A weighty wet

There are numerous reasons for admiring William Waldegrave, Baron Waldegrave of North Hill, Provost of Slough Comprehensive Eton College, Fellow of All Souls, Oxford — if only because he survived the Thatcher years, as a Tory MP, as a wringing wet — and, despite his remarkable intellect, therefore never granted a government post. John Major promptly put him into the Cabinet. A wise move.

Today Waldegrave has a remarkable and important article in pride of place on page 19 of The Times,  below Peter Brookes’s ever tasty political cartoon.  It is headed:

True Conservatives believe in a strong state

Trust free enterprise to sell cars. But the State is the protector of the weak and stands for values above self-interest.

You’ll have major difficulties accessing that, even if you subscribe to the Times‘s apology for an on-line service, so here it is:

Conservative should never make the mistake of falling in love with free enterprise. When they do, they make fools of themselves. We should follow Adam Smith. Free markets where there is good competition are good ways of producing things, yes; but we should be as sceptical as he was about the marketeers. “People of the same trade seldom meet together but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”

Nothing in the behaviour of G4S, Barclays traders (and those of many other banks) or of GlaxoSmithKline’s US sales force would have surprised him. He had seen the South Sea Bubble, which made even the activities of Lehman Brothers look like a picnic.

Do not misunderstand me; these regular disasters, comical afterwards but disastrous at the time, do not mean we should all start ploughing through Marx or Miliband Senior again. But they should remind us that free enterprise is like democracy, in Churchill’s bon mot: the worst system except for all the others that have been tried. It is only tolerable if you subject it to constant sceptical pressure. It only works if it is hedged around by the values of the crusty old reactionaries whom its buccaneering proponents despise: regimental colonels and bishops and quiet people on village committees and old-fashioned civil servants whose moral sentiments comes from somewhere else. Getting sentimental about free enterprise is like getting sentimental about Darwinism or gravity: it is a category mistake.

In the old days, the genius of British Conservatism was to have taken not only Smith (and read him) but, in addition, Edmund Burke (and read him, too) as their favourite books. That is, if they read any books at all. Actually, many did just as well believing in common sense and common decency.

Tories knew that people and nations did not live by bread alone. We believed in the State — strong and uncorrupt in the ideal vision: the protector of the weak, and the focus of all those values greater than self-interest. Agreed, the State was not much food at producing groceries or motor cars — let the markets do that, while watching them like a lynx to spot the rackets. Agreed also, of course, that if the Sate consumes everything, you have the catastrophe of fascism or communism. What wise Conservatives seek is the right balance.

Margaret Thatcher found a nation out of balance, where the State had wandered far from its proper role and was making a frightful mess of all sorts of things that it had no need or business to be doing. She gave a heroic shove to get free enterprise going again and, partly for its own protection, returned the State to something nearer its proper role.

Now we are in danger of getting the balance wrong in exactly the opposite way. Private equity firms owning care homes? All the mutuals (the old building societies, the A, the RAC) sold off as “brands” and largely ruined? The British Civil Service on short-time contracts and bonuses, to encourage civil servants to behave more like investment bankers? Contractors not just supplying the Armed Forces, but getting pretty near to taking over their roles? This is not a Tory world.

And what a perfect lesson the fates have sent us to remind us of the truth. Who do we have to send for when the contractors conjure up one of their predictable fiascos? The poor bloody infantry, and the cavalry too.

Quite a lot of people who believe it is a given that private companies are always more efficient than the public service have never worked in real private enterprise. As Irving Kristol, the American intellectual and writer, said, an awful lot of people who favour unbridled competition have tenure. My experience tells me that there is no incompetence whatsoever of which the public sector is capable that cannot be matched in spades by the private sector. Citizens sit dumbfounded watching the beautiful advertisements telling us that banks or insurance companies really care about us, when we know first hand it is mostly bunk.

A couple of years ago, we moved house. Of the dozens of bodies with which one cannot avoid entanglement in this horrible process, the ones with the biggest advertising budgets were the worst: Sky, BT, British Gas, EDF, banks. It wasn’t just the estate agents. Only two lots were any good: one private (a family firm, I think) Cadogan Tate, the removals people — excellent. One public: the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea — courteous, quick and efficient. Private good, public bad just is not true. It is, at best, a draw. What matters is the way that organisation is run.

This summer we have seen some events that will be remembered when, happily, most of the politics and the muddles have long been forgotten. The Jubilee: a nation saying thank you to someone who embodies a supreme commitment to public service, to all the things the market cannot provide. The discovery of the Higgs Boson: billions spent on brilliant science and engineering by patient taxpayers (It would be good if the scientists remembered to say thank you), not for any short-term utilitarian  gain, perhaps for no utilitarian gain ever — and certainly no gain for the long-gone ministers who agreed to spend the money. And then the Spanish showing how, if you play football as a team game rather than as a collection of egos, you play it incomparably better. There is more to come: in spite of G4S, there will be wonderful heroism and heart-wrenching disappointment in the OLympics as competitors achieve or do not achieve dreams that they would not sell for money.

Of course there is money in or behind all these things — ridiculous money in football, billions spent at CERN, and if you sold the Crown Jewels you could probably pay for the tailplane of a Typhoon fighter. But the highest service, the heroic discovery and the purest sport represent dreams that the market does not generate.

David Cameron knows this: his Big Society was about people doing things because they are good in themselves, not because someone will pay you. If he can tune that Tory string again, he will have returned British Conservatism to its best roots, and its most electorally successful roots. We should be the party that the electorate trusts to oversee a free-enterprise economy, because the electorate understands that we know that free enterprise, vital though it is, is not the only, or even the most important part of the story of a nation.

There’s not a paragraph where a pettifogging lefty, such as Malcolm, could not find nits to pick. That hint of flag-waving and Union-Jack-wrapping might set sensitive teeth on edge. Yet Waldegrave is writing for a particular audience, perhaps arraigned in at least three tiers: the hoi polloi up in the gods, the dress circle who commission these things, and the critical political gallery in the stalls; and he exploits his opportunity with consummate dramatic and diplomatic skill. He has the status to demand his place in the prestige spot of The Times: he gets way with  it with well-greased subtlety. The nod to Thatcher, who barely tolerated him. A sly self-congratulation (did you spot it?). He writes well, using down-to- earth terms, mixed with elevated reference.  And he uses that archaeological fragment, the semi-colon.

A good read.


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Filed under Britain, British Left, Conservative Party policy., David Cameron, History, Times, Tories.

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