Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two Britains

Official myths, Market realities.

My first opinion piece for the Evening Standard appeared this morning. It’s an attempt to give an overview of the election campaign–and the broad political environment that is shaping it. Once again, with the permission of the Evening Standard’s editor, to whom I am grateful, I reprint it below. It has one or two minor amendments, explaining things to a non-British audience, but it is otherwise unchanged except for copyediting:

“Henry Kissinger was once asked why academic disputes were so bitter and famously replied: ‘Because the rewards are so small.’ The narcissism of small differences in this election campaign is even more extreme. All three parties struggle over very modest differences in public spending and public-service reform with the unpersuasive bloodthirstiness of professional wrestlers. Large and real differences of interest and opinion yawn in front of them. Yet somehow or other these go unnoticed in public debate.

An exile returning to Britain after years abroad in Canada and the U.S.–even years punctuated by regular visits–perhaps notices this oddity with fresher eyes. In particular he observes that there are two Britains–no, not the rich and poor, nor the Anglo and the “ethnic,” nor even the native-born and the immigrant,, but the unavoidable division between Market Britain and Official Britain.

Market Britain he knows well enough from abroad. It is the Britain that makes things, provides services, competes in markets at home and abroad, and pays taxes. That Britain did not always enjoy a favorable reputation. Forty years ago it was synonymous with strikes, go-slows, poor quality, late delivery, zero spare parts, and unreliability. Today it is the fourth largest economy in the world with a reputation for capitalist efficiency. That is why innocent tourists arrive at Heathrow expecting to find a country as well run as Claridges, Conrans, Tesco, and Switzerland.

Official Britain is what they actually find. This is the Britain of Whitehall, the public sector, the immigration service, the police, the universities, the National Health Service, the courts; local government, and various supervisory quangos such as the Commission for Racial Equality.

These bodies all provide “public services” of one kind or another (including the provision of stern moral criticism). They are monopolies funded mainly by taxation and un-stimulated by competition. And, by and large, they are bad at what they do.

Police don’t catch criminals; the immigration service admits terrorists; schools send out illiterates after years of compulsory “education”; the courts free dangerous criminals; welfare agencies station orphans with child abusers; hospitals keep patients in pain waiting for months (the plural of an NHS patient seems to be patience); and so on.

This poor performance, demonstrated in every second headline, ought to be the main election issue. Instead, the main election issue seems to be how much Official Britain should grow. How come?

In its halcyon New Labour years, Official Britain became highly skilled at sedating opposition and manufacturing support. Gordon’s Brown’s “stealth taxes,” which silently financed an expansion of the public sector, were the bedrock strategy. But they were accompanied by constant small gestures of cultural sympathy for Middle Britain (which is Market Britain in its non-working hours) from Blair and the Blairites.

Labour’s latest manifesto is a treasure trove of such lollipops from “zero tolerance” for classroom disruption to “harder A-level questions.” Bill Clinton pioneered this retail social conservatism in the 1996 presidential election to win over the soccer moms. While the sun shines, it works.

At the same time, Official Britain was evolving its own ideology of soft therapeutic statism that Blair cited on Wednesday as the “progressive consensus.” This it gradually imposed across the public sector even on very traditional institutions such as the army, the police, the courts, and even museums. Thus, the police became more concerned about discouraging (non-criminal) racial and social prejudices than about stopping crimes; the BBC became an uncritical cheerleader for anti-war sentiment; the universities were instructed to subordinate merit to social engineering; the schools replaced British history with multiculturalism; museums were asked to ensure that their patrons represented the right ethnic and gender mix; etc., etc.

That kind of thing greatly irritates people, but while the sun shines, not enough to stir them to any resistance beyond grumbling. But will the sun continue to shine? Official Britain has an inherent tendency to grow–to spend more, to interfere more, and to preach more–if not constantly checked and harrassed. Brown’s expansion of the public sector has already been costly in both spending and regulation. According to the British Chamber of Commerce (quoted in the Economist), the cumulative bill from new regulations between 1998 and 2003 comes to £39 billion (approximately $75 billion). And the extent of the government’s overspending was dramatically underscored earlier in the week by the International Monetary Fund’s unexpected intervention. It spoiled Labour’s manifesto party by forecasting an early budgetary crisis that would lead either to major spending cuts or major tax hikes. The sun is at least beginning to set on Official Britain.

None of this causes the slightest anxiety to the Liberal Democrats. They are now the unambiguous advocate of Official Britain and unrestrained imbibers of the progressive consensus. Their manifesto outbids Labour on the Left, on the war, on spending, and on raising taxes. If Mr. Gladstone were to return to earth, with his old-fashioned ideas of “money fructifying in the pockets of the people” and help for “small nations rightly struggling to be free,” the Lib-Dems would be the very last party he would join.

Labour is more hesitant. Blair would like to reconcile Market and Official Britain. His acceptance of the Thatcher reforms was one expression of this. He realizes that the public services like health and education need choice and variety in provision. His manifesto speech was an attempt to commit Brown and the Labour party to such market reforms after his departure. But the brute fact is that he has consistently lacked the administrative

stamina of a Thatcher to push them through against the obstruction of the Chancellor and the resistance of most Labour MPs. He is unlikely to succeed when his power is waning and his resignation announced in advance.

As the natural party of Market Britain, the Tories might be expected to urge both retrenchment and reform on Official Britain in the light of worsening public finances. But a party needs to make its case for such painful courses well in advance. And while the sun was shining, the Tories invested very little intellectual capital in challenging the Brown-Blairite expansion of the public sector or the superior virtue of state provision. Today, therefore, they can promise only to rein in spending modestly and to cut taxes hardly at all.

In the light of that past failure, their campaigning instead on populist issues such as crime and immigration is necessary. It also makes good sense in its own right. Official Britain is clearly failing on such matters–as was conclusively demonstrated here by Thursday’s conviction of an illegal immigrant, Kamel Bourgass, who had escaped deportation twice before murdering a policeman–and public opinion is largely on the Tories’ side.

Even on such issues, however, they are handicapped by their failure to expose and demystify the progressive consensus. “More police” was a better slogan when the police caught criminals rather than filling in forms. In short the Tories have to challenge and demystify all the soothing myths of Official Britain in defense of the common sense and economic realities of Market Britain. They may not win this election by doing so–the hour is late. But reality always defeats fantasy in the end.

And if the Tories don’t become the champions of Market Britain, whether they win or lose won’t really matter.”

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