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There is still no economic liberalism (despite Mrs T’s efforts)

By Leslie Clark
April 11th, 2013 at 12:28 pm | No Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy

Is it safe to go on Twitter yet? Has the 24/7 reporting of the death of an octogenarian ceased? I’m sure the whole population of the UK, including the late Prime Minister’s most ardent supporters, have reached Thatcherisation point. But amongst the litany of tributes and critiques, a lot of the comments surrounding the Government of Margaret Thatcher are clouded in myth. Both left and right share in the mythology of Thatcher as some sort of economically liberal Boudicca who challenged the prevailing economic orthodoxy and shrank the size of the state. If anything, Margaret Thatcher was insufficiently liberal.

The Mythology of Left and Right

In the spring of 1986, Jo Grimond penned an article for the IEA entitled ‘Still No Economic Liberalism’ in which he argued:

Statism, though dented, remains the dominant political and economic philosophy in the UK…we live in a corporate state in which the organisation has become more important than the individual. Government takes a higher proportion of the national income than ever…The flood of legislation and government expenditure is out of control…So we who hoped for radical measures must be disappointed by acts and omissions.”

Whilst there were many positive liberalising measures such as privatisation, curbing the over-wielding power of trade unions, her signing of the Single European Act, the sale of council houses (MT was initially sceptical about this measure and was persuaded of its merits by the decidedly ‘wet’ Peter Walker), statism did indeed remain dominant:

  • Government expenditure rose throughout her premiership, standing at 41.5% of GDP in 1991-92. In his book Paradoxes of Power, Alfred Sherman, a former adviser, aptly named the Thatcher period as an ‘interlude’, with the post-war consensus largely remaining intact: “we are back to where we started”.
  • State monoliths like the NHS were safe in her hands – spending on health increased 32% in real terms.
  • In the aforementioned article, Grimond lamented the lack of choice in education and social services. For all the talk of radicalism, there were no moves toward education vouchers advocated by Liberals such as Arthur Seldon, Professor Alan Peacock and John Pardoe MP.

In many ways, Margaret Thatcher was a pragmatic conservative. Heath’s 1970 Manifesto was far more orientated toward the free market than Thatcher’s in 1979 and for someone who was so set against ‘consensus’, her first Cabinet looks remarkably conciliatory with its balance of ‘wets’ and ‘dries’. Moreover, the doctrine that became known as ‘Thatcherism’ owed more to Conservatives like Enoch Powell (who questioned if Thatcher actually understood monetarism) and Keith Joseph than liberals like Hayek. Margaret Thatcher allegedly slammed a copy of The Constitution of Liberty on the table proclaiming ‘This is what we believe!’ but there is precious little evidence of Hayekian thinking making its way into policy, especially in monetary terms [The Denationalisation of Money anyone?]. Presumably she skipped ‘Why I am not a Conservative.’

For all the bluster of many supposedly ‘economically liberal’ Thatcherites, liberalisation certainly did not extend to sexuality or race. Today, many self-proclaimed Thatcherites will rail against state spending whilst championing wasteful defence spending and Château Lafite options like Trident. Then as now, they lack consistency.

Economic Liberalism Beyond Thatcher

The disappointing record of the Government has quite wrongly been seen as discrediting these [economically liberal] doctrines. There is a feeling that liberal political economy has been tried and failed. That is not true.”

Grimond’s words in 1986 were as true then as they are now: in 2013, there is ‘Still No Economic Liberalism’. Contrary to popular perception, public expenditure is rising not falling: like with Thatcher, we are merely controlling the rate in which it is rising. Despite the birth of free schools, there is still insufficient freedom and choice in many public services.

As David Laws wrote in the too often misunderstood ‘Orange Book’, Liberal Democrats need to reclaim economic liberalism (the Conservatives merely embraced the language and some of its substance) and our Liberal heritage. The likes of the Jeremy Browne and Liberal Reform fighting for a genuine four-cornered liberalism offer me hope of a more liberal future.

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Ed Miliband’s Latest Immigration Pledge

By Leslie Clark
December 14th, 2012 at 3:34 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Labour

Ed Miliband today called for immigrants lacking proficiency in English to be barred from certain public sector jobs. The Labour leader said, “if we are going to build One Nation, our goal should be that everyone in Britain should know how to speak English.”

My first reaction to his speech wasn’t to question Labour’s record on immigration or analyse any key policy changes but rather to recall former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s sustained assault on the English language:

“We are now taking proper, putting the amount of resources and investment to move what we call extreme conditions which must now regard as normal.”

“I undressed 450 students yesterday with Ed Miliband and Eddie Izzard and I did 300 last night.”

“The green belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it.”

Luckily for the people of Humberside during the PCC elections, they managed to stop the indigenous Lord Prescott attaining a “publicly- funded, public-facing job” via the ballot box.

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The Cato Institute on Scottish Independence

By Leslie Clark
December 11th, 2012 at 3:39 pm | No Comments | Posted in Scotland

The libertarian David Boaz has made a few interesting remarks over on the Cato Institute blog:

“…the land of Adam Smith has become one of the poorest and most socialist parts of Great Britain. So maybe a libertarian shouldn’t look forward to Scottish independence. On the contrary, I think it’s easy for Scotland to whine and demand more money from the British central government. An independent Scotland would have to create its own prosperity, and surely the people who produced the Enlightenment are smart enough to discover the failures of socialism pretty quickly if they become free, independent, and responsible for their own future.”

I’m not sure how such views would chime with the official ‘Yes’ campaign who are presenting independence as a bulwark against further austerity. Meanwhile, the independent Fiscal Commission commissioned by Alex Salmond is understood to be recommending a number of cautionary measures for a post-independent Scotland, including limits to borrowing and spending.

Before screwing things up, New Labour gained economic credibility by sticking to Tory spending limits during its first years in office. Similarly, if the Yes Campaign want to build their economic credentials they ought to abandon the easy-clap anti-cuts rhetoric and focus on the financial realities of an independent Scotland: that the state cannot keep on growing exponentially, spending will need to be kept under control and the growth of the economy is predicated on the success of private enterprise.

The independence vote won’t be won or lost on the basis of remarks by Commission President Barroso but whether one side can demonstrate whether Scots would be better or worse off come separation. But the only route for a prosperous independent Scotland would appear to be along the lines alluded to by David Boaz.

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Eric Hobsbawm: A Life Through Red-Tinted Spectacles.

By Leslie Clark
October 1st, 2012 at 3:58 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in History

Tributes and obits have poured in for the historian Eric Hobsbawm who died today at the age of 95. Common to all obituaries, he gets a rose-tinted appreciation. But for a man who was essentially an apologist for totalitarian repression, the fawning obit writers are assessing his life through red-tinted spectacles. If Eric Hobsbawm was of the extreme right, his talents would not shelter him from derision and banishment from respectable intellectual circles.

Like many other history undergraduates, I read ‘The Age’ series in my first year of university and was blown away. Quite simply, it was a tour de force. Any student of Modern History ought to begin with Hobsbawm. Nonetheless, his depth of knowledge and academic brilliance should not be allowed to mask his questionable judgement. Writing in 2002, Niall Ferguson reminded us of the lines this obedient Communist toed in the 20th Century:

“He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against Britain and France following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. He accepted the excommunication of Tito. He condoned the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary.

In 1954, just after Stalin’s death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians’ Group of the British Communist Party. He admits to having been dismayed when, two years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. When Khrushchev himself ordered the tanks into Budapest, Hobsbawm finally spoke up, publishing a letter of protest. But he did not leave the Party.”

EP Thompson, a fellow Marxist historian, had the decency to tear up his membership card in 1956. When learning of the full horrors of the Soviet Union, others like Robert Conquest dedicated their academic lives to elucidating the true murderous nature of the regime. I can safely say that when the time comes, Robert Conquest, 95, author of the exceptional The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s, will not receive a tribute from the Leader of the Opposition or be acknowledged on the homepage of the BBC website.

Sadly, Marxism has retained a respectability when other equally dubious ideologies have not.

Government owned sausages?

By Leslie Clark
September 14th, 2012 at 1:37 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

The Scottish Government have had their plan to buy a closure threatened meat processing factory in West Lothian rejected by the owners of Halls’s of Broxburn, Vion.

The factory was thought to be economically unsustainable incurring daily losses of £79,000 – despite investment. The firm had already received nearly £2m in publicly funded grants from the Scottish Government.

Aside from any local populist vote increasing benefits, just what exactly would the First Minister have gained from the government owning a sausage factory? Pictorial evidence is attached.

 

Mmm government owned sausages.

 

Is that a Homer Simpson style drool I hear?