Ancient Chinese curse (no. 92):
May you concur with your enemies.
It really makes Malcolm’s teeth grate to have to agree, even in small part, with the misbegotten crepusculars of the Right. So Simon Jenkins in Wednesday’s Guardian caused him some dental distress. Jenkins started from a premise that (apart from the superior style) might have come straight from the Daily Turd:
What is the matter with the Conservative party? It once claimed a nodding acquaintance with the cause of liberty. Now it runs with the corporatist pack. If there is anything to be banned, regulated or computerised, it howls from the dispatch box for “something to be done”. Be it prostitutes, drugs, prisons, NHS computers, data protection or civil rights, the Tories are desperate not to be seen as out of the action. Libertarians in Britain are a disenfranchised class.
Now, Malcolm would have to accept that, except to cavil that “libertarians” are all of the Right persuasion. It grieves him to the nth degree that “liberty” and its associations have become a possession of the Right. The essence of Jenkins’s argument is that
it will have taken a serial killing to address the law on prostitution, a typical “consensual crime” in which the greatest harm is caused by the manner in which the state tries to suppress it.
While [Tory Deputy Leader and Home Affairs spokesman]
David Davis, castigates libertarians who want “prostitution and drugs reform” …
The Tories could tell us exactly what a modern Conservative means by a free society, and list the regulations and restrictions they intend to repeal in their bonfire of controls. They could seize the moment of the Ipswich headlines by declaring their determination to end counter-productive bans on consensual crime. Merely preaching an end to government interference in the private affairs of citizens is hypocritical if, when case after case comes along, Cameron funks mentioning it for fear of the press.
Now Malcolm goes along with much of that. Except that the Tory Party has traditionally and habitually argued on the basis of “do as I say, not as I do”. While preaching and imposing a higher standard of morality, the average Top Tory has gouged, exploited and prostituted the lower orders. When Oscar Wilde gave Algernon his aphorism, he was making the point:
Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.
And that’s from 1895.
Readers should realise that Malcolm, too, comes from another age, the age of permissiveness. Permissiveness got, unfairly, a bad press. It did not mean a selfish “let it all hang out”. It said that everyone should be free to do as he or she wished, provided it did not intrude on the freedom or comfort of others. In other words, it was good manners and good behaviour expanded to natural and obvious social limits. It was a pragmatic social anarchism, but (like all anarchisms) it was not nihilism. It involved applying good personal and social rules.
Malcolm’s grasp of anarchism as a developed philosophy came mainly from George Woodcock’s book, in those days a blue-covered Pelican text. It contains a telling anecdote. Anselme de Bellegarigue met Communards and challenged them: they had elected a government, and so were already enslaved. That, of course, is taking matters to an extreme. It has a truth, though, in that modern democratic governments elect their own super-government by putting themselves in thrall to the tabloid press. Downing Street (and Tory shadow cabineteers) do the utmost to bring Murdoch on side. The Bushies cuddle up to Fox News and the shock-jocks. A would-be French president apparently condones bikini shots.
Surely the time has come for the Left to reclaim the cause of personal liberty. How about this as a statement of modern syndicalism?
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
Yet that is, for crying out loud, Ayn Rand, in an appendix to Atlas Shrugged. She was, of course, merely restating good, old Tom Paine’s Rights of Man:
What is government more than the management of the affairs of a Nation? It is not, and from its nature cannot be, the property of any particular man or family, but the whole community. The romantic and barbarous distinction of men into Kings and subjects, though it may suit the condition of courtiers, cannot that of citizens. …
Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
Paine, as G.D.H.Cole put it, was
… the first fundamental social programme put forward on behalf of the people since the days of Winstanley and the Diggers.
And, for Socialists, Paine is definitely one of ours, rather than theirs. [Malcolm was staggered to discover that his edition of Cole’s History of Socialist Thought, bought on a student’s income in the 1960s, was now charged at $1,125 on Amazon.]
So Malcolm proposes that Socialists should be prepared to cede compulsion as a policy to the Rightists, and adopt a “less-is-more” attitude to social legislation. The present Blair administration has (and even deservedly) earned a reputation for nannying the populace. After a decade, let’s restore the balance, and empower the individual against statism. We have been here before: when Jenkins uses the phrase “bonfire of controls” it is advisedly. Ludwig Erhard was using the term as far back as 1948, at the time the German currency was being reformed. Erhard, let it be remembered,
believed that only under a free market economy could an individual find true freedom, and that only a free society and free economy would deliver the wealth needed for humane social policies and programmes.
And that sounds suspiciously like the “Third Way”. The phrase, “bonfire of controls”, then became the mantra of the first two years of Churchill’s 1951 Government (Tories being never slow to jump and commandeer a band-wagon); but Harold Wilson, as President of the Board of Trade, was using it in abolishing the war-time rationing during the latter years of the Attlee Government.
By the by, Malcolm was re-reading the speeches of Herbert Morrison recently: Morrison had the reputation of being the great corporatist and author of State Capitalism in the post-war reconstruction. Even so, what comes across, repeatedly, in these speeches is a balance:
Man does not live by bread alone, and good government does not exist by legislation alone … If voluntary agreement is effective, I like it well enough. It’s OK by me! … The ideas and ideals of the past have proved their worth and have up to a point, like the ideals of the Liberals before us, been tacitly accepted by all parties. … We each of us are free and we each know that we cannot keep our democratic freedom without sharing its responsibilities.
At a time when Cameroonies are becoming some kind of Labour-lite, while David Davis ponces around as the Grand Inquisitor and Witchfinder General, let’s really put one up them. Let’s give the editor of the Daily Mail palpitions, and go with Baudelaire: “Il faut épater les bourgeois.”
Labour’s (long-overdue) reforms of drinking and gambling laws seem not to have pulled the roof of the temple down upon us. Next, for what Jenkins felicitously calls “consensual crime”. If there is no victim, why should it be criminalised? And Jenkins is correct: feeding a drug-habit means the male turns to robbery, and the female to prostitution. One involves a crime against property: the other a challenge to propriety. We have, in the case of the sex industry, created a whole spectrum of shame: at the opposite end [sic] to Ipswich’s Portman Road, les grandes horizontales enjoy public celebrity, yea the company of the owners of those newspapers that condemn their less-famous sisters. Even the consort of the British monarch could hardly arch his eyebrow: he has been attributed with the view:
I don’t think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.