Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Why Maggie met Gordo

Beneath all the in-fighting, mud-slinging, and speculation concerning Baroness Thatcher's visit to No. 10 last week, there lies an important milestone in British political and economic history that is far more symbolic and simple than any of the dailies seemed to have noticed. Amid questions raised over the perceived party 'morality' of the visit, the Rt. Hon. Lady's mental faculties and Rob Wilson, MP's incomprehensible accusation of 'exploitation' on the part of the prime minister, there lies three simple facts.

1. Gordon Brown invited Lady Thatcher after a series of letters between them
2. It would have been unthinkable for her to decline
3. She has visited each one of her successors at Downing Street since leaving in 1990

Though these facts have been very confused, they nonetheless do not make the event unremarkable. The prime minister and Baroness Thatcher emerged from No. 10 in noticeably higher spirits than they entered, and one may speculate they had a lot to talk about, standing on some firm common ground. The peppering of mutual compliments and the prime minister's 'conviction politicians' praise appears to confirm this. Minor details have, however, been characteristically blown out of proportion - one column even going so far as to highlight Lady Thatcher's choice of 'Labour' red frock (it was in fact bright fuchsia). Such speculations are of course pure nonsense, and completely beside the point. This is not a party issue. This is a former prime minister, and the founder of today's established order, visiting the incumbent. There should in fact be much less controversy surrounding this aspect owing to the fact that Lady Thatcher and her premiership has been all but disowned by the current leader of her party, David Cameron at a time when Labour has found itself confident enough to praise it. What is significant about this whole event is that in a purely symbolic way it concretely closes a circle in British politics that began its circumference on 3 May 1979 when the nation went to the polls to decide Britain's future. It is significant because the Labour Party, who passionately fought the Conservatives' policies nail and tooth throughout Lady Thatcher's premiership, is now led by a man who openly praises the reforms of the 1980s, and indeed the much-hated woman who enacted them, as the foundation of the current political order and the basis of Britain's subsequent prosperity.

This should not be as shocking as some make it out to be. Parties change with the times in order to survive, primarily because they are not entities unto themselves but are composed of people. People who are diverse, pragmatic, and open to a change of opinion. Few would now believe that in the nineteenth century, the Lib Dems in their previous incarnation as the Liberals were a hard-line free market capitalism party. Similarly, few in the nineteenth century could have imagined the Conservatives so enthusiastically embracing the post-war socialism that dominated British politics up until the late seventies (and for them, until 11 February 1975, when Margaret Thatcher was grudgingly elected leader). It should not really be all that strange that Labour have employed Lady Thatcher's preferred advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi either. They are after all a competitive company who can work for whoever they like, and their credentials certainly make them desirable for any party. It does however, given the timing, have a startling symbolic effect.

It is nonetheless entirely symbolic and in no way surprising. Most people have been well aware for some time that Tony Blair deliberately forged Labour to be the natural successor of the Thatcherite Conservative Party - it was just too early to say it out loud. Ten years is a long time - what was taboo in 1997 has evolved into a gradual acceptance to the point that what was unspeakable then can today be blatantly proclaimed on the steps of 10 Downing Street itself. And it need not be seen as an abandonment of principle either. Being called Labour does not explicitly require you to be a socialist party - Labour have arguably served workers in this country since 1997 far better than any socialists could. Indeed, in The Constitution of Liberty - a Thatcherite Bible of sorts - F. A. Hayek makes the point that protectionism, wage controls, and strong unions – vanquished by Lady Thatcher in the 1980s - actually reduce real wages over time and cause widespread unemployment (incidentally, Labour's record since 1997 in this respect seems to have been lost on most socialists).

The trouble with the Conservative Party over the next decade was that they hadn't realised this. Their ten-year identity crisis occurred because - as one of Lady Thatcher's advisers put it to John Ranelagh in 1990 - 'the Tory Party is not a Thatcherite Party, that's the tragedy'. And it never was - the hierarchy tolerated her because she won elections but never much cared for her policies, many openly despising her. They wasted no time in 'stabbing her in the back' once she began to be perceived as an electoral liability and was henceforth removed in the most back-handed way. The classical liberalism espoused by her (small) wing of the party since 1975 has always been much closer to the that of the nineteenth century Liberal Party or Whigs than the Tories. The lady herself actually confirmed this at Conference in 1983 by stating 'I would not mind betting that if Mr. Gladstone [four-time Liberal prime minister 1868-94] were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party'. Lord Harris, too, has described Thatcherism as 'more or less common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth century'.

Hence, if the Conservatives appear to have found their feet since their election of David Cameron in 2005, it is precisely because said leader has been busy scrubbing Lady Thatcher from his party's history - explicitly refusing even to appear in the same photograph as her. The image then, of Gordon Brown at the door of No. 10 with Lady Thatcher on the very same day John Gummer announced the Blueprint for a Green Economy with the words 'I am a Tory' has an irony that hardly needs pointing out. Further, it is now obvious that, despite her deeply-held loyalty in the past, Lady Thatcher's very membership of the Conservative Party was one of political necessity rather than any real fealty. Throughout her political career before being elected leader in 1975 she was a member, and later, minister of a party whose policies she abhorred. Indeed, The Constitution of Liberty, a book Lady Thatcher once slammed on a table with the words 'This is what we believe' holds such a vindication of her actions in this respect. Hayek wrote that

At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom...generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties

Hayek wrote those words in 1959. The situation has changed considerably since then, though arguably only within the last few years. With Labour embracing monetarism and the free market, Independence on the rise, and even - saints alive - the Lib Dems embracing personal responsibility and market mechanisms, Cameron's Conservatives have been released of the burden of being the sole 'neoliberal' party in Britain. This has allowed them to return to being just that - conservative. Thatcherism was less a philosophy than a mission, and once that mission had been completed, namely (in the words of John Ranelagh) to establish 'a series of hard, practical achievements that would stand the test of time and...become common ground for political debate' it was defunct. This is why, after twenty years of preaching to the opposition, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard found it so difficult to present a coherent set of policies for their party. It was, put simply, because everything the party had campaigned for since 1975 became common ground by 1997 and thus, taken for granted.

Keith Joseph once remarked in 1975 that it was only in April of the previous year that he was converted to 'real' Conservatism, professing that 'I had thought I was a Conservative but now I see I was not really one at all'. In fact, he was still wasn't. David Cameron, in steering his party back to old traditions such as suspicion of material progress (We're too rich to be happy - The Times, 14 September 2007) and censorship in areas of entertainment like video games is in fact returning his party to true Conservatism. Joseph's words in 1975 were necessary for their time because he could hardly have called himself a liberal at a time when the Lib Dems were still called the Liberal Party, and he was, at any rate a member of the Conservatives when there was not a chance in hell that either the Liberals nor Labour would ever come close to accepting the Thatcherite policies he devised.

With this in mind it can certainly be no coincidence that Cameron is the first Tory leader since the 14th Earl of Home in 1963 to have not risen from lowly beginnings. Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard all worked their way up through the grammar school system - 'self-made men' so to speak - whereas Cameron, son of a stock-broker and 5th cousin of Queen Elizabeth II twice removed, attended Eton College. Incidentally it was Heath, elected in 1965, who first attempted to introduce market reforms during his premiership in 1970-74. There is then, no mystery as to why Lady Thatcher appeared so publicly outside No. 10 with Gordon Brown. The plain truth is that Labour now happens to stand more for what she believes in than the Conservatives, and she is no doubt hurt by the latter's recent treatment of her. It also conveniently symbolises the setting in stone of everything she went out to achieve and reveals her premiership in the 1980s for what it was - nothing less than a revolution in its truest sense. A revolution, a turn, a circle right round to the political and economic climate that once made Britain - and then arguably the whole western world - so great. Indeed, it could scarcely be more complete if Labour changed their name to the Liberal Party.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Free Trade vs Live Aid

I remember quite vividly some five years ago first hearing that the eighties were 'back in'. The seventies garage band look popularised very briefly by the Strokes explosion had passed and eyes had turned elsewhere. This was fine by me of course - the 1980s was perhaps the greatest decade of the twentieth century, and not just because I was born bang in the middle of it. Yet, I couldn't help thinking to myself that only a few years previously the said decade could not be so much as mentioned without the mandatory epithet 'the decade that fashion forgot' - something these days about as memorable as Justin Timberlake's days in N*Sync. Yet suddenly it was okay again to like The Human League and to wear white jeans. Hmm. In a sense Francis Fukuyama may have been right when he mused on the 'end of history' - the eighties had become the height of cool again after only 10 years' absence, and with the new early-nineties craze for rave creeping ever deeper into popular culture, it appears we are now trapped on the ever-spinning wheel of fashion for the foreseeable future. So much so, in fact, that even the Labour Party have jumped the bandwagon.

A notable eighties fashion cynically lambasted throughout the 1990s (along with just about everything else, it seems) were overblown charity concerts. The year 2005 reignited the trend with Live Aid reincarnated as Live 8 on its twentieth anniversary. This summer we've managed to completely outdo ourselves on this score by staging not one, but two utterly pointless events within the space of a week. These days of course, the concerts are very post-modernly about 'awareness' because we've managed to figure out that fiscally they're a drop in the ocean and can't, sadly, save the world. Sad, yes, but you can't blame them for being optimistic - it was the eighties after all. But if Bob Geldof and Bono can't save the world, what hope is there? What to do with all these 'failed states'?

Well so far, half a century of throwing money at the developing world doesn't seem to have yielded any fruit. In fact all it can conceivably have achieved is a minutely lessened death toll, while at the same time giving already hopelessly inept governments even less incentive to face facts. This is rotten fruit. On the flipside, the continuous bleat for inaction due to corrupt dictators extorting any aid for themselves is neither constructive nor relevent. Such an attitude does nothing to help the suffering of millions, and besides - ten years of New Labour in this country has proved that even in the most well-intentioned hands, merely throwing money at a problem solves nothing. I'm thinking state education and health care here Tony. Likewise, the campaign to 'make poverty history' is not only hopelessly naive, but actually bordering on insanity. It is a campaign so economically ignorant and fantastical that it could almost have been devised by the Politburo itself. Poverty is a relative concept and will always be with us so long as some are better off than others. The fact that what we call 'poverty' in this country is such a highly desirable standard of living for most of the rest of the world is a testament to this - as indeed to the merits of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Now, call me a Thatcherite idealist, but this is where I believe true hope lies.

On October 30 1990, Margaret Thatcher was prompted to defend the United Kingdom's aid commitment to the emerging democracies (and potential competetors) of Europe by the then-member for Oldham Central and Royton - what we would now call a very 'old Labour' MP - James Lamond. The said member - who had clearly been either hiding under a rock or lost in a coma for the duration of the seventies - went on to criticise the Government over their liberalisation of the economy and urged Mrs Thatcher to return Britain to the protectionist policies of the past in the interests of its workers, whom he accused Mrs Thatcher of 'selling down the river' to foreign competition and investment. This was greeted with groans of approval from the honourable member's backbench colleagues, while Mrs Thatcher pointed out that not only would protectionism hurt our workers more than help them, but that concerning the people of the Third World - 'They need trade as much as they need aid'.

That as late as 1990 - with 40 years' experience of what protectionism, corporatism and government intervention brings, and with the economic nightmare of the seventies behind them - this was still the prevailing attitude among the Parliamentary Labour Party in a country as 'developed' as Britain - shows just what we are up against in convincing developing world leaders to abandon their sloppy socialism and open their markets to free trade. Incidentally, the kind of xenophobic language used by backbench Labour MPs of the time on matters concerning foreign investment and competition serves only to reinforce Friedrich von Hayek's identification of 'the socialist roots of Nazism', as well as the intellectual bankruptcy and contradiction inherent in Left internationalists' resistance to globalisation.
But to get back to the point, promoting free trade to the developing world will indeed continue to be a difficult task, not least because of widespread suspicion even among large sections our own societies, exemplified most notably in the rise of 'ethical' trading and fair trade products. But in a sense the figures go a long way towards speaking for themselves - there is a startling correlation between data collected by the Heritage Foundation in their Index of Economic Freedom [1] and Foreign Policy magazine's Failed States Index [2]. Of the 157 countries listed in the Index of Economic Freedom, the top ten are all classed as either 'stable' or 'most stable' in the Failed States Index. According to the Heritage Foundation, the following are the ten most open and unregulated economies in the world

1. Hong Kong
2. Singapore
3. Ireland
4. Luxembourg
5. Iceland
5. United Kingdom
7. Estonia
8. Denmark
9. New Zealand
9. United States
9. Australia

We know these well as prosperous, affluent states with a high overall standard of living. The Republic of Ireland - for so long one of the EU's poorest nations - has experienced such a massive increase in prosperity since abandoning its anti-imperialist hangover that a new term has been coined in the wake of this phenomenon - Celtic Tiger.
In contrast, the bottom ten nations in the Index of Economic Freedom (below) are all classed as 'borderline' in the Failed States Index. This is excepting Venezuela ('In danger'), Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and North Korea (all 'Critical')

148. Turkmenistan
149. Laos
150. Cuba
151. Belarus
152. Venezuela
152. Libya
154. Zimbabwe
155. Burma
156. Iran
157. North Korea

With hard figures in front of us, it is plain to see that the most regulated, protectionist, and openly socialist economies of the world are by no coincidence also the most poverty-stricken and volatile. Other states similarly classed as 'critical' in the Failed States Index also rank very low in the Index of Economic Freedom. Haïti (147), Bangladesh (141), Republic of the Congo (143) and Ethiopia (133) all belong to this category and are infamous the world over for inhumane levels of poverty and degradation among their inhabitants. The typically Left explanation of this phenomenon - also tediously prevalent among otherwise well-educated young people - is that it is the result of European imperialism and racism. This is utter bolderdash, and there are many states around the world that prove this. Hong Kong and Singapore - topping the Heritage Foundation's index and practically isolated in Asia in terms of economic freedom are both former colonies of the British Empire. Both countries possess only a tiny fraction of the population and natural resources available to their much poorer neighbours, and are by far the world's greatest example of the benefits inherant in free trade and a healthy, open economy. Indeed, the contrast in Asia is greater than anywhere else in the world - Hong Kong and Singapore stand out as shining dynamic tigers of freedom and prosperity, while Burma and North Korea languish in the depths of extreme poverty and tyranny. Even their neighbours China and India - though still far from free and prosperous economies - have experienced unprecedented booms since shedding their own socialist pasts, accompanied by a rise in the overall stadard of living. What we see here is that poverty can in no way be pegged to imperialism or natural resources and that furthermore, prosperity can be directly linked to an open and free economy.

It is very easy to forget in today's political climate that as little 25 years ago, eastern Europe too relied on aid and debt relief from the west. Their poverty too was caused by economic restriction and mismanagement accompanied by vastly over-reaching governmental power. In her memoirs The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher sheds light on her dilemma in how best to tackle the problem concerning Poland in 1981

If we continued to provide food aid and to proceed with plans for Polish debt relief would this benefit the Polish people or play into the hands of hardliners in Poland who are struggling to survive the consequences of misgovernment?

The new prosperity that eliminated this question entirely was brought about by democratic and economic freedom sweeping through eastern Europe as state by state freed itself from the Soviet yoke and adopted the western model. The eighties closed in a collective sigh of relief as Marx's Communist spectre 'haunting Europe' was finally and permanently put to rest. The developing world then, would do well to learn from this perfect miniature of their own economic history, as well as that of Hong Kong and Singapore's. For, as pointed out by Mrs Thatcher - there is always the danger that continued aid without dedicated political pressure will only perpetuate the kind of economic and political mismanagement that caused all the problems in the first place. With Zimbabwe's rapid disintegration worsening day by day, Mrs Thatcher's words continue to resonate into modern times. They really do need trade as much - if not in fact more - than they need aid.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Is the NHS eroding our civil liberties?

Tuesday's Times reported on its front page a headline on the proposed 'Crackdown on middle class wine drinkers' that Boris Johnson has since kicked up a storm on his blog, as doctors have been renewing pressure on this already legislation-happy government into imposing higher taxes on alcohol sales and providing more 'safety' warnings on labels. It represents a fundamental shift in Whitehall policy towards drinking, which in the past has focused on underage and anti-social drinkers. It also represents an unwelcome return of that old familiar stench 'the man in Whitehall knows best'. With this change, policy no longer rests on merely enforcing the law and protecting the public from violent individuals - it is taking the very odious decision of protecting the public from themselves. Not content with deciding for responsible adults (and employers) when and where they may smoke, doctors and ministers are now seeking to control how much individuals should drink in their own homes for their own good. A Whitehall source told The Times that they wish now '...to target the older drinkers, those that are maybe drinking one or two bottles of wine at home each evening' before woefully adding that they simply 'do not realise the damage they are doing to their health'!

Now, although this writer is all in favour of shifting income tax onto indirect taxation, we all know this is not going to happen. This pernicious tax would simply add to the public's burden and is nothing short of a naked attack on individualism and personal responsibility - two things that are already sorely lacking in this country. For while the pen-pushers at Whitehall wither over their charts and statistics, the reality is that it is the responsible lower-middle income drinker that will suffer from this ludicrous piece of nanny legislation. It does not even hold the shred of authority that the smoking ban claimed - namely, protecting non-smokers from the passive smoke they do not choose to inhale - and yet the head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association still felt confident in her assertion that 'It is not the nanny state. It is about informed choices'.

But the truth is it is about neither. The root motive of this, and by extension all nanny health legislation, is money. More specifically, the ailing NHS's money. We have to ask ourselves seriously; why else should the man in Whitehall really be so concerned with our health? The Times reported in same said article that 'ministers wish to highlight the increasing burden that drink-related disease is placing on the NHS...estimated to be costing between £1.3 billion and £1.7 billion [a year]'. So there it is. In black and white. It's because it costs them money. Though technically it's our money. So instead of having the individual responsibility of drinking reasonably in order to avoid large personal medical costs, we must be chastised and taxed collectively by the state to make sure we're taking good care of ourselves and aren’t doing the terribly selfish thing of costing our neighbour money.

In this sense the health service stands out as the last socialist holy cow to survive the Thatcherite era. It is the last post-war institution to be maintained despite making zero economic sense, racking up enormous public debts, and by proxy eroding individual responsibility through more and more government legislation. British Gas, British Airways, British Rail, British Waterways etc were all privatised for these very reasons, and although Mrs Thatcher would very much have liked the NHS to follow, realpolitik of the time made this an impossibility far surpassing the 'troubles' of the Poll Tax. However, with Tony Blair's Labour government having 'alleviated' more and more of the health service through the Private Finance Initiative in the last 10 years, perhaps it is time for complete privatisation to be (very gently) put back on the table.

It needs to be addressed that - wonderful an idea as it was, and great things it has nonetheless achieved - the stark reality is that the NHS is unsustainable, that it has become a monster with an insatiable appetite for vast amounts of money that seem to go nowhere. It has proved itself unable to cope with the challenges of an ageing population in the aftermath of the post-war baby boom. While more and more medical care is needed and new treatment becomes more and more expensive, our population and ergo tax revenues decrease. This has placed the health service in a situation of perpetual decline, while the taxpayer is paradoxically forced to cough up more and more of their earnings for a worsening service. In business this would be called a diseconomy of scale. Added to this - as Whitehall are attempting to point out - the responsible drinker ends up paying for the reckless indulgences and misdemeanours of others.

On the other hand, privatising the health service would enable the government to massively slash income tax - giving the public the free choice of where to place their hard earned cash and removing the fiscal motive for Whitehall poking their nose into peoples' decisions. A private firm would in no way be worried about the strain placed on their resources by people who wish to drink more than they should, and the subsequent treatment would in fact be welcomed as good for business. The government would no longer have to worry about taxing the public into good health, nor would it feel the need to emblazon bottles of wine with large ugly health warnings because it would no longer be any of their concern. Such a huge reduction in the scope of government and of nanny statism - which is only ever a few moral panics away from police statism - can only be seen as a victory for liberty.

Of course, it would be a difficult campaign to fight - the health service is somewhat of a Pandora's Box in that when you're seemingly getting something for free, you're not going to want to give it up, even if it is in a terrible mess. Nigel Lawson is said to have called it 'the national religion' [1]. But in the campaign that will no doubt soon need to be fought, it needs to be addressed to the people that the problems the NHS is now causing outweigh its benefits in the modern day, particularly in regard to personal choice and responsibility. No longer should the prosperous, the responsible, the frugal, hard-working and law-abiding citizen be held back by paying for the reckless, the idiotic, the short-sighted, and criminal members of our society. This writer remembers very vividly being taught Aesop's story of the Ant and the Grasshopper at school, yet wonders what on earth is the point in teaching children such an important lesson if the Welfare State is going to be there to work for you just in case you decided to ignore it?

In June 1945 - campaigning against the socialist future of welfare and equality Attlee's Labour Party were proposing - Winston Churchill warned the nation that however benignly such a doctrine was conceived, maintaining it would nonetheless

...gather all power to the supreme party and party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil...nip[ping] opinion in the bud. My friends, I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to the British ideals of freedom.

Churchill was laughed down at the time - with the utmost respect of course - as an old-fashioned reactionary conjuring up fantasies of totalitarianism to preserve the imperial Britain everyone else was fairly certain was coming to an end. Yet, in a time when the authorities are able to shoot dead an innocent man in a tube station [2], or break into an innocent Muslim’s home during the early hours and shoot him [3] - all for our own good, these words may demand review. The NHS is the last bastion of this socialist future Churchill warned against - it continues to place government in a position of over-reaching responsibility - and thus power - to interfere with peoples' lives for what it believes to be for their own good. As Milton Friedman observed, the worrying thing about this is that 'the power to do good is also the power to do harm...[and] even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will...those who control the power today may not tomorrow'.

This writer is not for a moment suggesting that privatising the NHS would somehow magically restore Britons' lost civil liberties or instantly reduce the scope of the state in our lives. Not at all. But it is the cold hard truth that it was this post-war craving for a strong, far-reaching and powerful government to enforce equality that got us into this mess in the first place. In the words of David Bowie's chilling homage to Nineteen Eighty-Four (released as Diamond Dogs in 1974) - a demoralised people wanting 'someone to claim us/someone to follow/someone to shame us - some brave Apollo' ended up with Big Brother. I doubt there are many in this country who wish to live up to that Orwellian nightmare, but they would do well to remember that - as every revolution has taught us - the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The myth of the evil Tory

As a young person taking an interest in conservatism, you steadily begin to notice a stark contrast in the attitudes that conservatives and those on the left hold in relation to each other. Intellectuals, teachers, socialists, Marxists, social democrats, and practically anyone you will meet in the old industrial north of England are quite content to label Tories as evil [1], amoral, greedy - even sadistic (anyone remember The New Statesman?) individuals hell-bent on 'grinding the faces of the poor', to quote Alan B'Stard. There is a very real and honest hatred for the Conservatives up here and being a former lefty myself, a number of my friendships have felt the strain because of it. Despite this, I - and in my experience conservatives generally - are far more understanding of those who hold a difference of opinion. Not least the New Right of the 1980s, many of whom - Brian Griffiths, John Hoskyns and Bernard Ingham included - had been Labour voters throughout the 1960s. Some, like Alfred Sherman, had even been communists in their youth. Sherman, like so many young men of his generation, fought in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans as part of the International Brigades. Sir Keith Joseph, principle designer of Thatcherism in the mid-'70s was too, once a 'consensus' (read: socialist) Tory. As he told Listener magazine in June 1975:

All the time I was in favour of short cuts to utopia...I was in favour of Government doing things because I was so impatient for good things to be done, and I didn't realise that the Government generally makes a mess.

These were men who had a strong passion for liberty, freedom and justice. They found this first in the quick-fix state intervention of the left, but as the '60s wore on became steadily more disillusioned with 'consensus' politics. They understood the motives of the left, because they had been there themselves, but were quick to realise that as Milton Friedman frequently expressed - there can be no political freedom without economic freedom.

Of course, this is not to say that this understanding makes the right any less scathing or convicted in their derision of the left - quite the contrary - but there is nonetheless a firm understanding that although the group in question are wrong, damn wrong - their policies, however misguided tend to stem from good intentions. This is something entirely missing from the self-righteousness of many on the left. Lady Thatcher is known to have used the old dictum 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions' in summing up Britain's post-war experiment in socialism. She understood that voters and politicians alike had honestly believed they were building a better world for themselves and their children in 1945. But good intentions were not enough - they did not work. Socialism did not work. She understood that the designers of the post-war welfare state were doing what they thought was best for the people. But as a former advisor to Lady Thatcher told John Ranelagh in 1990: 'She believes in people knowing better how to run their own lives than the State knows'.

This is a position that shows no outward compassion, no sympathy, and certainly no middle-class guilt. Regrettably though, it will always be admirable to believe in equality, welfare and state intervention, while conservatives will always be viewed as nasty for being tough enough to stand up for what works, however insensitive it may seem - for being able to see past sentimentality and defend the rights, responsibilities and dignity of the free man. It is young people in particular, who have no memory of Britain before the 1980s, who are very quick to damn Margaret Thatcher for any problems with the the society they live in - completely unaware of quite how much this country was falling apart by the time she first took office in 1979. Indeed this writer first picked up Thatcher's People by John Ranelagh as a 'know your enemy' exercise. It was only upon reading about the massive and rising inflation, the union stranglehold, the undignified IMF bail-out, the garbage mountains and unburied dead of winter 1978/9, the 3-day week, the 83% top tax rate, and the acceptance of perpetual British decline that my eyes were opened. It was at that point that I started to accept, and feel grateful for the world around me and how very little I had to complain about.

Yet, as these things tend to go Clement Attlee, Harolds Wilson & Macmillan, and even 'What Crisis?' Callaghan will never be blamed for causing and overseeing the slow, almost complete social and economic collapse of the United Kingdom. Their intentions were far too noble. Lady Thatcher on the other hand will almost certainly continue to be hated and reviled by many in this country long after she has gone for the incredible task of saving it.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007

In the wake of Boris Yeltsin's death on April 23, it is customary in the media to weigh up such a man's achievements and failures during their time in office and form some sort of conclusion on their legacy. For Yeltsin, his achievements appear blindingly obvious - particularly for anyone who had reached political awareness before the close of the 1980s - the Russian nation is no longer under the oppressive yoke of the Communist Party. His most commonly cited failures in the papers and on television have been his equally obvious drunkenness and initiation of the ongoing and seemingly futile Chechen wars.

However, a distinction that does not appear to have made a mark in the press is the unfortunate reality of how close these achievements and failures actually are in the long-run. John Major has been gracing our screens recently on a number of television programmes speaking of Yeltsin's passion for democracy and the market as well as his hatred for the totalitarianism of the USSR. This I do not doubt - I am sure that given the evidence, few do. What sadly makes Yeltsin's greatest achievement ultimately Russia's greatest failure is the method in which he employed it.

The 'shock therapy' of the early 1990s which radically switched Russia from a socialist command economy to free market liberalism almost overnight did not just create the short-term hardships of widespread poverty, unemployment and food shortages. In the long-run it created something far darker, far more permanent, and for Russia far more tragic - the seeds of tyranny. It is unfortunate that, given the Soviet state censorship at the time, Yeltsin would have had little opportunity to read any literature on economic liberalism before embarking on such a daring venture. Had he the opportunity to read The Road to Serfdom by the late, great economist F. A. Hayek; he would surely have come across this foreboding and alarmingly accurate prophecy:

...however one may wish a speedy return to a free economy, this cannot mean the removal at once of the [previous] restrictions. Nothing would discredit the system of free enterprise more than the acute, though probably short-lived, dislocation and instability this would produce.

Indeed, had these words not been written in 1943, one would assume they had been directed at Yeltsin personally. Though Hayek was writing entirely hypothetically in the event of an Allied victory in WWII, this is precisely what has happened in Russia since 1991. In the years spanning 1991-1994 mortality in Russians aged 15-30 years actually rose, and to this day remains excessively high [1]. With reports reaching our screens at an ever-increasing rate on state-sponsored murder of dissidents, persistent press intimidation, economic bullying and steady concentration of power, Hayek's words continue to chillingly ring true:

The one thing modern democracy will not bear without cracking is the...substantial lowering in the standards of living in peace time.

Russia may not yet have returned to totalitarianism, but its young and fragile democracy is most definitely beginning to crack. And those cracks are widening. For Russia particularly, this is a most tragic scenario as it is not the first time a chance at liberty and prosperity has been so closely missed. In November 1917, Russia was scheduled to vote on what was at the time possibly the most liberal constitution in the world; in particular promising universal suffrage. That this was something not practiced even by the great liberal democracies of Britain, America, or France gives us an insight into just how differently Russian history could have panned out. As fate would have it, the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup on October 25, and in an act befitting the tantrum of a troublesome child, shut down the newly-elected Constituent Assembly after only 13 hours sitting due to their party winning less than a quarter of the national vote [2].

In his comprehensive tome Russia and the Russians, Geoffrey Hosking touches upon what has been termed the 'binary nature' of Russian culture, with 'its tendency to seek extreme solutions to problems and lurch from one set of cultural patterns to their diametrical opposite'. This was best exemplified by the acceptance of the Bolsheviks in 1917, and the subsequent scrubbing of their legacy in 1991, despite all the hardships that came with each. At this point in time one can only hope that the Russian people have, against Hayek's predictions, not yet grown impatient with democracy - and are unwilling to accept a lurch back to dictatorship. This will be put to the test if President Putin decides to constitutionally extend his period of office in 2008. A strong president and a far-reaching state may appear to be solving problems for Russians now, but as Europe's experience of the twentieth century has shown; it can reap only the bitter whirlwind of oppression, misery, and stagnation.