Build Back Britain, Boris

I worried about the new slogan, ‘Build Back Better’, looking out over the (so far still) green fields, but in the context, there is more to it than the sick-in-the-stomach vision of concrete and bricks: the whole underpinning of the nation’s political and social structure needs to be rebuilt. This afternoon, up stood Boris with a vision for that task. Let us hope his team are up to the task.

It has been 10 years since Gordon Brown was hurled out of Downing Street, and it has sometimes seemed like a wasted 10 years, but that is not so: David Cameron and George Osborne in their six years worked hard to mend the financial mess left by the Blair and Brown years, and to reverse much of Tony Blair’s egregious imprecations upon the liberty of the subject. They neglected to overturn the leftists’ stranglehold on the levers of state though and left the sprawling edifice largely intact; then on the Brexit issue they brought the party members’ ignominy upon themselves, but they deserve credit where it is due. Theresa May, though a likeable individual, was unequal to the immense divisions riven through the nation and was given little opportunity in her three years. Boris has been in for over a year but still seems only just to have begun.

In that time, Boris has only made one noticeable political mistake: the Lockdown, and it is an overwhelming mistake, that has wrought in a few months more damage then the whole of the Blair-Brown years. He can’t very well pull out of it now out of embarrassment, and so we are stuck in the mire for more months yet, and we descend further, maybe not as deep as Atlee territory, but deep and damaging. Maybe we are coming out. Now we must build back better; build Britain as she should be.

we human beings will not simply content ourselves with a repair job.

Now there is a truth. It is ludicrous to compare the Wuhan flu with the Black Death, but after the latter shock society was transformed, building itself back better, sloughing off the restraints of feudalism and even seeing the first daystar of the Reformation that was to rise over the lands nearly two hundred years later. This is not the Black Death, but it is a shock that has felled the economy and society in such a way that new normality much change to look for resilience, and to climb high enough that new shocks “the next cosmic spanner may be hurtling towards us in the dark” as Boris put it, can be ridden, without the temptation for another devastating lockdown of life and liberty.

Resilience does not fit the modern sentiment. Many are infantilised because we can be: there has been no active war for generations, which is an introduction to real life like no other, and the state has grown so as to smother all discomforts, which is exactly how it should not be. Immediately taking offence at trivia is a symptom of infantilised discourse (though more likely to be a bid for power).

This is not a luxury but basic survival necessity. This is a hard world, and has been since man first left Eden, and those who are ready for it will thrive, but at the moment we are the ones also made to carry the others. The problems of those others are real and heart-rending in their consequence: I have been in case briefings, told repeated stories of individuals who simply cannot cope with anything in life unless all their wants are brought to their plate by others, and who drift into crime and madness as an unavoidable consequence. Throwing money at the issue does not help if there is no training to resilience and independence, and any build-back must assume the necessity for individual resilience, or no other measure will work, or at least not reach those at the bottom of society.

What we heard from Boris Johnson today were ideas and inspiring ones. Behind it I could hear unspoken numbers, cash to be taxed on my children and their eventual children; or could it be done another way? Most government spending is on health and the welfare state (though goodness knows what the health spending goes on, because doctors have been refusing to see patients for months) and it may be that efficiencies can be made in this colossus of a budget, keeping effective spending up while reducing the amount actually consumed in the system. Outside that sector, there are many efficiencies that could be made in everyday government without affecting what it actually does, and much of what it does do it need not. That was a theme of David Cameron’s early years, but not one which really took off as it should have. At that time of course Dominic Cummings was not deployed to his full capacity.

The implied road-building programme then struck a theme I have often worried about. Roads are needed outside the South-East, although at the same time I believe would be better to let some roads rot for a few years as there is no money left to mend them; as long as they are not the roads I race down. The subject hovering over the project was the North. This is important for a proper Build Back Better: the Northern towns are not actually ignored by the government, but they can appear neglected – a drive through the leafy villages of the Home Counties, or up the millionaire’s row that is the Thames will look a world apart from a drive through the ex-industrial towns north of the Trent. The missing element to prosperity is not government but commerce. There is no inherent reason why Worksop should not shine like Guildford, but that economic buzz of the one stutters in the other. The thing is that this is not a zero-sum game between towns: if Nottinghamshire takes wing, that does not beggar Surrey. The nation is the poorer for having wealth-creation in too small a sphere, and if part of the fault is poor infrastructure, then putting some in may bring in the medium term a tax-take to repay it – maybe. On the other hand, that could be the wrong way round – the broad roads came to the Home Counties because they prosper, not to make them so.

(It feels like the Matthew Effect: For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.)

I am suspicious of government interference, and the spending of my money on projects that would be better done by those who know what they are doing, which is to say commercial entrepreneurs. That said, the south is awash with gold at the moment and can be left to fester for a bit while the North is under the spotlight, to encourage the private investment which could be its due. What the North needs more than grands projets though is less government; for the state, often local government, to get out of the way and let enterprising men and women do their magic (and not to blunder in with well-meaning subsidies to unfair competition).

If the left-behind areas can have the yoke taken off so that they thrive, that is more prosperity to the nation as a whole. That would really be building back better.

See also

Books

Fill(et)ing the Lords – 2

The House of Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in the world apart from China’s rubber-stamp assembly, but few attend at any given time, and no wonder. Stoppard (the most British playwright ever to come out of Czechoslovakia) had it right: “The House of Lords, an illusion to which I have never been able to subscribe – responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.”

There is frequent talk of cutting the numbers down, but those in the seats hold their position for life, and Prime Ministers do insist on sticking more cut-price peers in the House than leave it in the natural way. There should be a moratorium, except that it would leave in place those elevated in the last lot’s packing-the-benches exercise.

In the absence of the French solution (which is both illegal and immoral), the House of Lords can only be shrunk by stripping the rights from existing peers.

Not every Lord has a right to sit, but only those who receive at the opening of each session a writ of summons. Since Blair’s constitutional games, the hereditary peers (most of whom would be fitter on those benches than the rejected politicos who have been shoved in there) may not receive a summons unless given a life peerage. A peer otherwise entitled may request leave not to be summoned, and so must stay out unless he withdraws that request. Furthermore, certain lords are excluded by law, including holders of judicial office, those under 18, bankrupts, foreigners, those convicted of treason or those who have not attended for six months. It would be but a little stretch to add more reasons to withdraw a summons.

What of those who cease to provide substantial public service outside the House? They are the nominal nobility of the land, and noblesse oblige: a true nobleman (if not the paper noblemen of the current House of Lords) recognise that with the privilege of the title and wealth comes a duty to public service. Many a Lord serves as a magistrate or in the Army, or commands a local TA unit. Some sit for little reward on committees of national or local import, or for no reward as charity trustees (and those charities may be worthy ones, not the fake charities which besmirch the name).

On the other hand, some of this generation of pound-shop peers have got there simply for sitting on quangos, without necessarily doing a good job or making the quango actually worthwhile in its existence. Once such a person might have received an OM or MBE as a thank-you: now honour-inflation gives them a peerage. Such service if it is a career should not be enough and might be better as a disqualification. The army, the justices’ bench and public service for duty not for career are noble. If the ermine is just for show or to give a leg-up in a career drinking taxpayers’ money, it should be stripped off their backs.

Come to that, it would be a good exercise to keep out of the Lords any whose main income is derived from taxpayers’ money, apart from an army officer’s salary.

The rules also exclude a peer from sitting if he or she is a member of the European Parliament. That one is by the board now, but what of others who are in the pay of foreign powers, or in thrall to them? What of peers who conspire with foreign powers, which is easy for a susceptible man to slip into? They should not be in Parliament. They know who they are.

Maybe some of the less worthy lords could be bribed to go away. If that sounds underhand, it is no more dishonest that living the high-hog on taxpayers’ money.

New conditions on the writ of summons would be valuable. The lurking danger is that wokeists will hijack the idea, and force exclusion for imagined transgressions and a careless word here or there, or they could take over the approval panels and impose those rules where there are no rules. Quis judicat ipsa judices? This needs careful work.

It may be that in these ways so many would be hurled from the benches that the House shrinks to manageable size. It may be that so many are sent away that more peers are needed. Appointing peers – that is another challenge.

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A Future for Freedom

I could be forgiven for thinking freedom has no future, with the upcoming generation so schooled to despise it. Daniel Hannan thinks differently and made his point in a conversation Zoomed to the faithful this evening.

The Anglosphere was to be much in evidence, and the norms we have taken for granted over generations: as Mr Hannan was born outside it, in Darkest Peru, and spent much of his career outside it, in Darkest Brussels, he may have a better perspective then those of us sitting comfortably in our homes.

The norms and shared assumptions of the Anglosphere are not inevitable nor is an open society a given any more even within the English-speaking world. There is more hope though than we think. This formed a theme to follow.

However, just as for years every political conversation turned out to be about Brexit, now it was all COVID-19 for the first half-hour or so. I began thinking that it took away from the big topics of the world, where freedom is imperilled, but as it went on, the reason became clear – the lockdown restrictions (which Daniel Hannan has always opposed) and the sheep-like compliance of the nation are very much a practical outworking of the state of personal freedom in the land. As he said at one point, it is so utterly unlike all we have understood of British attitudes that we wait for the government to tell us what we should do.

Personally, I have largely ignored the lockdown, though I am in a fortunate enough position to be able to do so.

A key point for the future is whether and how the government’s new, extraordinary powers will end. The Act that imposed them has a sunset clause, though a generous one. Mr Hannan recalled that wartime emergency measures were largely continued in peacetime, and some restraints on commercial freedom begun in 1940 just for the duration were not if fact lifted until Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. There is too much temptation upon governments, in particular strong governments, to hold on to those powers. Mercifully we have a Prime Minister who believes deeply in personal freedom and has written about it throughout his career, so his every personal instinct should be to let go of those powers and maximise personal freedom. Imagine if it were Tony Blair in Number 10 now.

Throughout the discussion on the lockdown, it came down to the philosophy of freedom, and that infuses the whole topic.

(I am bound to quote Hobbes here in a cynical frame with the reminder that “The Libertie, whereof there is so frequent, and honourable mention, in the Histories, and Philosophy of the Antient Greeks, and Romans, and in the writings, and discourse of those that from them have received all their learning in the Politiques, is not the Libertie of Particular men; but the Libertie of the Commonwealth“, but with that puissance of the state assumed, it defends the freedoms of its subjects which we would not enjoy were there no Commonwealth, which is to say no state.)

Freedom is in peril if too few care about it. The upcoming generation, we are told, have been schooled out of belief in freedom or free thought, and certainly many despise it. There is hope that this is a minority. There is something desperately sad about these pupils, after so much has been spent nominally educating them and taking up their childhoods, and that is that if they do not know how to think alternative thoughts then they do not know how to think at all, so that in real life, when it hits them eventually, they will fail and drop to the bottom of the heap, while those who ignored that form of education, who can think, will rise and thrive. Those politically activist teachers have betrayed hundreds of thousands of children in their care and damned them to the scrapheap.

Moving ahead on the same theme of distorted philosophy, the talk could hardly fail to look over the bizarre antics around the street protests we saw last month, the logic of which does not stack up. However as Daniel Hannan observed, there will be this sort of soixante-dix-huitard protest in every generation – the dangerous aspect is the obeisance of the broadcast media and even the police.

Even so, there is hope in the darkness, because in reality there is only a small patch of darkness – it is just managing to suck all discourse into it. If it is seen for what it is – a small number of very loud voices who should be ignored or mocked, then we can get on with our lives. the question is how to convince the woke-obsequious media of that.

There is a future for freedom, even in the absence of such heroes as the irreplaceable Roger Scruton. I struggle sometimes to convince myself of it. What I know is that the Anglosphere has a better chance for it than foreign lands without that heritage.

See also

Books

New world-teachers needed

Let us go out into the world and make it a better place. Now is the time, or it will be lost to knaves and fools.

Conservative-minded folk do not like to lecture other countries: that is the sort of thing that radicals and socialists do. However it has become necessary, partly because radicals and socialists are doing that, and because of human nature, or what passes for it among politicians.

Those who are conservative-minded are short of radical utopian visions, so we are less likely to rail at others for disagreeing with our preferred ways of doing things. We are quite happy to let other nations live in their own cultures, though we may grind our teeth at some of the excesses of their rulers.  It is ultimately not for us: as there is no power without responsibility, so there is no responsibility where there is no power.

Others take a very different view. When the Thirteen Colonies won their independence in the name of liberty, they proclaimed to the world that they would support liberty across the world (except for slaves, obviously), but they were deep-down conservatives and three thousand miles away and did no more about it.  The bloodthirsty Jacobins on the other hand proclaimed a policy to foment revolution across Europe and to intervene with force to bring it about, the Bolsheviks likewise, and they outdid the French many, many times over in subversion and blood. Today’s enthusiasts preaching wrongheaded ideas to the world are those with elements of the cultural-Marxist mindset, and it is only a mercy that they do not have their predecessors’ capacity for destruction.

Natural enthusiasm for an idea can be a troublesome thing.  Maybe it is just not wanting to feel you are alone in the world, needing company to validate your beliefs.

If conservatives do not make missionary efforts to force foreigners to conform to British ideas, that leaves the radicals to be the only voices in town. (I would call them liberals as is the usual way, but there is nothing liberal about their doctrines.) The world is changing fast and new nations and newly freed nations look for a model to follow; and there waiting for them are people with ideas, wokeists, social-justice warriors and all who follow with them.

It is in Britain’s interests to see a settled and prosperous world. We might not want to bother other nations with our ways of doing things, but those values we have developed, in our context with our the Anglosphere norms, are the values that can enable prosperity and a form of society that is most fitted to human nature. A foreign nation which adopts a free, open market, firm rights of property, limited government, the rule of law and settled family and social bonds in socially conservative terms, that nation can prosper and enjoy civil peace. Socialist and big-state ideas can only ensure poverty. Breaking social bonds with radical, inhuman ideas will bring strife, and even war. Replacing social interdependence with dependence on the central state will bring both poverty and war.

Britain is a trading nation and needs customers with money and reliability, and also needs the markets of the world to be open. It is not just about internal ideas of sound law and liberty then; nations need to embrace free trade for their own prosperity. That goes against many instincts of nature and even in the more conservative-sounding establishment there will be frequent demands for action to protect home markets (ignoring the point that increased prices will result, saving a few jobs in one sector at the penalty of increased costs and consequent unemployment distributed across others). Free trade is for the benefit of the nation being preached to, even if we preach it for our own nation’s good.

In the 1980s, Roger Scruton travelled extensively in Eastern Europe, then still under the Soviet jackboot. He taught, he provided material, he nurtured an underground intellectual class which was able to rise with the fall of Communism and take over. It is noticeable that the countries in which he was active have been those which rose and mended themselves spectacularly after the Wall fell – Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (or half of it at least) – while those left to the mercy of the Vienna Commission and its ‘progressive’ ideas have been stunted. The Vienna Commission hates Hungary and Poland for their social conservatism, but those two nations are doing very well.

Prosperity in the wider world then needs a new Scruton initiative. There will never be another Roger Scruton, God rest his soul, but his example and his courage are measures for a new effort.

Without it, the international commentariat is dominated by ideas rooted in textbooks but not reality, and the result can only be poverty and strife and closed markets.

The modern radicals appear to have a monopoly on ideas and they would certainly have it that way. Those who dissent will face censure, as we have seen in Hungary and Poland for even minor non-compliance (which can be ignored but puts pressure on surrounding nations to take action). In the longer-term view, if one narrow field of ideas retains the monopoly, those who disagree will doubt their sanity, or be driven to more radical, illiberal ideas in reaction, or to unfortunate companions. Hungarian politicians have started to be warm towards Russia, which is far from the Scrutonian promise they have shown.

The dominant ideas therefore need a respectable opposition, to show there are other ideas that are just as respectable and far more practical.

We owe it the world to whom we introduced Western ideas in the first place, and to our merchants to provide them with the world marketplace they deserve.

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Books

Sir Humphrey’s logic

We used to swear by the Civil Service, and now we swear at it. Ministers must still work with their civil servants, but can they understand them? Just as importantly, can civil servants understand ministers?

It seems a unique relationship, but not quite. There are analogies. at least to how the relationship between minister and mandarin show work.

We have all seen Yes Minister, and those who have been in Whitehall testify that it is more of a documentary than we would hope. (The writers had a group of inside informants and much of what happened on screen was a reflection of what was actually happening, incredibly.) The world it portrays has senior civil servants confident that they are the actual government, the permanent class who go on, while politicians come and go and are at best an annoyance. That seems to be genuine too.

Be fair to them: the civil servants are professionals who are faced with amateurs. What is a professional to do? He is the one who knows how things work, who sits where and how they will react, and what happened last time, but in come the amateurs insisting they are in charge and wanting to change things without knowing how they are set up in the first place. Any action is taken in the knowledge that in a year or a week that bumbling amateur will be out and a new man will be in with different ideas, ready to unwind all the changes.

Reshuffles are bad enough, but when there is an election it may force a thorough-going change in direction and the put-upon mandarin will be called upon to reverse all the hard work done before. In that case, there is every motivation to hold back and ensure that anything done can be reversed. That does not sit well with the political thrust to radical change. Clashes are inevitable.

John Redwood wrote recently of how he helped Margaret Thatcher to get her reforms through a reluctant Civil Service and, if I read it correctly, the biggest factor of retardation was reluctance to release any powers of the state, and consequent loss of wonted control, which is why the 1980s privatisations were so painful to do, forced to go Act by Act instead of a single Privatisation Act.

In the recent years of political chaos and serial general elections, the impermanence of political direction was a reality and the Civil Service had to carry the ship of state on an even keel with little help.

In a democracy, the Civil Service cannot be autonomous and the two sides cannot work without each other. The relationship is like that of client and accountant or client and solicitor: the professional may be tempted to think that he can work without his client, but his whole purpose is to fulfil the client’s requirements.

If an entrepreneur goes to his solicitor and asks for something impossible or illegal, the solicitor is under a threefold duty; which firstly is to advise that the proposed course as described cannot be done. Some will stop at that point thinking their duty done, but it has not been. The second limb is to analyse the client’s actual requirement, the position he or she wants to reach, and find a way to achieve it which is possible and legal. The third is to get on and do it.

The accountant or the lawyer may know the intimate detail of his own field better than the client, but the purpose of his field is to serve his client, who knows his or her own needs better that the accountant will. Just as some accountants or lawyers think they have done their bit as gatekeepers by saying ‘no’ when it comes to a limit of the possible, so may some senior civil servants, but in both cases that is wrong: the mandarin’s duty is to understand the minister’s requirement and carry it out, maybe not in the way that is requested as that might be impractical or illegal, but to fulfil the actual requirement and motivation.

The Civil Service though is a monopoly and has all the bumbling inefficiencies of a monopoly. An entrepreneur can fall out with his accountant and go to another. Therefore each practice keeps itself efficient and provides tight service to keep its clients happy. Each firm too will watch what others do and imitate best practice, so that all are steadily improved. That does not happen in Whitehall: a minister cannot just ring a rival firm of mandarins to give a better quote or which has a more specialist practice. It would be better if they could.

In the meantime, we have a dynamic relationship of political and administrative spheres, which is not working well in all ministries, through misunderstandings, timidity and reluctance.

It does take a skilled professional to read his client’s mind and interpret what is the actual end to be reached, but that is the job. It is not meant to be easy, but if you can only handle easy, Sir Humphrey, you should not be there.

See also

Books