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We don’t need lots of commanders on white horses

Just as war, as is sometimes said, can be the health of the state, so can domestic civil disorder. One of the arguments we can expect to hear in the coming days, and are beginning to hear already, is how much of the recent mayhem has been driven by Britain’s evil “consumerist” culture, our “market-based materialism”, and suchlike. The implication being that we need to have more and more controls over our lives (that is not the same as saying people need to understand self-control and save rather than rely on credit. That is a separate argument). I am willing to stake a few pounds that there will be calls for some sort of National Service for youngsters, if not in the form of the military (who’d want these scum in charge of weapons?), but something else, perhaps. (Again, I have nothing against clubs and groups set up to help youngsters grow up a bit into adults, so long as this is voluntary.)

A random example of the kind of “if only we had powerful leaders” line comes from John McTernan, in the Daily Telegraph. He starts off with this:

“Churchill redeemed himself, and saved the world, during the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher defeated fascism in the Falklands war, and ultra-Leftism in the miners’ strike. We are a better and stronger country, at home and abroad, for her undeviating will and courage. It wasn’t just Britain – the post-war world was full of examples. Nixon and China. Reagan and the Russians. Gorbachev and perestroika. Mandela and de Klerk. These were big figures who made bold choices, shaped the future, called the shots.”

Well, maybe. I find the Nixon example dubious. Sure, he may not be the devil of lazy historical analysis and he unfroze relations with China, but he also, remember, imposed wage and price controls in a panic about inflation and was hardly a consistent advocate of small government, at all. I’ll come to Mrs Thatcher in a minute.

“Evelyn Waugh used to criticise the Conservative Party because it had never turned the clock back by a single minute. But at least it was properly conservative. Harold Macmillan would be shocked at the modern party’s Maoist commitment to revolutionary change, just as Tony Crosland would be aghast at Labour’s obeisance to capital.”

Harold Macmillan is a man who wanted Britain to join the EU; his essentially paternalist version of Toryism, and his deference to the legal privileges of the trade unions, helped breed the kind of complacent attitudes that saw the UK lose its industrial edge. In certain ways, “Supermac” and that whole generation of Tories up to Mrs Thatcher advocated a form of controlled retreat. As for the awful Tony Crosland, why praise a man who once infamously said he wanted to destroy those “fucking grammar schools?”. I hate it when a certain kind of commentator gets all misty-eyed for the political leaders of days of yore, such as the ghastly Nye Bevan, the Labour politician who saddled this country with the National Health Service. We can do without that kind of “leadership”, thank you very much.

“The connecting thread is that Left and Right have accepted not merely market mechanisms, but the market’s ultimate mastery. For more than 30 years, politicians have told industries, communities and voters that you can’t buck the system. In doing so, they have internalised their own advice, and ended up enslaved by these new gods themselves.”

One of the people who said you cannot defy market forces, or fail to heed what Kipling called the “Gods of the Copybook Headings”, was of course, Margaret Thatcher, whom the author of this article claims to admire. In fact, Mrs Thatcher’s greatness, in my opinion, in part stemmed from her willingness to tell people that water did not flow uphill, that if you want to distribute wealth, you have to create it, and that defying the laws of supply and demand typically made problems worse, as in the case of trying to fix the value of sterling. That was one of her best traits.

“George Osborne’s mantra is that if we don’t face up to austerity, then we’ll be like Greece, at the mercy of the markets. Would any Conservative politician, in any previous administration, have compared our great nation to a failing southern European economy (rather than a modern-day Athens or Sparta)?”

I have no idea. I think that pointing out that if the UK fails to get its house in order then we will have the kind of disaster as seen in another country, is a good thing for a politician to do. It is about describing hard reality, not coming out with some sort of guff about “we are a great nation and can do what we like” sort of line.

“Our former leaders would be shocked by the willingness of Cabinet ministers to talk down our country. Accepting your own powerlessness is a characteristic of weak leaders throughout history: always managing, never transforming.”

It is not about “talking down”, but facing reality. To change, you first need to accept where you are now. In the UK, many people, some of them holding quite diverse political views, have been slapped hard with that reality.

23 comments to We don’t need lots of commanders on white horses

  • Pat

    Re “Some kind of national service”: seems like a good idea to me. Not especially for youngsters though, but in lieue of benefits for those now claiming them. Anyone who can support themselves to their own satisfaction without accepting national service should be free to do so.
    Perhaaps care of the disabled would provide some of the work- and be more useful to the actual disaabled than money, but less attractive to lead swingers.
    Those unable to do so should be offerred the opportunity to work for government (local would be better than national) and so support themselves. And if they can get a part time job as well- great! Thats the enterprise and determination we need

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Pat, what you describe is what used to be called the workhouse.

  • Gene

    I read McTernan’s piece yesterday and though I’m an American with very limited knowledge of British political history, even I could see that McTernan’s argument was quite incoherent. The mix of people and ideologies he’s attaching to his wagon are not very likely to all pull in the same direction.

  • John B

    When Margaret Thatcher came in the foreign exchange allowance was GBP50.
    Britain’s money had been running away so fast it had to be stopped. Something had had to be done!

    Shortly after she was elected she simply disappeared exchange control – and nothing happened!

    Amazing how things survive freedom.

    And then there were a couple of decades of prosperity until people could not remember the panic and just took for granted how silly Labour’s policies were, and became fed up with the compromised Tories until . . . whoops, here we are again.

    My point being that the statists work by making us lose confidence in freedom until we take it for granted that controls are sensible and necessary and to suggest otherwise is stupid, perhaps even sick or dangerous.

  • Marissa

    Taking the U.S. off the final remnants of the gold standard made Nixon the devil he should be remembered as.

  • Laird

    I don’t know what actually was done in “workhouses” (I have trouble believing that Dickens’ descriptions are wholly accurate), but I have my doubts that it included “care of the disabled” or working for local government, which were Pat’s suggestions. But regardless, I fully agree with him that any able-bodied person on the dole should be required to perform some form of useful service in exchange for that privilege. Or, if necessary, even non-useful service; digging holes in the morning and filling them in again in the afternoon would suffice. The ideal would be for the society which is supporting those people to receive something tangible in return, but if that’s not possible an acceptable alternative would be anything which drives home the point that there is no free lunch and you’re going to have to work hard for what you get. If you don’t work you don’t eat. Period. That would provide an incentive for getting a real job.

    And as to Nixon, what Marissa said. Wage-and-price controls and final elimination of the gold standard were his true crimes; Watergate was an irrelevancy.

  • James of England

    Even a small part in moving China towards where it is from where it was strikes me as a far bigger deal even than wage and price controls, with a billion significant beneficiaries as against a few hundred million for whom the change was less significant.

    Preventing the Sino-Soviet split from healing and winning in ‘Nam were two of the greatest victories in the Cold War, which was a struggle worth winning.

    Nixon also played a key part in moving the GOP to becoming the permanent party of free trade. The only significant free trading republican before Nixon’s Vice Presidency was President Taft (even Robert Taft was lousy). There’s a lot not to like about Nixon, but some important and genuinely good stuff, too. Sort of the Clinton of the GOP.

  • Laird

    Wow, that’s the most bizarre, revisionist interpretation of Nixon I have ever read. Setting the stage for the complete destruction of our currency, and causing massive economic distortions the effects of which continue to ripple through the country, was far too high a price to pay, even for “a billion significant beneficiaries” in China. Here’s a clue: it’s not the job of the President of the United States to “benefit” the Chinese, certainly not at the expense of his own people.

    Winning in ‘Nam”? Nixon a “free trader”? Were you even alive in the 60′s and 70′s? If so you weren’t paying attention. You need to find some better history books.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Laird, re: Nixon and China, “Here’s a clue: it’s not the job of the President of the United States to “benefit” the Chinese, certainly not at the expense of his own people.” Well-said. The “opening of China” by Nixon and Kissinger proved a tremendous boon to the Chinese, but a disaster for the USA. Even as a teenager back in the 1970s, I viewed Nixon’s initiative with alarm; I’ve never trusted the communist mandarins in Beijing and probably never will. Time has proven my fears prescient. Nixon can be spoken of as a “war winner” in Vietnam, at least in part, since under him, the U.S. came very close to forcing Hanoi to capitulate with B-52 strikes. “Operation Lineback,” we know now, almost broke the will of the NVA to resist. Had it not been suspended, Hanoi would have had to sue for peace. The raids were in fact a large reason they signed the Paris Accords. Of course, the corrupt and foolish pols in Congress later snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – by allowing the NVA to simply waltz in and take Saigon and the south. As for economics, Nixon shold be damned for removing the last vestiges of the gold standard – but by then, most of the damage had already been done by previous politicians and administrations, i.e. Wilson, FDR, etc.

  • Joel Mackey

    Nixon created the EPA, which has yet to reach it’s zenith as a job destroying, tyrannical bureaucracy.

  • John P. Squibob

    It is not about “talking down”, but facing reality. To change, you first need to accept where you are now. In the UK, many people, some of them holding quite diverse political views, have been slapped hard with that reality.

    When you are lost, the first thing you do is “reset your compass.” I guess the slap will do that.

  • mac

    Britain needs another Margaret Thatcher desperately. However, Britain doesn’t deserve one and would throw brickbats at her if she came.

    Britain is a weak, cowardly nation full of lazy bums who only want to binge drink and do as little as possible for as much as possible. As someone who greatly admires the Britain of yore, I think your forefathers would hold current Britons in contempt.

    The allowing of the bastard Iranians to take Royal Navy personnel without even a token fight was deeply humiliating. The way the British Army got its butt handed to them by the mullahs in Basra, mullahs who were later put down by tough Iraqis with American help, showed the utter spinelessness of British policy. Southern Iraq was the easiest place in Iraq by far to handle. That is why you were handed it–at your request, by the way. You failed miserably.

    Now you’re showing that you can’t even protect your own people in your capital from immigrant thugs and chavs. You know what the memory the rest of the world will take away from this will be? The picture of the white man stripping himself down to his skivvys at just the demand of a black thug. That thug could probably have sodomized him right there in the open street and the white kid would have just knelt there and taken it, whimpering.

    Gutless, cowardly, craven and broke–that’s today’s Britain. The only people you can muster enough energy to attack are native Britons who try to defend themselves against the thugs. It’s even, and you’re “beneath the yoke.” You may deny it but the rest of the world sees it very clearly.

    The men who held Lucknow and Rorke’s Drift wouldn’t think you worth spitting on.

  • This is what happens when sound ideas and principles are cast aside and replaced with foolishness and wishful thinking.

  • bobby b

    “Accepting your own powerlessness is a characteristic of weak leaders throughout history: always managing, never transforming.”

    I am sick unto death of politicians and government leaders who believe that it is the job of government to “transform.” It is not. It is the job of government to administer, to manage, to do the bookkeeping for the public accounts, to make sure the snow plow drivers are hired and fired and paid appropriately, to keep the roads clear and in good repair, and to enforce the laws that have been approved of by the citizenry.

    Show me a politician who wants to “transform” our culture, and I’ll wager he’s “transforming” things in conformance to his own personal vision. Show me one who would like to “bravely transform” our culture, and he’s likely doing things to which most people object. All of us are free to attempt to persuade our fellow citizens that our society should transform in some way, but we shouldn’t be government employees while we do so.

    We’ll do our transforming of our culture through the workings of a non-homogenized society, thank you. Those who favor leaning this way more than leaning that way can gravitate together and do whatever leaning they choose. Others can associate together to lean in the opposite direction. After one community collapses, and the other thrives, we’ll let the migration from death to life be our measure of what transformations will occur.

    Government monopoly over leadership of cultural transformation is the quickest route to failed states. It is the competition amongst ideas – the testing of all of those ideas in real life – through which we ultimately find good paths. The transformationists among us generally favor the strong central government – the powerful federal government in the US, the EU in Europe – because the resulting monopoly shelters their own desired transformations from the rigors of competition.

    If we all have to buy the exact same insurance from our government, then it’s “the best” insurance, by definition. If we all have to use the same doctors and the same medical-admin system, the docs and the system are “the best.” And, at that point, things will never ever improve, because there’s nothing to compare them against.

    And it all starts with pols who want to “transform” society.

  • Bobby: that comment was brilliant in its simplicity and clarity – very well said.

  • VanCanuck

    Having welfare recipients perform meaningful community service is probably impossible. The public service unions would cause a commotion that would make the recent riots look like ‘Ring Around the Rosy’.

    The armed forces are probably the only route available. The idea’s not such a bad one. Remember, there are three forces available, not just the army.

    It’s just possible that the graduates of a period of National Service would emerge knowing how to read, write, and do ‘rithmetic’. Even better, they might have the beginnings of a skill or two. “Beginnings” implies forward thinking. That could make a big difference to a lot of people.

  • Harold

    (Again, I have nothing against clubs and groups set up to help youngsters grow up a bit into adults, so long as this is voluntary.)

    It’s called the Boy Scouts of America for young men. And liberals viscerally hate the organization, for it is designed to turn boys into men.

    The Girl Scouts used to be the same for girls; it’s been taken over lock, stock, and barrel by liberals. It’s easy to tell- liberals don’t hate the Girl Scouts and try to keep them out of government parks and preserves.

  • Paul Marks

    Quite so Bobby B.

    Either we believe that civil society is the plaything of governments or we do not.

    And those who believe it is not, can not support politicians who promise to “fundamentally transform” civil society.

    The undermining of civil society has been caused by various government interventions over a very long period of time.

    Ending those interventions may enable people (again over time) to restore civil society.

    But government can not do this itself – it can only get out of the way and allow ordinary people to restore civil society.

    If it can be restored.

    For my fear is that, in the case of Britain, things have already gone past the point of no return.

    Not because of what we have seen – that has actually been quite minor (although people do not understand that it has been).

    But in the context of what will happen – over the next few years.

    Why do people think I keep advising people (friends, family members) to get out – if they have money, or marketable skills.

  • RetiredE9

    I don’t know what actually was done in “workhouses” (I have trouble believing that Dickens’ descriptions are wholly accurate),

    Trust me, they were. Read Bill Bryson’s “At Home” for an accurate, dismal description of life in both adult and children’s workhouses; they were ghastly.

    Is the disturbances happening elsewhere in the UK or just England?

    It’s my understanding that most of the rioting is confined to England. I certainly don’t remember any reports from Scotland or Northern Ireland.

    Meanwhile, I see reports that most of the rioters are white with an average age of 19 and, according to one report, a reported 38% of rioters have jobs or are students and see the riots as an opportunity to get big screen TVs and cell phones. How many bookstores have been looted?

    Is there any chance that some positive changes will come from all this? I have my doubts. I was getting ready to book my biennial trip to the UK next year but am now considering Ireland instead.

  • Going to London mid September – any good plays to recommend?

  • Paul Marks

    Between 2 and 3 per cent of the population of England and Wales had anything to do with the Poor Law (compare that to the modern Welfare State) and of those people – twice as many were on “out relief” (i.e. living at home) as in the workhouse.

    However, the unclear nature of the 1835 law in England and Wales does trouble me.

    I prefer the Scottish statute of 1845 – which clearly stated that the workhouse was voluntary (if you do not want to go, you do not go, and if you do not like it there – you are free to leave).

    Of course pre 1845 most of Scotland had no COMPULSORY Poor Rate at all which (as a libertarian) I like even better.

    Still back to the article……

    “Nixon and China”.

    This would be when Richard Price Controls Nixon made friends with the largest scale mass murderer in human history – Mao.

    That the establishment (the people who control the education system and the media) think such an act was a good thing, says a lot about them.

    Harold Macmillan – “Super Mac” did not have a conservative bone in his body, not even in artistic terms.

    For example, he did more harm to London (with his government “developments”) than the German airforce had.

    As for him being horrified by Maoism – errr is the writers not contradicting his “Nixon and China” line?

  • James of England

    I’m a little disappointed to have received no support in the face of Laird’s assault. I assume that most Samizdata readers would be familiar with the Tokyo GATT Round and the Trade Reform Act of 1974 (the act under which all subsequent FTAs have been passed).
    I’m grateful for Georgiaboy’s rebuttal on Vietnam, although I remain surprised that people can consider China’s move from Cold War nemesis to provider of cheap goods to be a negative thing.

    Saying that Nixon was a monster, and that we shouldn’t be interested in Chinese well-being or the Cold War when compared with the Gold Standard is fair enough. It’s even also to criticize or demean the significance of his trade policy and Vietnam. Suggesting that it is ignorant to suggest that Vietnam was defended under Nixon, or that Nixon launched massive trade liberalization processes, demands too neat a picture of heroes and villains.

  • Laird

    I don’t begrudge the Chinese their well-being, and actually agree with you that opening the door to better Sino-American relations was one of the few positives of the Nixon administration. But your point was that opening that door was somehow more important than the destruction of our currency or the unconstitutional and irrational imposition of wage and price controls, allegegly because the benefit to a billion Chinese somehow offset the (continuing) burden on a few hundred million Americans. That’s just flat-out wrong any way you look at it. The two were completely unrelated matters, but you’re the one who made the comparison and suggested the equivalency. And since you made it I called BS: there is no way, from an American’s perspective, the two are comparable or that the modest success in opening China in any way offsets or diminshes the damage Nixon did to our currency or our economy.

    And as to “winning” Vietman (which Georgiaboy did not “rebut”, by the way; read his post again), no rational person can characterize Vietnam as a “win” for the US. I didn’t say that Nixon lost it (Congress did that) but he (or we) most assuredly did not “win” there. Here’s a capsule summary of America’s Vietman escapade: Kennedy got us in to it; Johnson escalated it; Nixon got us out. But it was in no way a “win”, merely a somewhat orderly retreat. And the allies we abandoned suffered greatly after our departure.