It seems to me that we have no other credible option but to return the current government to power in May. The alternative imperils the undoubted progress that has been made and just seems too much like a leap in the dark. As to whether we return the Conservatives with a working majority or oblige them to seek an accommodation with their present partners… that, for the moment, cannot be predicted. They may be forced – hold your breath on this one – to seek an accommodation with Labour if that party, as seems likely, is obliterated in Scotland. Oddly, for a coalition, it has been surprisingly radical in the hot potato issues it has tackled. The Liberal Democrats may have helped keep the more swivel-eyed Tories in check and were certainly right in making it a condition of signing up that the lower paid be taken out of tax altogether. It was always an affront to justice that tax was levied at such an obscenely low level of income. But now we learn that the fully converted Tories are planning to take the process a step further in the forthcoming budget and steal some of the Lib Dem’s clothes by taking the same people out of National Insurance contributions and paying for it by reducing concessions to better off pension contributors. That looks like a surprisingly egalitarian measure which will help allay the perception that the Tories only look after the rich.
If it is true that elections are decided first and foremost on the state of the economy, then we would be hard put to gainsay the achievements of the present incumbents. They came to office in about as dire a situation as it possible to imagine. In fact the country was teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe.
For years we had allowed ourselves to live beyond our means, forgetting that age-old truth that you cannot spend more than you have the guts to raise in taxation. A balanced budget was never, so to speak, a lifestyle choice and sound money should always have been at the heart of any government’s considerations. Once it has taken care of these then it should go hell for leather for an enterprise economy.
In thinking where we are to cast our vote in May, let’s take a look at some of the core issues and see if we can make a balanced judgement. Business is not everything, but it is something we have to get right if we are to become prosperous enough on a personal level and yet have enough left over to fund a compassionate society.
Recently the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – one of the world’s most respected forums – positively gushed at our efforts, lavishing praise on the economic turnabout we have enjoyed over the past five years. Far from being the basket case that our perilous situation seemed set to consign us to, we are, so it seems, a “textbook” example for economic success: the most go-ahead enterprise economy currently in the developed world.
Moreover, it isn’t just the OECD saying these things – it’s just about everybody, including the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde, its CEO, has said that “Britain is an example to the world and is leading it in a very elegant and convincing way.” That’s praise indeed, especially coming from the woman who only two years ago trembled at the possible consequences of what the Chancellor was doing. So gutsy ‘Boy George’ has been vindicated and proved right all along. I don’t remember so many economic pundits getting it so wrong since 364 wrote to Mrs Thatcher predicting certain doom for her policies back in the early eighties.
And balancing the books? Well, we’ve got some way to go on that but the direction of travel is the right one and the deficit is on the way to being halved. With business confidence soaring and GDP expanding, tax receipts will balloon and we will find ourselves in a virtuous circle in which even paying down the national debt will become easy.
What about our currency? Well, it doesn’t get more trusted than when you have convinced the money markets that you are a “textbook” example and “leading the world both elegantly and convincingly”. In these circumstances your purchasing power remains strong and national borrowing costs nosedive, along with the dole queue. Against all received wisdom, job creation in the UK has leaped ahead during this recession, with jobs created running at twice the rate of lay-offs in the public sector. Here, again, Osborne’s prediction has confounded critics. Perhaps the most graphic proof that you now enjoy a strong currency is to be found when you next go abroad. Your money will go an unbelievably long way. Also, the imported goods you buy will mysteriously start getting cheaper as less and less of your precious dosh needs to be handed over to Johnny Foreigner. And all this hasn’t been brought about – as it usually has been – at the price of being forced by poor management of the economy to hike your interest rates. Indeed, the reverse is true: they are at an all-time low and likely to remain so for some time yet.
Then there’s the ever important matter of inflation. Like all the rest, we are in a very good place here. And while some people worry about the dangers of deflation, this seems unlikely to happen in our case. The reason is that pay rises are now running – thank goodness – well ahead of inflation (six times) and this will edge inflation up and so prevent a downward spiral of falling prices which cause people to hold back purchases in the belief that things will get cheaper still. In Europe, with growth remaining stagnant, only a minority in the efficient north is getting a pay rise (and then not much) and so there is not the pressure from this direction to force inflation to rise. While ours can be said to be a virtuous circle, theirs is a vicious one.
So, in all these extraordinary circumstances, why is the governing party not seeing the benefit in the polls? It is a very great mystery. On the face of it, getting re-elected should be a shoo-in. In normal circumstances, economic success translates into electoral victory. However, these are not normal circumstances and this is not an iron rule. Ask John Major. When he faced Tony Blair in 1997 we were doing so well we were even paying down the national debt and – until Gordon Brown sold off half at fire sale prices – our gold reserves stood almost at a post-war high. Gold, then, had hit rock bottom, but within no time had shot through the roof. What made the man do it? Nobody knows and Brown won’t tell us. Perhaps we should ask the would-be Chancellor, Ed. Balls. Ed was his hatchet man at the time. Anyway, the upshot of it all was this little exercise cost us billions.
Before that happened – and when New Labour took over – their inheritance was, in the truest sense of the word, a golden one. Blair and his surly, Heathcliff-like Chancellor, then proceeded to throw it all away. To reassure the country and the City to trust their fiscal rectitude, they pledged to keep to Tory spending plans for two years. When, later, New Labour called time on that irksome arrangement, Brown, together with his side-kick – who hopes to move into the Treasury again in May – went on an epic spending spree. Borrowing like never before, they displayed a level of fiscal incontinence rarely if ever seen in British politics.
With unmatched hubris, Brown – the man who doubled the size of the Revenue and Customs guide book so that only the largest and most expensive accountancy firms could fathom its complexities – shouted to the rafters, budget after budget, that he had solved one of the economic cycle’s greatest mysteries: how to avoid boom and bust. Later on he would let slip in the Commons how he had ‘Saved the World’ during the time of the credit crunch. The wonder is that some fool in Scandinavia didn’t find a Nobel Prize to award him… one as daft as that Save the Children award to Tony Blair, which was, actually, hugely insulting.
While we may find much to criticise in the ‘posh boys’ who make up much of the present cabinet, they have in most respects delivered. Quite apart from the economy, we all knew that the welfare system was a busted flush in desperate need of root and branch reform. It had encouraged a malaise of worklessness in which many had come to believe that they had a perfect right to live off their neighbour’s taxes if they were daft enough to get up on a cold winter’s morning and go off to graft for the stinking, exploitative capitalists. It also turned a goodly proportion of fundamentally honest people into cheats and fraudsters. Then, again, in education we each knew that our parents had enjoyed a sounder education in the basics than we had, and that all the certainties which had made that possible had been thrown out of the window by the fanciful, misguided notions of the teachers’ training colleges and their ilk. Discipline was also a casualty of all that trendy thinking. Meanwhile our kids slipped ever further down the international league table of academic excellence.
Another thing we all knew was that an insatiable public sector was not only looking after itself too well at the rest of the nation’s expense, but that it was gobbling up an unsustainable amount of its wealth.
It therefore is a puzzle that a government which has successfully bitten so many unpalatable bullets is struggling to get its message across. They were bullets so toxic that no government before had had the balls to bite on them. Perhaps the coalition was stiffened in its resolve to do so by the opportunities presented by the worst recession in 100 years.
Finally… what about fixed term parliaments? Another of the measures brought in by this unexpectedly reformist government. They may have many drawbacks, but one decided advantage is that there is ample time to examine the record and forensically explore the proposed alternatives. Springing a surprise election when things are temporarily looking good, but you know they are not going to stay that way was an old trick. A three-week campaign denies your opponents the time needed and allows you to work a flanker. That ruse is now firmly off the table.
Are we really out of the mess we got ourselves into six years ago? Can it be true that we are the fastest growing economy in the developed world? It would seem so, according to the statistics. But how are we achieving this? It is certainly not coming from the manufacturing sector, an area which Mrs Thatcher as well as her successors neglected in favour of the keep-your-hands-clean service economy. It’s coming from two quarters. First is an increase in investment from business.
At the height of the recession, when there was no money for anything, medium and large businesses were sitting on £75 billion of liquidity – twice the defence budget – which in the right climate they were ready to release. That climate, which is principally one of confidence, has finally come. The second factor which was depressing the whole of the economy was a moribund housing market. When houses start moving again it has a tremendous knock-on effect right across the board. Tired old carpets are thrown out; new kitchens and bathrooms installed; more stylish furniture acquired; dodgy roofs repaired; gardens landscaped and solar panels ordered; double glazing resumed; painting and decorating starts; the DIY stores hum; the list goes on and on.
But important as houses are, we mustn’t obsess about them. There are other things – like the ones which would earn us shed loads of foreign exchange, i.e. manufactured items. We were once so good at manufacturing and can be again. But if there is one area where there is huge room for improvement it is productivity: it is our Achilles’ heel. Why we are so sluggish here beats me. If we can get this up this summer of rejoicing – weather-wise and economy-wise – may open the sluice gates and propel us into a new era of prosperity.
That high risk policy of quantitative easing – essentially printing money – appears to have worked for us, but it didn’t work for the Japanese. They left it too late to begin and as a result entered what has been called the ‘lost decade’ of the nineties. In fact it has been more like two lost decades. They’ve never recovered their old elan. Our own emergency package to survive the financial crisis was more deftly handled, first by Mervyn King (though he was somewhat late dropping interests rates) and then by Mark Carney, both governors of the Bank of England. Perhaps our success has been part due to the City of London’s historic financial expertise
But alongside this, and despite their other cataclysmic failings, we must give credit to Gordon Brown and his chancellor, Alastair Darling. Once they realised the enormity of the crisis – on the Monday following that dire weekend when it struck and the ATMs would have dried up – they moved quickly and decisively to recapitalise the banks. As Wellington said after Waterloo: ‘It was the closest run thing you ever saw in your life’.
Brown’s successor in Downing Street was on a steep learning curve after his chancellor’s earlier silly mantra of ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’, and when he eventually wised up the results were there for all to see. But interest rates cannot stay as they are – it is so unjust to the prudent saver who for years has been bailing out the feckless spender. They must rise, and soon. When it comes it must be small and incremental, like a quarter of a per cent every couple of months; a policy of slowly, slowly catchy monkey, so to speak. This will help cool the overheating housing market.
We don’t have to worry too much about irresponsible lending as in the past, leading to wholesale repossessions, because the criteria today to get a loan and the deposit required has been massively tightened. Some complain that the hoops you have to jump through are as many as to adopt a child.
But two things, above all, are needed to sustain the recovery: first, a massive house-building programme to meet the demand that years of unrestricted immigration have imposed. This, too, will cool house price inflation and re-balancing our economy by boosting manufacturing; and second, markets should then be found for those goods beyond the still Doldrums-plagued Euro area. The obvious target ought to be that vast zone of good will to us, the former empire. With our shared history, common institutions and legals systems and, of course, language, it is calculated that we have a 21% financial advantage over our competitors.
As a country which abhors state sponsored killing and the grisly process of snuffing out a human life, I find it perplexing and distressing that the British Government will not lift a finger to save a British grandmother facing death by firing squad in Indonesia. I will not get into the details (she was a drugs mule) of why she finds herself in her present situation. But she acknowledges her foolishness and offered full co-operation to the authorities.
As for the men who put her up to it, they have received light sentences. Many aspects of the trial were deeply flawed so that any examination will show that a death sentence was totally uncalled for. An appeal funded by legal aid would almost certainly highlight this, but our own authorities will not grant this.
They are more than willing to provide legal aid to umpteen tycoons – millionaire Asil Nadir springs to mind, as does that property developer reputably worth £400m who is hiding his money from his ex wife. And, of course, there is unlimited funding at taxpayers’ expense for any number of foreign nationals who wish us harm and for their never ending appeals under the Human Rights Act for permission to stay amongst us.
Ours is a nation they despise, whose culture and laws they wish to overthrow. Yet they are happy to take advantage of its lifestyle and the benefits system which makes that possible. The reason why these expensive appeals by self-proclaimed Jihadists so often succeed is that we are unwilling to send them back to their homeland in case they are mistreated there. Yet here is the ultimate case of mistreatment – death by firing squad – and it is happening to a British born woman who has lived most of her life here.
There may well be millions living in our country who have no legal right to be here. Any one of them, before they could be deported, would be able to throw themselves on the mercy of our courts and run us up huge legal costs before we could send them home. Where, I ask myself, is the logic or consistency which allows us to say no to a British grandmother and yes to one of them?
All this reminds me of the cold-hearted, honourless attitude of the Gordon Brown government when it would not allow Gurkhas, who had frequently put their lives on the line for us, to settle in our country at the end of their service lives. It took the redoubtable Joanna Lumley to help that government change its mind.
But right now there is another ongoing scandal which this time concerns the Cameron government. It relates to interpreters in Afghanistan. Two hundred or so who have risked their lives working for us in that benighted country are to be abandoned as next year begins the drawdown of our presence in that country and thus our need for linguists. They are fearful of what will become of them and their families once we are no longer there to protect them. The answer seems a simple one: let them come back with us. But shamefully that is not the response of our authorities. The interpreters are being told they must remain and take their chances. How truly inhuman is that? When the presently contained Taliban presence in Afghanistan is augmented by floods more coming in from Pakistan, once we are gone these interpreters are dead men walking. The Jihadists will take a terrible revenge. They will not care a hoot that the whole Afghan operation was authorised by the UN. Anyone who assisted, as they see it, the foreign invaders, can expect their special brand of punishment. What is at issue here is not just the saving of lives of people who have risked all for us, but the very honour of our country. The idea that we can happily grant asylum to countless others who have no claim on us is beyond comprehension.
Present day Russia is very much a gangster society led by an authoritarian government claiming to be democratic. But in one important area it puts us to shame. That is where honour is concerned. My Lithuanian wife’s father was a colonel in the Russian military. When the thirteen countries which formed the Russian empire – which it chose to call the USSR – broke away and gained their independence the Russian state could quite easily have washed its hands of obligations to the nationals of those newly independent states who had served it for their pensions and other rights. But it did not. My wife’s father receives a full and generous pension from Moscow.
How did we handle a similar situation when our own legions and public servants came home from our far flung colonies? We abdicated the duty to pay their pensions. We turned to the new rulers of India, Burmah, Ghana, Malaysia and the rest and said to them: “It’s up to you, old boy. You must pay their pensions”. If later they reneged or found they couldn’t afford it or felt they had been blackmailed to get their independence and stopped payments then that was that. Our attitude was tough. “Your quarrel,” we said to the poor man who had sweated all his life under the tropical sun, “is with the new rulers”.
Honour is a noble thing and it grieves me to think that my country has been short on it in so many instances. I hope Cameron will do the right thing where those brave Afghan interpreters are concerned and that he will intervene, before it is too late, over that wretched grandmother.
History will not be kind to Tony Blair. He found Britain a prosperous place – having recovered spectacularly from the ERM disaster – and left it virtually bankrupt and mired in two unwinnable wars.
Some might say this is a strange thing to claim concerning a prime minister who won three successive elections and even today is held in sufficient international regard to be appointed by the quartet of EU, USA, Russia and Britain to act as Middle East peace envoy. So why do I take issue with these two salient facts? It is my belief that our former prime minister succeeded in taking in not only ourselves, but a great part of the world beyond.
Blair took little old me in back in 1997. Indeed, if we cast our minds back to that now distant time it seems extraordinary that a government should be thrown out of office when it has got the economy into a rock solid position (so solid, as I recall, that it was starting to pay down the national debt).
Received wisdom tells us that it is the state of national finances that decides elections, yet the ‘grey man’, John Major, went down to a resounding defeat. Why was this? Partly because he was that ‘grey man’ and lacked charisma, whereas his opponent had oodles of it and was young as well as good-looking. And there had also been a series of huge embarrassments for the Conservative government: ‘cash-for-questions’; the armed forces procurement minister having his Paris hotel bill paid by a Arab Sheik; the gaoling of Jeffrey Archer; sexual shenanigans from a government that preached ‘back to basics’ (nobody knew at the time that the PM himself had had a dalliance with Edwina Currie); and then there was the mighty cock up of our ejection from the ERM which did so much to destroy the Tory’s reputation for economic competence.
Often forgotten is the fact that all three parties, along with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and just about everybody else was gung-ho for entry to the Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was therefore rank hypocrisy later for the opposition to use this as a stick with which to beat the government.
But I believe the biggest of all factors in Tony Blair coming to power was the national weariness of seeing the same old faces in place for 18 years. Blair seemed like a breath of fresh air; and how could we know that we were about to embrace the Nigel Havers of politics? But the one factor which still made the nation hesitate was Labour’s own reputation for fiscal incontinence. Indeed, every one of its administrations had gone down in a welter of financial mismanagement. To allay these last remaining doubts, Tony and his glowering, thwarted would-be leader Gordon Brown pledged faithfully to hold to Tory spending plans for the next two years.
So the die was cast and ‘Call me Tony’ took up residency in Downing Street. We used to call him ‘Bambi’ early on as he seemed to have no enemies, promising all things to all men with the most winning smile that had ever beamed out to the nation from Downing Street.
My own doubts began with the squalid Bernie Ecclestone affair very early on when all cigarette advertising was banned from sporting events except – mysteriously – from Bernie’s Formula One. For me it was downhill ever after as sleaze piled upon more sleaze, and all from the man who promised a government that would be ‘whiter than white’.
When the two years of financial rectitude was up, a spending splurge of awesome proportions was announced. There was to be no more ‘fixing the roof while the sun was shining’: it was to be spend, spend, spend.
The national debt went through the roof and no attempt was made to ensure taxpayers got value for money. It was just assumed that if you threw enough dosh at a problem it would go away. Instead, it went largely into the pay packets and pension pots of the new elite – the public sector, which was allowed to expand dramatically.
The upshot of it all is that we find ourselves today in the most dire condition that it is possible to imagine. Even private debt has gone through the roof. The spendthrift ‘Prudence’ Brown at the treasury seemed almost relieved to have someone else join him in the bankruptcy stakes. The growing credit bubble – which Gordon called growth – seemed like a never ending jolly, but like the puppet master in Downing Street it was a cruel illusion – all smoke and mirrors. Every pound Gordon borrowed he insisted was an ‘investment in the future’. Some future!
When he was in Brussels, he liked to turn off his headset so he couldn’t listen to what his peers had to say. But when it was his turn, he couldn’t resist lecturing them – in particular the Germans – on sound economics. All the while his bête noir boss left him to it so he could swan around the world offering his own advice and attempting to nation-build with armed forces Gordon constantly denuded of the equipment necessary to carry out his grandiose schemes. It was all very frustrating for the man who ‘felt the hand of history on his shoulder’.
While it’s fair to say the mess that the world finds itself in today would still be there, even without the contribution of Blair and his Chancellor, it is also fair to say that for us in the UK it would be manageable – as it is for Germany, Canada and others who handled their affairs with Gordon Brown’s once favourite word, prudence.
Bill Clinton, another out of the charisma stable of politicians, started it all back in 1998 when he urged Alan Greenspan, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to help poor Americans become home owners – even those with no obvious means of repaying their debt. Thus began the sub-prime tragedy which spread around the world in concealed financial packages. But what did it for us and turned a problem into a disaster was that wild, decade-long spending jamboree.
As for our Tony, he doesn’t see or acknowledge any of this. He’s lost now in his own little bubble. He wanted to be President of Europe, but instead has settled – uniquely and rather unedifyingly for a Labour leader – on becoming stinkingly rich as well as continuing to offer pearls of wisdom to anyone who’ll listen. It worries me that his current successor in Downing Street is one who will. It worries me also that he has always been one of Tony’s fans, and despite everything remains so. What does this tell us about Cameron? Is this yet another judgement issue of his?
As an avowed Christian, it seemed for a while that faith might intrude on the Blair business of governance. There seemed often to be a touch of messianic fervour to his pronouncements. But his spin master, Alastair Campbell, slapped him down on this one, insisting that New Labour ‘didn’t do God’. Some might argue that Tony’s present ambition (he owns seven homes and counting) to join the mega rich club hinders his ultimate passage to celestial regions, and that he should remember his master’s admonition of how it is ‘easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’.
For society to work we must have people whom we can respect and admire.
Every now and then we need a titan, and if the Nobel prize is any measure we’ve had them in disproportionate numbers. In former times, such people were to be found in the sciences, academia, the Civil Service, town halls, the Westminster village, hospitals, the military, the legal profession, the utilities – and yes, of course, the banks.
Of all of these – and there are still many more – only the military today continues to inspire our admiration. But today even our famed ‘James Bond’ Secret Service has been found seriously wanting (i.e. the spook in the bag scandal).
It is a sad state of affairs when we have come to conclude that they are all in it for themselves and are letting us down in the process. At the heart of it all is a me-me culture leading to the devil take the hindmost outlook. Is it not surprising, therefore, that there is a cynicism about such as we have not known before. The turnout at the recent by-elections does no more than reflect that.
Proposals for elected city mayors and police chiefs – which in ordinary circumstances ought to promise so much – have been greeted by a sceptical public as little more than another devious ploy to distract us and deflect our anger. We are not in a mood for more tinkering, and prefer to leave well alone rather than risk additional mayhem from people whose motives we have come to suspect.
Had these proposals come from leaders we had come to admire and trust, does anyone doubt that they would have been received differently? It would have been more a case of ‘well, if this is what they believe is for the best, then we ought at least to consider it seriously’.
Returning to the subject I covered last week – the continuing offensive behaviour of bankers – we are being forced to watch perfectly good businesses being allowed to go down the swanny because banks won’t help. Refusing to use taxpayers’ money – with which we’ve stuffed their gullets so full they are in danger of constipation – to fulfil their moral obligation to save small businesses from the recession they created, they insist on using it to recover from their gambling-induced hangover to begin another binge anew.
We have gone from the sublime to the gawd blimey. One minute they were throwing money at us as though it was of going out of fashion – we all remember the credit cards once raining down on us like confetti – and the next they are sitting on it like mother hens nursing their eggs. Such extreme gyrations were never going to be anything other than disastrous for the general public.
If business activity and growth are now in a trough of despondency, this is because people have finally wised up to reality and are now anxious to pay down the debts that the banks have profited on so greatly. But now that the party has stopped, the banks are being allowed to have their cake and eat it, too.
Having said all this about the banks, we should not forget our own shortcomings; how eagerly and irresponsibly did we succumb to their blandishments to ratchet up our own personal debt levels by taking out second mortgages and spending much more than we earned. And although many have come to realise they cannot continue living beyond their means, we can only hope and pray that once personal debts have been paid off people will not have lost the habit of spending!
But human nature being what it is – and the average chap being no match for these whizz kids of finance – it is not difficult to see who was going to win the argument of persuasion. This is where the government, and in particular the Bank of England and FSA, should have stepped in.
With personal debt levels higher as a proportion of GDP than any country in the developed world, and house prices rising at a rate much greater than wages, the signals were all on red alert.
With all the gloating over Labour’s local election successes this week, the public must not forget that the last government bears a great deal of responsibility for our present woes. How could ministers warn Joe Public against the dangers of excessive debt when they themselves were the standard bearer of borrowing to the hilt? Had they shown ‘prudence’ – Gordon Brown’s now pricelessly ironic sobriquet – then they could have warned against the dangers and taken measures to restrain it.
But as well as borrowing like there was no tomorrow, the last government increased the burden of the public sector payroll by no less than 64% during its time in office.
All we can say is that these hard times are teaching us some very hard truths. History, however, does show us one encouraging thing: there never was a recession that sooner or later did not yield to better days.
The financial crisis has all given us no end of a reality check. Let’s hope that in so doing it has taught us no end of a lesson.
A letter recently unearthed during a house clearout dated 1925 read as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Grainger, We respectfully draw your attention to an under-payment of fifteen pounds, eight shillings and four pence made on your recent income tax remittance. We are sure this is an oversight. May we suggest the 31st of next month as being a suitable date for settlement of the balance. If you require clarification as to how we arrived at this figure we would be most happy for you to call at this office where we will endeavour to explain. In the meantime we remain your Most Obedient Servant’. How very polite and considerate this all is. No doubt here who the boss is.
The signing off tells you all you need to know: the state in those days knew its place. It was, of course, nonsense to suggest that its agents regarded themselves as anybody’s servants, but the then powers-that-be thought it important to continue to emphasise what the proper relationship should be. Today it is all different; government is in the driving seat.
With 4 million CCTV cameras in place (by far the highest number of any country in the world – North Korea included) and the planet’s largest DNA database and every conceivable detail of our lives – both personal and financial – logged, we are well and truly skewered and corralled. The East German Stasi (secret police) would have been proud.
Only the media stand between us and total subservience. That is why almost the first act of any authoritarian regime is to muzzle it. What people need to understand is that authority, be it central or local, has an insatiable urge to accumulate power – to regulate and control. It cannot help itself. It is in the nature of the beast. Only our ability to scrutinise it through the media and force it to submit itself for re-election has any hope of controlling its growth.
We like to preen ourselves as being almost the freest society on earth. But does this really stand up? We are bossed around to an extraordinary degree. Gone is the fanciful notion that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Hundreds of agencies have the power to barge into them and they don’t need a scaling ladder to do it either – just the local plod to intimidate any would-be heroes.
Our government recently wanted the power to lock us up without charge for 90 days and only the most extraordinary of efforts got that figure down to 28. And that is still one of the longest in the civilised world.
I cannot help believing that the age of terrorism has been a godsend to those most zealous in their urge to control us. It has given them the perfect cover to push through a range of measures under the mantra ‘Do you really want to get blown up?’ Well, the IRA were blowing us up for thirty years and were much more competent with explosives than the Jihadist buffoons – and just as ruthless. Yet we resisted bringing in all these special measures on the mainland so beloved of New Labour. They even talked of putting aircraft-like black boxes under every car bonnet until this was laughed out of court. But in truth it was no laughing matter.
They talked also of having all 62 million of us DNA tested – naturally, of course, so that they could catch more criminals. Townhalls were authorised to conduct certain types of surveillance on its citizens, and that ended up checking out people who were trying to get their kids into a decent school. Let’s not forget either the recent national census. Look at the ridiculous scope of the information it sought. And if you were unwilling to provide it, look out! You would be bludgeoned into submission.
But all is not yet lost. We appear to have a government (glory be!) which actually says it wants to devolve power from the centre to the regions. I never thought to hear it, but it says ‘Whitehall does not always know best’. It wants schools that answer to parents; elected police chiefs who have to clock up results or be thrown out; Mayors who have to run their cities competently or face the same fate; and even a social security network that protects the truly vulnerable, but not the army of scroungers.
The attitude of entitlement which so many display is truly marvellous to behold. What gives a person the idea that he or she is entitled to lie in their bed of a cold winter morning while their neighbour must get up and go off to work? And then, as if to rub salt into the wound, hold out their hand for large chunks of their neighbour’s earnings so that they can enjoy a not-much-different lifestyle. It’s actually all very bizarre. But the fact is that so many do really believe that they have that right. There’s no accounting for folk!
Nobody wants a return to certain of the bad old days. But not all of them were bad. We ought to cherry-pick what was best. Among them was neighbourliness, self-reliance (of the fit and able) and straight dealing – honesty if you like. Even today, members of the older generation are so imbued with this ethos of self-reliance that their pride will not allow them to take benefits that we would like them to take.