of regulation is staggeringly wide. No-one (except real neoliberal extremists) imagines there could be absolutely no checks or balances on corporate action. So it is accepted that fully-fledged market monopolies cannot be allowed. And that businesses must demonstrate some sort of duty of care for employees. And that they can’t just dump toxic chemicals in the streets. And that they are not allowed to build nuclear power plants in the city centre with no permission. And so on. This, however, didn’t matter. Because as we shall see, red tape is a wonderfully flexible concept.

By the 1980s neoliberalism wasn’t rising, it was all-conquering. New technologies were revolutionising the routine bureaucracy and administration of the 1970s (life before mailmerge and cut-and-paste) and much of what red tape had previously meant referred to practices which were in decline. In fact, entire concepts like ‘in triplicate’ have disappeared, replaced by the straight forward ‘three copies of’. If you’re not filling forms out by hand but printing them, actions which previously seemed irritatingly futile became a simple matter of clicking the ‘three copies’ button rather than ‘one copy’ when printing. Of course bureaucratic processes hadn’t ended completely, but that 1970s cultural phenomenon of rows of bored women (always women) in large rooms monotonously typing the same thing over and over again was disappearing. Even the experience of dealing with bureaucracies as an individual was changing with the photocopier killing off ‘triplicate’ in its own way.

These are the two drivers of what we today understand as red tape – the decline of a cultural meaning with the rise of a political philosophy. Thatcher did her thing of harnessing English Home Country ‘outrage’ to neoliberal economics and suddenly the difficulty of filling in planning permission application forms for your house extension and rules requiring banks to maintain firewalls between different parts of their business became the same thing. Regulation was red tape. We were all in this together.

The rhetoric just kept ramping up. The more successes there were, the more the ploy was relied on. The shock and awe of the Thatcher years became the political mainstream of the 1990s. History will show that it was a Democrat president who finally dismantled the sensible regulations which stopped banks from imploding. By the late 1990s deregulation mania had reached as crescendo as economists were ‘proving’ that as long as there was no public intervention the stock market would rise forever. Even now this economic analysis looks like one of the crazier fads of Victorian science, but at the time it simply said what everyone wanted to hear – the only thing standing between us and economic nirvana is red tape. The dotcom crash took the edge off things for a while, but by now we had Bush and the market fundamentalists who ran him as their candidate. And then we get Enron, to this day the single best advert for regulation.

However, something else is going on at the same time. It is perhaps dangerous to imply too strongly that there is intention in all of these changes of meaning, but it certainly helped to shore up the arguments when things were looking ropey for the deregulators. Either way, the phrase ‘red tape’ was becoming like a snowball, gathering new meanings by the day. In the early 1990s it was all about ‘EU bureaucrats’ and their straight bananas. Red tape gone mad. By the late 1990s it was ‘politically correctness’ which when actioned by institutions meant ‘red tape’. By the 2000s it was ‘health and safety’ (now routinely and bizarrely typified as ‘Elf and Safety’ by the red-tops and mid-market right-wing press, presumably because it was handy to get rid of the word ‘health’ which had positive connotations). These concepts are now merged into one mega-madness, a world in which red tape is our biggest enemy in day to day life. And it can mean virtually anything. In the last few months along the phrase ‘red tape’ has appeared over 3,000 times in the Daily Mail. The word ‘deregulation’ occurred only 500 times. So here are some examples:

“Ministers burden firms with £50m of EXTRA red tape after all the pledges to cut it”. “Tory MPs demand a Budget slashing taxes and red tape to kickstart growth”. “Thousands of small firms boosted with red tape reprieve on new pensions”. “‘Coalition is strangling businesses with red tape’, say British bosses”. “Cost of red tape ‘rose by £11bn last year’”. “Half of teachers quit the classroom because of violent pupils and red tape”. “EU bureaucrats are bombarding businesses with ‘unwarranted’ red tape, warns CBI”. “Elf ‘n’ safety red tape prevents almost half of police and three-quarters of paramedics from helping the public”. “Police are spending even more time dealing with red tape, new figures show”. “£14,000 red tape bill for every firm”. “EU red tape to sabotage blueprint for recovery, warn insurers”.

Truly, it’s a red tape apocalypse. But what exactly is the beef? “There’s too much stifling anti-meritocratic equalities regulation suffocating businesses, and a rising tide of environmental regulation and bureaucracy that threatens growth”. So its equalities legislation and environmental protection? Or “The biggest costs were rules stopping shops from displaying tobacco and stricter checks on doctors from overseas”. So it’s health legislation and immigration checks. “The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs said its extra costs came primarily from a shift in rules on sewage pipes. Responsibility has passed from homeowners to water firms for the pipes.” OK, its not more red tape, the problem is that only households should suffer, not business? “They are calling for firms with fewer than ten employees to be excluded from unfair dismissal laws to encourage them to create jobs”. Ah, the problem is not being allowed to dismiss employees unfairly? “Regulations governing minimum room sizes, door widths and the number of lifts will merely become guidelines”. So allowing people to make rooms and doors too small for use will save the economy? “[Government] needs to prevent the ‘flow of bad regulation from Europe’ from becoming another barrier to growth”. Oh, Europe again. “The percentage of time spent on paperwork has risen from 18.4 per cent of all officer time in 2005 to 19.7 per cent in 2007”. Police paperwork? “The blizzard of rules and regulations includes administering complex changes to tax codes, maternity benefits, paternity leave and health and safety legislation”. What now, tax and motherhood? “A major initiative to encourage private investment in infrastructure faces a regulatory hurdle that could limit the amount of money committed to new roads, railways and power stations.” Now its rules preventing financial institutions putting all their liquidity into risky project? How is one to keep up.

But in one neat chunk of right-wing diatribe we get to the heart of the matter. “They are calling for firms with fewer than ten employees to be excluded from unfair dismissal laws to encourage them to create jobs … and a clamour for the death penalty – preferably by hanging – to be reintroduced.” This one is from the ‘wish list’ of red tape the public has said it wants removed in a government consultation. And what it shows is that preventing people from being hung by their necks until dead is a problem of ‘red tape’. So is allowing speed cameras. But curiously preventing traveller communities from setting up home wherever they like isn’t seen as a red tape problem.

What red tape has come to mean is populism in the technical sense married to neoliberal economics. Populism is a way of defining the point at which ‘we’ becomes ‘them’. Red tape is the line at which the majority are beset by the minority. The minority can be liberal do-gooders, environmental bureaucrats, secularists, Europeans, trade unions – anyone who challenges the right to complete free action from the left (but not from the right – a place from which red tape becomes ‘common sense’). The neoliberal element is straightforward – business should be above the law, so long as it doesn’t physically hurt its customers (or indeed annoy ‘the majority’ too much by selling petrol, electricity, gas or mortgages too expensively). But the contradictions must me kept to a minimum – on which side of the red tape is ‘maternity’? The ‘protect the family’ side or the ‘set business free’ side?

Unless we understand that red tape as an aggregate idea is meaningless then we can’t engage with the debate. It means precisely what those deploying it want it to mean. So it is a construct of the Daily Mail and the Institute of Directors. And together they let slip the extent of their ambitions: “At that rate it would take 4,000 years to completely eradicate the £112billion cost of regulation on business” they collectively say. Eradicate? No regulation at all? Complete freedom for big businesses to do as they please?

There can only be one response to this – a relentless defence of the importance of regulation and a rigorous challenge to the baseless arguments for deregulation. I have now ploughed through more Daily Mail than I’d ever want to and found that red tape stories manage to encompass all things known to man. Except one; detailed evidence. Over and over again numbers are thrown around – how much it will cost, how much time policemen spend on paperwork, why teachers say they will leave the classroom. It’s only by reading on that one starts to find the holes. I have yet to find a single detailed explanation of why this is costing ‘£122 billion’ (or ‘up to £14,400 a year’ or whatever). We just have to accept it. I read the story about the school teachers and despite ‘red tape’ featuring prominently in the headline I could find no mention of it in the story – “The top reasons for quitting were found to be poorly behaved children, excessive workload and lack of family time”. And as I read the story about the police I gained not a shred of information about what this paperwork was that they were filling in. It occurred to me that it might be something to do with ‘health and safety’ or it might well be a result of modern forensics, or data protection or who knows. In fact, red tape is a religion in which you believe, you don’t ask questions.

The market will not protect the environment or workers or communities or desist from monopolistic practices if something does not prevent them. It is called regulation. For individual we call it ‘the law’. And we should support both for very good reasons.