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.