Nik Darlington 6.00am
Last April and May I helped out with a number of campaigns for Conservative candidates. I walked sundry streets, knocked on multitudinous front doors in monotonous suburbs and breathless tower blocks, and dispensed more leaflets than my ecological conscience should allow.
This sort of bromidic activity affords plenty of time for thinking; and as I turned down yet another Park Road, past yet more Fiestas and Astras, admiring yet more outlandishly individual house numbers, I thought, ‘what if we are wrong?’
I had observed so much of the national argument, the local conversations, the doorstep debates; I had trotted out innumerable lines and attempted to rebut innumerable opposing views. We were right and they were wrong. Weren’t we?
But what if the other side - Labour or Liberal Democrat, depending on the battleground - was actually right? I surmised that in the grand scheme of political discourse, they could just as plausibly be as right as us. Whoever wins a democratic election, such as we have in the UK, is not de facto right about the situation at the time; however, the winner is just believed to be right by the greatest amount of people (or the greatest critical mass of people under our system) at that particular snapshot in time. The Labour party was right in 1997, 2001 and (less so) in 2005. The Conservative party was sort of right in 2010 but not right enough about enough of the things that mattered to people to be considered right enough to run the country alone.
To cut a stream of consciousness short, I was asking myself the same sort of questions Charles Moore was in the Telegraph last week. In a marvellously honest article, which instantly sent Twitter a-flutter with left-wing triumphalism, Lady Thatcher’s official biographer stated, “I’m starting to think that the Left might actually be right”.
The essence of Moore’s malaise is that free markets are not supreme. In the 1970s and 1980s, the renaissance of the ‘Right’ was founded on the (correct) understanding that militantly organised labour was holding people back, particularly in Britain: “bad jobs were protected and good ones could not be created”. That argument was won by Margaret Thatcher, consolidated by John Major and built upon by Tony Blair.
However, Moore contends that after the credit crunch “Everything is Different Now”. We put our faith in free financial markets to drive the debt bubbles which offered home ownership, fancy holidays and material goods we couldn’t afford. The Right’s cry was for deregulation and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (who for these purposes Moore considers the ‘Right’) happily obliged. “And [then] the banks that look after our money take it away, lost it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves.” The Left were right, says Moore, “that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few.”
Similarly, the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, whose contagion is bound to spread, has thrown into stark light the truth of what the Left said all along, “that the power of Rupert Murdoch had become an anti-social force.” Cast aside for a moment the fact that Moore is a Telegraph hack who has never muck-raked in the Murdoch stables (it is a facet of his rage, but only a small one). What has the scandal shown? Indeed, it has shown “how an international company has bullied and bought its way to control of party leaderships, police forces and regulatory processes”. It was not the hallowed work of market forces that defeated the print unions at Wapping. Something Moore doesn’t point out in his article is that the Murdoch newspaper empire was built in Britain in contradiction to market forces. Apart from the tabloids, his papers don’t make money. If it were not for Rupert Murdoch, The Times and Sunday Times would have died in 1981. I am glad that those fine newspapers survived but what was that Moore wrote about ‘good jobs’ and ‘bad jobs’?
Moving on, Moore is right to say that conservatism in America has become ‘shrill’. Exhibit A: the ongoing budget squabble in Washington. He is also right to point fingers at European leaders during this eurozone crisis, as “workers…must lose their jobs in Porto and Piraeus…so that bankers in Frankfurt and bureaucrats in Brussels may sleep easily in their beds.”
In fact, as I got to the end of the article, I was nodding and starting to think that Charles Moore might be right about most of this. It is a shame that after such an honest article Moore closes with a prayer that “conservatism will be saved, as has so often been the case in the past, by the stupidity of the Left”. This is the same tribal antipathy that I discussed earlier. You are wrong, and I am right. I just don’t believe that it works like that. Even if it does, trusting victory in your opponent’s stupidity shows little faith in your own abilities, does it not?
What was forgotten in the 1980s was that there needs to be investment in universal education, healthcare and other public services to accompany market reforms. Allowing the free market to run its course - deleting ‘bad jobs’ and allowing the creation of ‘good jobs’ - was fine as long as working people were able to switch to the new economy. Training and opportunities in industrial communities were inadequate or non-evident, resulting in years of unemployment and/or welfare dependancy (you decide the ‘at best’ and ‘at worst’). Only now is this Government getting to grips with the problem.
In ascribing right and wrong, the past thirty years has not so much seen the Left be right, rather on some very big issues the Right has been wrong - or at best neglectful. In assuming the rampant drive for efficiency, the Right forgot about compassion. As TRG founder Lord Walker said, to help those most in need, we must combine efficiency with compassion. The strong policies of David Cameron’s government on the likes of welfare reform, the NHS, international aid, and even the ‘big society’ are promising signs that Mr Moore’s pessimistic analysis of the ‘Right’ is only partially true and is more retrospective than current.
But yes, because of an indiscriminate deference to the market, the press and the financial markets were allowed to run out of control, industries were run down without anywhere else to go, and a dash for consumption took place. Efficiency became a dogma and we are seeing how an intransigent attachment to this dogma is badly affecting policymaking in the USA and Europe at the moment. The Left are right, as Charles Moore said, that the free market can be “a set-up”; but many people on the Right have been saying this for years too.
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