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Centrist politics - stealing or sharing clothes?

25 Jul 2007 - Bruno Prior

Andrew Pierce, Assistant Editor of the Telegraph, reviewing PMQs on Radio 5Live today, was laughing at how Brown had once again stolen the Tories' clothes (this time, on border police), leaving Cameron "standing naked at the dispatch box". He claims the Tories are furious about it, but have no option but to agree that Brown's proposals are a jolly good thing, if the proposals were theirs in the first place.

The Tories have brought this on themselves by seeking the managerialist "centre-ground". If they look to adopt positions close to Blair and Brown's Third-Way programme, they should not be surprised if the Government adopts their ideas. Now that they all share the same sizes and styles, their wardrobes are interchangeable. This isn't stealing, it's sharing, like co-habiting girlfriends. Stealing is selfish, sharing is mutual - Dave was today trying on Gordon's "56-day detention" outfit for size, though he's not quite sure whether it suits (DD was said to be sure that it didn't this morning, but then his taste is more conservative).

The only way to prevent this from happening, and to provide voters with a good reason for voting for a party other than the Government, is to adopt a philosophy and policies that are distinct from the Government's interventionist position.

I have been writing about the three irreconcilable branches of the Tory party - the social-democrats, conservatives, and classical-liberals. Brown will have no difficulty borrowing social-democrat policies - that's exactly his size and style. And, although people like to imagine that leftists are socially liberal, the working-class instincts of many of their supporters will have no trouble reconciling themselves with socially-conservative policies, so long as they incoporate sops to the poor and disadvantaged, which Cameron's social-democratic instincts and determination to stop the Tories looking like the "nasty party" oblige him to incorporate in any proposals. And as lefties from Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Hitler,* down to the modern-day Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have demonstrated, the left are enthusiastic adopters of authoritarian (and often even racist) positions - again catering to the prejudices of what they view as their core constituency (or class).

The one position with which lefties find it difficult to reconcile themselves is classical-liberalism. They can handle the social-liberal aspects of that (though in a meddling, "let's make everything perfect for everyone" rather than "laissez-faire, laissez-passer" kind of way), but the economic liberalism and individualism is simply incompatible with their beliefs. Brown and Blair have made a good job of pretending it is otherwise (and in the case of Blair, I believe there was a genuine modicum of belief in free markets), but scratch beneath the surface of almost everything they have done, and you find a corporatist, managerialist, effectively-socialist solution disguised as a market mechanism. They have coopted the large corporations and City institutions, and consulted economists till they (or we) are blue in the face, to maintain the charade of market-delivery, but they have at all times hindered the freedom of businesses large and small to respond freely to unbiased market signals.

The Tories should accept that Uncle Gordo will try to look as authoritarian as them (if not more so) on law-and-order issues. They should argue for what they believe is right on security issues (strong, well-funded defence of personal liberty, property, and nation - pretty much what DD has been promoting very effectively), and live with Gordon stealing the parts of that agenda that are more authoritarian and less liberal. But exactly contrary to the Letwin/Willetts brainbox-nonsense about "socio-centric not econo-centric paradigms", they should try to drag the focus back to the size of the state, whether in its intrusion into people's private lives, or into our economic activities. Those are clothes that Gordon simply couldn't wear comfortably if he tried to steal them. But it would require them explicitly to abandon the Letwin programme and to commit to cuts in government-funded activities and in taxation. Is Cameron brave enough, and could he carry it off convincingly given his position to date? If not, those who think that politics really is about the battle of ideas, and not just about who can best run other people's lives, should leave the Tories to flounder in Gordon's wake, and go off and set up a real alternative.

Their positions should be easy - internalise externalities through a limited number of mechanisms (one for carbon, one for local externalities), come down hard on anti-competitive behaviour (and break up monopolies and oligopolies) and then:

  • Energy policy - stop trying to influence people's choices

  • Environmental policy - stop trying to influence people's choices

  • Agricultural policy - stop trying to influence people's choices

  • Industrial policy - stop trying to influence people's choices

  • Education policy - free schools and universities from central control and then let people make their choices

  • Health policy - free hospitals from central control and then let people (doctors, nurses and patients) decide (within budgetary constraints)

  • Welfare policy - remove disincentives to work by ending means-testing, so people can choose freely how to work and how much for

  • Transport policy - stop trying to influence people's choices

  • Planning policy - expose councils and their taxpayers to the economic realities of their choices

  • Culture, media and sport - stop trying to influence people's choices, or making them pay (e.g. in the case of the BBC or "high" culture) to support your choices

There will be fine-tuning and exceptions, but this should be the consistent, default position, and any exceptions should be tested rigorously, on the basis not of whether they please certain groups, but whether they are right according to classical-liberal principles.

This manifesto would require very much less advice and management than the current managerialist approach, so they could disband most of the quangos, sack most of the consultants, and return to taking considered advice from a slimmed-down, elite civil-service. Those PFI contracts that belong properly in the market could be hived off completely, and those that properly belong under government control should not be renewed at the end of their term. We should end up with a proper division between the realm of government and the realm of inidividual action, with the latter predominating.

Let Gordon try and wear those clothes. He'd look as convincing as Lennox Lewis in a tutu.

  • Lefties will no doubt complain that I have included Mussolini and Hitler in that list, but Mussolini was a communist who had become frustrated with the ineffective tactics of his comrades, and Hitler was leader of the National -Socialist- ****German -Workers- Party. The left argue (conveniently for themselves) that the right are differentiated by their nationalism, authoritarianism and treatment of minorities. But by the 1930s, most of the main communist strands had become as nationalistic as the worst of their neighbours - from Stalin's "Socialism in one country" to the attitudes of Maoists in China and Nepal, Islamic socialists in Iran and Libya, the Juche philosophy of North Korea, Castro's rallying cry of -"Cuba Sí, Yanquis No"-, and the triumphalism and martial tub-thumping of the Soviet Union, Communist China and most other communist nations. The treatment of Jews, Tartars, Sami and Caucasians by the Soviet Union, of Tibetans by the Chinese, and of homosexuals by practically all communist regimes demonstrates that bigotry is by no means a defining characteristic of the right. And we have seen from the list above that authoritarianism is not just compatible with socialism, it is inherent in it. The true distinction between right and left is the extent of intervention by the government in people's lives (socially and economically) and the size and cost of the government apparatus imposed on the people. On that basis, Mussolini and Hitler belong with their fellow authoritarians of the left, not the right.
Organisations: UK Conservatives

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