We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


Conservative MP (and onetime leadership contender) Michael Portillo has a column in the UK Times [note: link may not be available to non-UK readers] in which he manages to illustrate everything that is so frustratingly wrong with British Conservatives.

This is not to say that his opinions are entirely unworthy. In fact, he hits several nails very squarely on the head:

Public esteem for business is alarmingly low. It is striking how much comment in the media is negative. In Britain those who most influence public opinion, the so-called commentariat, are in the main not involved in wealth creation. They are journalists, lobbyists, academics, religious leaders, civil servants and public service employees. They are generally given to scepticism or cynicism.

They are generally given to far more visceral sentiments but the point is still meritorious. However, it all starts going downhill from there.

I am a fervent advocate of free enterprise. Humankind has invented no better system for the generalised increase of prosperity. I believe that the creation of wealth is virtuous. People who work in business can and should feel that their efforts have a moral purpose. Without the profit motive we would not generate the resources that make it possible for government to build schools and hospitals and pay benefits to those who are poor or who cannot work.

Mr Portillo’s idea of ‘advocacy’ is to make a moral case for free enterprise based on nothing except a shameless pandering to the parasitical instincts of the public sector. Vote for capitalism, you will get a fatter cow to milk.

But these are not easy times for enthusiasts of capitalism. The cynics have received plentiful ammunition. We have witnessed the collapse of Enron, the American energy conglomerate, into a cesspool of deceit and trickery with its shareholders defrauded. Its auditors, Arthur Andersen, had one of the finest names in the business. The firm was associated with the highest ethical standards, a reputation built up over a century. After such rottenness was revealed within a venerated institution, it is difficult to be confident of anything.

Well, if that is ‘fervent’ I would hate to see ‘phlegmatic’. That sounds like a BBC editorial, written by the kind of people who believe that fraudulent behaviour is an inevitable and damning characteristic of free trade. Mr. Portillo seems to agree.

Politicians can help wealth creators to understand that in their own self-interest they must be more transparent. Issues such as how they do business in the developing world need to be debated. For example, how you conduct business in a country where families depend on their young children bringing in a wage is not straightforward. It is a good topic for consultation and one of many areas where business can establish codes of conduct on a voluntary basis. That can help to make the case that without foreign investment and expertise the poorest countries have no chance of making progress.

A slightly toned-down version of the kind of ‘fair-trade’ drivel put out by organisations like Greenpeace.

And there it all is in a nutshell. I have no doubt that Mr Portillo is a deeply clever and thoughtful man but, like so many other Conservatives I have either encountered or whose writing I have read, he tries to convince us of his professed beliefs in the power and goodness of free trade while simultaneously conceding to every canard and trope of those who regard free trade as an unmitigated evil.

If Mr Portillo is, indeed, a ‘fervent advocate’ of capitalism then he (and we) would be far better served if he were to explain why he is so disposed and what led him to those conclusions. If he is not prepared to make his own principled case then who does he expect will do it for him? Instead he shuffles timidly through this shame-faced and timid apologia.

Why do otherwise savvy and articulate people like Michael Portillo insist on pandering to the ridiculous prejudices of the people he refers to as ‘the commentariat’? Is it because he thinks they will despise him for being a capitalist? Well, I have news for Mr Portillo: they despise you anyway and regardless. You may as well give them good reason to despise you. You will be no worse off than you are now and your country will be all the better off for your passion and clarity.

7 comments to Limp

  • Portillo is of course not a member of the wealth creating class – with this article I suspect he’s just angling for a seat on some cow milking quango

  • Dear me, that’s a dreadful piece. One can only draw the worst conclusions about Mr Portillo from this article, (and bear in mind I’ve no prior information about the man, being Australian.)

    It seems to me that he has no belief in what he is saying, no passion for his principles, and no energy to take the battle to the statists.

    Or would that require a civil war within the Conservative Party to do that?

  • ic

    “Politicians can help wealth creators to understand that in their own self-interest they must be more transparent.” How do politicians do that when they thrive in opacity, when they plot and scheme behind closed doors, when the Euro bureacrats used their power of the state to silence oppositions. Politicians, heal thyselves.

  • Why do otherwise savvy and articulate people like Michael Portillo insist on pandering to the ridiculous prejudices of the people he refers to as ‘the commentariat’?

    Portillo, as the first commenter pointed out, is not a businessman, and probably neither are most of the people with whom he routinely associates. “The commentariat” are his neighbors and social partners. This social proximity might make it difficult for him not to sympathise with some of their positions — a typical example of what’s called “inside the Beltway” behavior in the U.S., or perhaps Stockholm Syndrome.

  • Cydonia

    To be fair to Portillo, his call is for

    “business [to]establish codes of conduct on a voluntary basis”

    He does not therefore espouse compulsion as such.

    Nevertheless I agree that as a defence of the free market, Portillo’s piece is pretty hopeless.


  • Remember Portaloo has a gig on the Beeb so he probably does not want to sound to “out there” for their tastes. Portaloo’s drift from relatively sound right-of-centre to centrist mish-mash has been befuddling for all but his most ardent of supporters.

  • Verity

    Andrew Ian Dodge – I agree! He has morphed from a fairly sound, grounded politician into Chief Swank.