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The public mood (while the public moo-ed)

I am feeling less of a lone loony than I did. After a decade of my saying the key thing wrong with the demon eyes campaign was that the slogan ought to have been: ‘New Labour: Old Danger’ because the electorate should not have the purported newness reinforced, more and more people in the chattering classes seem to be accepting that there is a danger. Even such fringe lefty agitators as Clifford Chance LLP have offered severe warnings about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Too late?

The War on Liberty may never end, but it became a general action only in the 90s – just about the time, the Wall being down, and the net routing round borders and censorship, we free-lifers had begun to feel we were winning. Now I find I am doing my bit with NO2ID and we are gearing up for a ten-year campaign. Grand constitutionalist coalitions are being proposed left, right, and centre (which I’m sure are meritorious). The differences between Peter Hitchens and Mark Thomas begin to be indistinguishable when the establishment is of the extreme centre…

What worries me is that this ferment is still superficial, a speck of mould on Mr Blair’s Horlicks. It concerns the tiny minority of the population that reads the serious press, say 10% – and of those only the avid followers of politics, maybe a quarter of that. The readers and writers of blogs are fewer still, and more introrse.

The mass of the population of Britain is nescient, complacent, and has no interest in the abstractions of liberty, or the threats from power assumed only to be threats to others, to bad people. Many people are happy to claim the status of an ‘ordinary’ person, with “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” from officialdom, while being paradoxically susceptible to fears of everything else. Passively concerned with material welfare, security against virtual risks, and gossip, they graze and are milked as the livestock of the state.

This is Foucault’s concept of governmentality in action. Not, pace his fans on the left, a neo-liberal order, but a post-liberal order in which the foundational institutions of liberalism – liberty and individuality, rule of law, the separation of private and public life, a civil society and a political sphere distinct from one another – have ceased to have a meaning for even the bulk of the middle-classes.

Where is the cattle-prod that will change the public mood?

31 comments to The public mood (while the public moo-ed)

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The mass of the population of Britain is nescient, complacent, and has no interest in the abstractions of liberty, or the threats from power assumed only to be threats to others, to bad people.

    That pretty much nails it. Good piece, Guy. I also like your notion of the “extreme centre”: many of the most severe restrictions on our liberties are now coming from those folk who call themselves “pragmatists” or “moderates”. And such people also tend to get quite nasty about the likes of us, dubbing us “paranoid” and the like.

    Not quite sure I want Peter Hitchens on my side, though.

  • delmoremacnamara

    “Not quite sure I want Peter Hitchens on my side, though.”

    Curiously, this evil reactionary feels rather the same way about Mark Thomas. But any port in a storm…

  • Pete_London

    Give me Hitchens or give me death. Or seriously, I’ve long found it odd that people should shy away from someone so inoffensive to anyone with a liberty bent. This continues all the while his many predictions seem to come true. As for Mark Thomas, if he had any talent he’d be Michael Moore. A Leftist is still a Leftist and therefore not on my side. If he’s criticising Blair I’d put money on the reason being not for what Blair’s doing but because it’s Blair doing it.

  • ian

    I think you might have changed your mind about Hitchens if you had heard him on the radio (Thursday) on the metric system – not because he is opposed to it but because of his infantile and foolish behaviour as he did so. References to ‘peasant toe counting’ don’t strike me as the utterances of a rational man…

    But listen for yourself

  • Pete_London


    No, I haven’t changed my mind at all. In fact you’ve taken just once tiny quote (and misquoted Hitchens, by the way) as if this is evidence of the man’s derangement. Listen again to your own link. The central theme od Hitchens’ argument is that a free people should be free to choose their own system of weights and measures. He talks of history and culture, of liberty, of Paul Thorburn being prosecuted for selling his produce in pounds and ounces. In my opinion, Lord Howe’s counter-argument is very thin. As is yours.

  • Pete_London

    By the way, that was merely the first and not the only occasion yesterday where the BBC provided a podium for Howe to broadcast that arrant nonsense. On each occasion he did so he was given free reign to put the Kinnock argument that we aren’t modern unless we trash our culture whilst each opoonent was talked over, interrupted and cut short. On the BBC yesterday Howe actually said tourists are put off coming here because we use miles instead of kilometers and don’t understand them. Direct your criticism somewhere more worthy than Hitchens.

  • guy herbert

    ‘Extreme centre’ is not my phrase. Anthony Giddens used it. But it has also been used to pinpoint fascism on the political compass.

  • Verity

    Pete_London – Which Howe are we talking about? The “savaged by a dead sheep” Howe?

    Well, I guess that lets the United States and India, two piddling little countries, I think you’ll agree, off the tourist list of those who are frightened of miles and inches. An additional cause for fear and alarm would be that the US uses Fahrenheit, so eurotourists would never know how cold or hot they were.

    I too am a fan of Peter Hitchens.

  • Pete_London


    It is indeed the very same Baron “savaged by a dead sheep” Howe of Aberavon, former Chancellor of the Exchequor, former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and former Leader of the House of Commons. He actually stated that tourists are put off visiting Britain because we use miles instead of kilometres. If anyone needs to know just why the Tories are known as the Stupid Party, why they are known as the Useless Party and why they are responsible for much of the decline of post-war Britain, well there’s Geoffrey and his chums.

    By the way, he added that we keep pretty poor company in using miles, because the USA, Ivory Coast and Burma are the only other countries to do so. Nothing wrong with Geoffrey’s moral compass there then. This cretin was once Foreign Secretary!

  • ian

    Pete_London – read what I said as opposed to what you want to see. I am not interested in milord Howe – a prat if ever there was one. Nor did I offer any counter argument – at least not here. I was talking about the manner of Hitchen’s argument aginst the metric system not the argument itself – although I think he is wrong there too.

    As for quoting him wrongly, I didn’t quote him – UK usage for a quote is “double quotes”. I used ‘single quotes’ to indicate that they were not my choice of words but a paraphrase. Not as clear as it might have been I accept.

    His actual words by the way were “toe-counting peasant” not peasant toe-counting – not a lot of difference in the end and still inaccurate – it is the imperial system that is based on peasant measures.

    He also said that “no decent wine is sold in litre bottles” – which I suppose is literally true but it isn’t sold in pints or gallons either – or in bushels for that matter.

    His sole argument in favour of the imperial system (other than custom) seems to be that you can divide things by three. In doing so he is mistaking the measure for the object measured. I wonder if he has ever had to do anything so practical in his life – he doesn’t give that impression.

    There obviously is a case for letting people get on with using what ever measures they want to use. Putting up a buffoon like Hitchens doesn’t help that case.

  • Pete_London


    I realise now I should have had a look at your blog before responding to you. If so I’d have realised sooner you’re of the left and you just don’t like Hitchens. It could be that he’s an ex-Trot but I’d put it down to the fact he’s lucid and therefore a danger to your beliefs.

  • RAB

    Hang on a minute now. Christopher was the ex trot surely?
    Peter has always been consistently on the right. Some may say old fashionedly so, but nevertheless consistant.
    I also heard the broadcast with Lord Sheep of Aberavon (god! another shame my Nation has to bear!). He kept banging on about us being 150 years behind the rest of the world! I seem to remember him as a Chancellor who could barely count the change in his pocket, let alone understand O level economics.

  • Pete_London


    Now I think about it, Christopher is the ex-Trot. Peter Hitchens was a Marxist. Apparently these differences are important on the Left. Peter hasn’t always been the Voice of Reason, he’s done his fair share of travelling:

    PETER HITCHENS, Columnist for the Mail on Sunday, is a former Socialist who is now a convinced moral and social conservative. He belonged to the International Socialists from 1970 to 1975 and was a Labour Party actvist in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was briefly a member of the general committee of what was then Hampstead Labour Party. He also has first hand knowledge of the Labour movement thanks to several years as a labour and industrial correspondent. It was this, combined with travel in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, which convinced him that socialism was not a force for good.

    And thanks for the reminder, Howe did make mention of us being 150 years behind the rest of the world for employing miles.

  • ian


    The usual rigorous analysis I’ve come to know and love from commentators on this site I see…

  • atkins

    Where is the cattle-prod that will change the public mood?

    I believe it could be Speed Cameras.

    Or more specifically the Partnerships behind them and the managerial control mentality which brought forth those Partnerships. (The Partnerships are between the Police, Courts, Local Authorities; and the partners are paid by the Partnerships – creating huge moral & legal difficulties for the courts in particular, see Magna Carta and various principles of Natural Law).

    As GH says, hardly anyone cares about abstract stuff like the Leg & Reg Reform or the earlier Civil Contingency thing. Whereas there are 30-something million drivers in the UK, who are directly hurt by govt managerial control which is furthermore right in their face every day to their extreme annoyance.

    If drivers can be made aware of the anti-Liberty constitutional violations of the scameraships might this act as the cattle-prod?

    Of course many would not get to grips with the argument’s details and simply file it away as “yeah the govt shagged us, the bastards” but some might get interested in wider Liberty via this route. (It worked for me!)

    PdH / GH / any pro-Liberty savvy campaigners wanna help us neophytes put the message out?

  • Pete_London


    Shucks, one does one’s best. But when you criticise Hitchens with a pathetically weak arument whilst linking to a bunch of Leftist sites I smell an agenda.

  • Guy, I’m thinking it may be ID cards at passport re-registration. Or it may be another protester outside Parliament doing something innocuous; I keep thinking of t-shirt slogans. Leg/Reg is something us constitution wonks can obsess over (and we are), but ‘normal’ people being told what to do and arrested for their ‘basic rights’ is another entirely.

    Still, thanks for the plug, Unity is still coding away from what I understand. I’m supposed to be writing content. What am I doing commenting on Samizdata when I’ve got a campaign to help launch?

  • RAB

    Thanks Pete, I didn’t know Peter was on the left to start with too.
    You have to have felt for their parents when they were 60’s adolescents!

  • Where is the cattle-prod that will change the public mood?

    I believe it could be Speed Cameras.


    If it goes ahead, road-pricing using GPS positioning will be the clincher.

    When that was floated, near enough everyone who complained went down the route of objecting to the ‘knowing your wherabouts at all times’ aspect – what few people noted was that if you know the distance between point A and Point B and how long a car takes to travel that distance, then you can work out the speed the car was travelling very easily.

    GATSOs are bad but at least they are not absolutely everywhere – start tracking cars by GPS and nowhere is free of the State – anytime you go over the speed limit, no matter where you are, the system spits out a ticket.

  • Pete_London


    And the response from the bovine masses will still be: “Yeah, but what can you do?”

    I’ve had this chat with friends and others a thousand times and always the response is the same: “Tossers. Anyway, is it your shout or mine?”

    Just a couple of weeks ago I explained to some why agreeing with the the smoking ban means agreeing with the principle that the state may legitimately prevent you from carrying out perfectly lawful activities on your own property. The response? “Yeah, but in this case I agree with it.” Now my powers of persuasion may not be the greatest, but they just couldn’t grasp the principle and the fact that a free people must accept the habits and peccadilloes, however anti-social, of others.

    Government has used the cattle prod time and time again but the great bovine arse of the people just can’t feel it. I’m very pessimistic.

  • mike

    I don’t think there will be any single event that acts as a ‘cattle prod’ to wake up the bovine arse of the people as Pete_London so eloquently puts it.

    However, a spate of regular terrorist attacks that kill very large numbers of people in spite of the government’s police state measures would very obviously discredit the government and condition a change of ‘public mood’. Cameras and speeding fines are trivial.

    Up until now, terrorist attacks, while awful, have been few and far between which suggests a measure of amateurism (excepting Sept 11th). Terrorist attacks that occured regularly, such as on the same day of every month for example, would really scare the shit out of people because they would suggest an impotent police force and by extension, an impotent government.

    Yet this hasn’t happened and I don’t believe it will. Another possibility could be that any great political change would happen as a result of a discrediting of State welfare. Yet this is question-begging and in any case nobody pays attention to measures of economic disparity anyway. Pensioners may be left badly off by the State, and though they may vote in droves, can anbody really say that the plight of pensioners has a great effect on political culture? (Apologies if that sounds a contemptuous note – it is not meant to).

    I do think that what will change political culture is going to be something ‘negative’, i.e. something that hits a majority of people really hard whilst discrediting the government at the same time. If this is not to be mass economic woes then it may be the mass impact (as distinct from threat) of terrorism.

    By the same token, ‘positive’ arguments about advances in technology and so forth allowing for the expansion of human potential and thereby reducing the role of the State are crass. We have had plenty of technological innovation without any reduction of State power (indeed the reverse as the technology has been either developed by or appropriated by the State).

  • ian


    If you base your interpretation of what I say, not on the words used but on something else entirely I know who has the agenda.

    A question for all of you – how do you ever expect anyone to listen or to take your message seriously if the only way you engage with people of a different view point is by ad hominem attacks. I commend to you a Libertarian Alliance pamphlet by Brian Micklethwait with teh message in essence being stop whinging and present Libertrarianism positively (a heavy paraphrase before someone accuses me of misquoting, because I can’t find the reference for the moment).

    Perhaps you might also recognise this:

    What libertarians need to understand is that there are indeed important differences between the ‘left’ and ‘right’, but they are meta-contextual rather than ideological, now that we no longer live in a simpler bipolar world. That is to say, the left and right come from very different traditions that strongly colour their respective views of how the world really works and thus how they interpret any ideological issue presented to them. Bearing this in mind, libertarians need to realise that by mentally allying themselves to the ‘right’, they are actually not making a useful ideological distinction at all. In fact, by doing so, they run the risk of clothing themselves in cultural metacontextual baggage that is often profoundly unhelpful.

    I’m probably wasting my time of course – you will only tell me that the Devil can also quote Scripture and stay in your hermetically sealed group-think bubble congratulating yourself on how wise and wonderful you are.

  • ian

    To save you the head scratching look here

  • Where is the cattle-prod that will change the public mood?

    Oh guy, ye of little faith. As governments intervene more and more in the voluntary economy, they will render it less and less effective, until eventually there will be an individualised cattle prod for each individual within society (or at least those who aren’t parasites).

    What will these individualised cattle prods be? A lack of a decent pension. A relative being locked up for a thought crime. A close relative dying of an easily curable cancer. A happy slapping incident directed at ones self. Your child being dumped into the tender mercies of a remedial teaching unit, when the real problem is bad teachers. A son being killed in Afghanistan fighting a war for ‘Britain’ he knows nothing about. Paying a thousand a year for your ID card. Paying ten thousand a year in Council Tax. Being unable to afford to buy, or even rent, a home for your family. Being banned from travelling outside of the EU. A prohibition on smoking. A prohibition on alcohol. A prohibition on whatever it is you personally enjoy (fishing, fencing, jujitsu, naturism, whatever). Being forced to use public transport. A prohibition on non-government vehicles. A prohibition on more than X flight miles a year (unless on government business). Having your child removed due to your adjudged political incorrectness. Being unable to afford decent dental treatment. Etc, etc, etc.

    Fundamentally, as the interveners intervene ever more in our lives, the cattle prod will become the strong man who eventually takes over, to fulfil Hayek’s road to serfdom. This will result in either enemy tanks and bombs in the street, or starvation. Either way, you will have your cattle prod.

    But I have left the best cattle prod till last. You underestimate your influence. What could prove the best cattle prod of all is the cattle prod below:

    The Cattle Prod to end all Cattle Prods

    You’re doing a great job, guy. Great article. Please keep up the good work. Your reward will be in heaven and in a much freer society. Just don’t despair. The human condition is one of freedom. This historical phase we are going through, of parasitism, will eventually be crushed by this condition. Okay, so it may not be in our lifetimes, but we’ve gotta have faith otherwise we are all lost.

  • ian,

    Anyone who thinks that Peter Hitchens is a libertarian needs to read more. He is staunch defender of church and state and from what I read in a Radio 4 transcript, hardly a defender of free-market values.

  • Patriarchy? If we continue along the trajectory of insanity instigated by Father O’Bleagh, there will come a point at which the devout think to regain their lost overlordship and dictate what goes on in our bedrooms and how women should dress. After all, boob-tubes and mini-skirts offend their sensibilities and we all know how foul an offence that is. It is really only very recently we have got free of the supposed commandments of Yahweh and Jehovah and a spell surfing indicates the monster is still alive and well in Christianity and Judaism, as in Islam. In front of flagrant abuses of women’s rights both at home and abroad, the largely male political establishment lies supine, hypnotized by the whine, “It’s our religion.” as though confronted by a swaying cobra. I think it’s time to turn into mongooses, girls. Remember Lady Godiva!
    The female of the species may yet prove she is more deadly than the male.

  • guy herbert


    As governments intervene more and more in the voluntary economy, they will render it less and less effective, until eventually there will be an individualised cattle prod for each individual within society (or at least those who aren’t parasites).

    There I think you have it precisely wrong. The whole purpose of ever more government intervention is individualised control of the populace–and it is an explicit goal of identity managed e-Government (see the ‘Transformational Government’ strategy papers. Reducing the effectiveness of voluntary institutions strengthens the power of involuntary ones.

    That’s why I now regard Foucault as a prophet rather than the charlatan I had him down as 15 years ago. The mode of governmentality is to expand the conceptions of welfare, making all welfare dependents, all clients of the state, all “parasites” fearing for the welfare of their host, the state.

    What you miss is that personal restrictions are just one side of the coin that the populace is paid in. The other is increased choice-no-choice of approved activities alongside the assurance that without controls there would be threats. Doing what we are told is good and following the herd makes most feel good. Taste is malleable, particularly under peer-pressure.

    Witness Stephen Pound MP – more rational, humane and likeable than it ought to be possible to be and still a Home Office PPS – a 60-a-day man who voted against the smoking ban. The day after the vote, he was confessing his doubts about his own previous opinions, and saying he was considering giving up smoking. I believed him; but even if it were pure spin, it shows how rapidly social orthodoxy can take hold over matters not previously a regulatory subject.

    Witness the Communist Bloc. It wasn’t the universal controls, the corruption, the murderous regime of decades duration, that broke down the walls. It was the attempt to liberalise. Individual suffering and inconvenience cows, it doesn’t rouse. What is needed is a non-personal shock, something to alter the groupthink. A common experience or new myth might.

    mike here is utterly wrong. Serious terrorism would (certainly not in itself) not cause people to resent the futility of overbearing government, but demand more of it. The crowd does not grasp counterexample. Added to which, to be more than a sentimentalised vicarious ‘pain’ and virtual risk identical in consumer experience to existing ‘terror’ scares, it would need to be very widespread indeed.

    We do also, as ian suggests, need a positive, clear alternative model. If the sheep do look up and see nothing but fog, down will go their heads again.

  • guy herbert

    I think it’s already happening, Ysabel.

    The menaces of ‘the security agenda’ are squarely aimed at women (on whom, polling data suggests, they do work better.) Add to that the binge-drinking scare, encouragement of ‘work-life balance’, and those repulsive ads that say if you take officially unapproved transport you are asking for rape, and there’s a definite tendency to tell women, in particular, what do do.

    Now we have maddonas and victims, not madonnas and whores (real whores are now classed victims of sex-crime; the uncommercially sexual, of lack of respec’), but the authoritarian bifurcation is there: be good or be nothing; behave just so, or so be an object of pity and contempt.

    Separate taxation for married couples – introduced only in the 1980s – has gone already, and unmarried couples if they have children are now jointly assessed.
    The purported feminist strain in New Labour is not a liberal feminism, set to remove formal barriers to women’s choices, but one of group roles and group rights attributed on grounds of sex. ‘Family friendly policies’ and respec’ have fixed ideas of what a family is and should be at their heart.

    Meanwhile, male politicians appear now to be rated on their fecundity, with babies a big deal and a proud production for the father. Even to the point of pursuing claims to paternity, á la Blunkett. The personal has become the political at last – but not in a good way.

  • ian

    I don’t think Hitchens (either of them) are libertarian – my remarks were addressed to Pete_London.

  • Paul Marks

    Good to see something on the Regulatory and Legislative Reform bill here.

    Yes the end result of the “delegated leglislation” doctrine that ministers and officials can make up new laws under the cover of vague enabling Acts of Parliament.

    “But we can not have an active, compassionate government any other way” – well that is a good argument against an active, compassionate government.

    Of course A. V. Dicey warned against this process way back before World War One (indeed in the 17 th century John Locke had stated that Parliament must not delegate the ability to create a regulation to a minister or official).

    The last major establisment figure to warn of the process was Chief Justice Hewitt (“The New Despotism” 1929).

    Still it is more or less completed now.

    A government minister can (under the Regulatory and Legislative Reform Bill) change any regulation (other than a tax regulation) without going back to Parliament and create a punishment of up to two years in prison for anyone who does not obey.

    And what does “Dave” Cameron do? He goes on “paternity leave”.

    Still police state Britain is old news (and by “police state” I do not mean Nazi Death Camps – the Nazi state was a very exteme example of a police state).

    For example, under the latest terrorism law any person in a “designated area” can be arrested if they have “equipment useful to a terrorist”.

    A “designated area” is simply an area that a Chief Constable (with the approval of the Home Sec) says is a designated area (the whole country can be covered by them – and the public need not be told).

    And “equipment useful to a terrorist”? Pen and paper will do.

    The Financial Serives Act (which goes back to the Conservatives) can be used to create enough regulations to keep the finanical people in line (if everyone is a criminal everyone must keep their heads down).

    It is an old familar story. The “chilling effect” – “I had better keep my head down, I do not want the S.I.B. to look at me”.

    How to get the public interested?

    Well there was a good chance recently.

    The local government standards board (set up by Mr Blair) ruled that Red Ken should be suspened from his position as Mayor of London for a month because of nasty things he said to a Jewish jounalist.

    The Conservatives could have said “this sort of thing is happening up and down the nation – for example councilors who try and expose the “wind farm” con (a con because the wind trubines do not produce much power and have to be backed up 24 hours a day by coal and gas fired power stations whose power goes to waste – thus meaning the reduction of C02 emissions is tiny) are often not allowed to speak or vote against wind turbines in council debates”.

    “The board is destoying democracy – it will not even allow local council Chief Executives (the people who have taken over what used to be called Town Clerk positions) to be described as the vastly over paid wastes-of-space that they are”.

    “The free speech and right to vote of local councillors is being violated by Blair’s unelected board”.

    The media are already running with the story – and so much more could have been done.

    And what do the Conservative do?

    Nothing – nothing – nothing.

    Instead “nasty party” fancy shoes attacks some government minister because her lawyer husband is paid by the Italian Prime Minster.

    Bad though the public may be it is the Conservative party that is missing chance after chance to try and get them interested in saving their liberties.

    Do you really belive that Mr Cameron wants to roll back the state?

    I do not.

    He just wants to be the new Mr Blair.

  • Lyle

    Good reading here, for this Yank.
    The Cattle Prod?
    Alas. Was there a Cattle Prod in pre Leninist Russia, pre Nazi Germany, etc.? Yes, and the Prod was pushing them into an abyss. In such cases, only outside forces made the difference, and through much suffering.

    The American Revolution might have failed if not for the French and the Dutch. Even then it was touch and go for a while.

    The point is; I’m not sure we have a positive model in history that shows us how oppression is turned around by the People, into Liberty without great cost.