Brown’s Britain is Bankrupt

Frank Field MP and political theorist Jeremy Jennings discuss liberty, equality and the ethics of public life with Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson: Parliament is supposed to be the guardian of liberty, but it seems rather that its members have been taking liberties. The result is a great upsurge of righteous indignation, a demand for equality in the name of justice. The ruling class, the political class, deserve to be swept away — off to the tumbrils with them! It’s a Jacobin mood. Get out the guillotine!

We can joke about it, but there have been real revolutions. Frank, seeing as you’re on the receiving end: how do you see the relationship between liberty and equality?

Frank Field: I don’t see it relating to our present discontent at all. I think the last word entering people’s heads is equality. I think they’re after blood, partly because they’re worried about what’s happening to the country. I think this is a very good way of punishing people who should have had more foresight, who have landed them in this particular set-up.

DJ: But when a ruling class, as in the case of the French aristocracy and the court and so on, are seen to be decadent, there is a feeling that they deserve just to be replaced, isn’t there? And isn’t that, however natural and human it may be, ultimately a threat to liberty?

Jeremy Jennings: I agree with Frank. This bout of indignation is very similar to that against bankers. It does relate to a broader feeling that things are going very badly and someone must be to blame. Therefore, you pick on various groups most obviously in the firing line. That’s what’s really going on.

FF: What’s so extraordinary is that we, as politicians, are supposed to be in control of it — when we can’t even control our expenses. So in a pretty fundamental way we’re demonstrating that though we are the dignified part of the constitution, we can’t actually deliver. And we recently had an uprising, totally unexpected by the whips, on the Gurkhas.

That was a sign of us for once actually being on the side of the public, whereas the public feel they’ve been foisted with an immigration policy that they’ve never been consulted about, with which they don’t agree. We’ve now reached the absurd position that we have free access for people from countries who historically fought us, but we’re excluding those from the Commonwealth and those who’ve always stood on the line with us, when things are going wrong.

So I think there’s something quite deep-seated going on in the country about these different gangs that compete for power. No one gang is actually giving them an alternative, and I think the public is not apathetic about it. It is angry.

JJ: It’ll be interesting to see what everyone’s been talking about, there’s the possibility of a breakthrough for the far-Right in the June elections. This is a godsend to those people. I notice in the Equality Bill that it makes reference to gender, race and sexuality, but it makes no reference to class whatsoever. The white English working class is forgotten, and I think they are very, very angry. I suspect they will want blood.

FF: Jeremy, we know that certain crimes are largely committed by young males. When the population was totally white, it was white young males. As the population changed, you would expect large numbers of black males to be picked up for the offences that 50 years ago young white men were picked up for. Instead of saying, “It’s shocking, there’s obviously a race bias here”, it’s the old class analysis still working, but we prefer to dress it up in much more dangerous terms, because it breaks communities up. Other working-class lads around the country would have far more in common if they thought this was something the police did against working-class lads, rather than it being presented as black working-class lads.

JJ: Obviously, Frank knows far more about this than I, but if you look at British social policy after the Second World War, the creation of the welfare state was largely designed to overcome disadvantages suffered by the working class — the health service, state education and so on. I forget the figures, but you could have said 50-60 per cent of the population would have been identified as white working class. A whole raft of social measures was introduced with the intention of improving the condition of those people.

FF: I think the figure was something like 80 per cent. But the welfare state was actually based on their morality, and their morality was that you had to pay in if you were going to draw out. But now we’re getting people unemployed who’ve got work as part of their DNA, and for the first time in their lives they’re going to job centres. There they find that all this tax and insurance they’ve paid in gets them just £60.50 a week, which is exactly the same as people with whom they don’t particularly want to mix in the job centre, who are on drink and/or drugs, and who are drawing exactly the same money, £60.50, without having actually lifted a finger.

DJ: So this is the wrong kind of equality — this is a kind of equality where it makes no difference actually what effort you make, what kind of life you lead, what your educational attainments are etc: you get exactly the same whatever you do.

FF: Well, it’s worse than that, Daniel. We had a public ideology in this country, which was English idealism, secularised Christianity, and everyone signed up to it. The basis of citizenship was that you only had rights so that you could fulfil your duties. It was a totally different conversation. It was duty-orientated, and that’s in a sense what the poorer whites and blacks in this country feel. The whole system has been overthrown by a foreign morality, maybe in the name of equality. We never hear, well, occasionally the word is pulled out here, but it’s never part of a proper analysis. It’s a prop, isn’t it? How does it look from the outside?

DJ: Jeremy — you have just published a book on Alexis de Tocqueville. Could we bring him in here, as he is the great analyst of how the pursuit of equality can end up in despotism? What would he be saying about our society today?

JJ: That’s a question asked all the time. Tocqueville is wheeled out everywhere to try to give an answer to every problem. If you go back to the end of the 18th and early 19th century, people believed the new commercial society would be more egalitarian than the previous aristocratic society. If you read Adam Smith, for example, he believes, quite honestly and genuinely, that the future society will be one of rough equality. There’ll be some inequality, but not much. And clearly things start to go slightly wrong for that analysis quite early on in the development of industrial capitalism in Britain.

Tocqueville wrote about America, but he also wrote about Britain. What he sees [in America] is a society where he says the social condition compared with everywhere else is of far greater equality — and he thinks that certain things will follow from that. By the same token, Tocqueville also spent a lot of time in Britain and wrote about it, but not as famously. He was not happy with what he found; indeed, he was very concerned about it. He visited Birmingham, Manchester and so on. And in his case, beneath it all, you had a good social Catholic. He’s against the state, but by the same token he’s against brash materialistic individualism.

So for someone like Tocqueville and for that whole tradition in which he’s writing, the challenge was how, when there’s an inevitability about these social conditions, can you actually prevent society from becoming simply an amorphous mass?

FF: But there were traditions in this country which did see the social development but were much more welcoming. The great economist [Alfred] Marshall lectured about the future of the working classes and he saw two great forces at work. One was that labour would be mixed differently with capital, so that the grotty jobs would disappear, and with them that crudeness of people who were demeaned by doing them. Indeed, he thought the second force would become so great that this wonderful belief in education would actually lift us up — we might have to do it by rota, the rotten jobs, because there wouldn’t be anybody who’d be so badly educated that they would take up these jobs. Well, we’ve now got that extraordinary business where we have a huge demand for semi- and unskilled labour — and a lot of the unskilled labour won’t do the jobs. In the last ten years, three million immigrants have come in and worked, to show that there were jobs there. So in a sense that wonderful Victorian enthusiasm at what an industrial future was going to give us looks quite different.

JJ: The most famous political economist-thinker in Britain in the 19th century was John Stuart Mill. If you read his Principles of Political Economy (1848), he’s already identified a problem about the lowest strata of society. He says, “Look, there’s wealth being created in society and so on, but there’s a group at the bottom which doesn’t seem to be moving at all, and what are we going to do about that group?” Mill had a similar analysis to that later developed by Marshall, which is that new forms of capitalist development will emerge. In Mill’s case it was co-operative societies and these sorts of things. I’m sure you know that Mill embraced a mild form of socialism at the end of his life.

FF: But Mill’s socialism was ethical, because a lot of advanced liberals adopted the term as a way of saying, “We just cannot live our life without a moral framework.” And this whole idea about citizenship, they’ve so changed this country, because the Victorians were worried about where is this process going to lead to, can we get this change with order? They solved the question about having freedom with order, there isn’t anarchy and all the nasty side, by creating a certain sort of character. Gladstone conceded the vote to the skilled working class because they’d earned it and were running their own welfare state. He said, “These people, who’ve shown that they’ve got this proper character — how can you deny them the vote?”

So our elite didn’t give the vote because they feared the mob. They extended the vote because working people showed that their characters were such that the constitution was safe with them. What’s broken down since the 1950s is any sense that we should be making good citizens. Somehow, this is seen as all too judgmental. Whereas the Edwardians and Georgians thought it was the central activity in the public domain.

JJ: So all we have now are a few citizenship classes in schools, which are actually not worth anything.

FF: There’s no conception that the point of living is to achieve our best selves. And to do that others have got to be part of the process. And you’re doing it in an urban society, where you’re living close together. Geoffrey Gorer wrote a study of the English character in the 1950s, and he said when he looked back, we were a pretty awful race. Why did we become the envy of the world? And he, absolutely rightly, said something changed in our child-rearing practices — that wonderful Victorian march to respectability. Part of that was a pride in how you brought up your family. That gave us the social skills to think about our neighbours and their needs, to lead a happy life, which was not behaving like a yobbo. It transformed that whole drive to change character by parenting, and that’s what one has today. We’re now trying to remake, defend freedom, and the order side is all done by Asbos [Anti-Social Behaviour Orders] and laws.

JJ: It’s interesting that for most working-class families in Britain, the primary concern was that their children should have a better life than they’d had. If they voted Labour, that was the reason they voted Labour, not for any other reason. I think it was largely that they wanted to make certain that there were good schools, and if their children were sick they could go to a doctor. That’s what they were fundamentally concerned about. That was the extent of their “socialism”.

FF: But that’s why, don’t you think Jeremy, it was so easy for the Labour party to take over from the liberals?

JJ: Yes. But I have looked at the proposals outlined for the new Equality Bill. It’s vague, because it’s in the pre-legislation stage, but in a way I’d want less equality but more social capital. Because what Frank’s just described is a society lacking social capital — that is to say, which lacks values about respect and courtesy for other people. But where people actively engage, of their own volition, in community affairs: that’s another one of the big changes in Britain. It’s the dramatic decline in this sort of activity that I would be more concerned about than I would about passing a new Equality Bill.

FF: And in a sense it was wonderful, audacious for the government to set this target to abolish child poverty. I happened to be the minister responsible for it, and I wasn’t asked about it before it was announced. People were saying: “You can’t do that in a free society, you’re going to have to so change the distribution of income, and you’ll get it in the neck long before you reach that point.” What is so sad now, in contrast with what Jeremy’s just said, is that the government’s got a mechanical view of how you change society: we’ll do it by tax credits, by benefits, all the rest of it. It’s now run its course, because there’s actually no more money.

What they’re not doing is saying: “Look, we’re still committed to this, but maybe there are other ways in which we achieve it.” How do people get out of the rut? Historically, we’ve all got out the rut, because we had a form of education which endlessly creamed off the better people of the time and sent them on their way. The two people who are most responsible for our present discontent are Anthony Crosland and Mrs Thatcher, because both of them attacked the grammar school. They somehow thought we could have a diluted form of academic education for every child, and didn’t provide that third leg of the stool which was technical education. Look, 13 years of state education and some of the young people in Birkenhead can’t talk properly, let alone read and write.

JJ: That’s right. If you go back to Mill the whole tradition of British idealism, T. H.Green, Bosanquet and so on, for those writers that was the crucial thing. You are right about secularisation. There is a problem about us becoming an increasingly secular society. I just wonder: what can we appeal to? When you listen to the radio in the morning you hear lots of calls for the government to spend more money on this and that. You never hear: “Well, it might be an idea if more people went to church.” Actually, it might be a good idea if more people went to church.

FF: Or just if they went to work. Just by engaging with other people, people genuinely feel more happy. All of that is overlooked. There have been these two traditions, and people don’t necessarily fit into the same categories, but there’s been the mechanical, the top-down thing, where you can do it by acts of parliament and all the rest of it; and people who believe in moral regeneration which is about transforming the people.

What’s so interesting about Attlee is that, although he had this huge legislative programme, the part which is not written up — because history’s only written up in a certain way now, so you discard the bits of history you don’t understand or don’t actually want — he had this extraordinary programme that was going to change people’s characters, encourage this whole idealism, so that they would naturally become socialists. You can’t have socialism unless people are socialists, and you won’t get socialists by merely changing the structure; people have got to change.

And his planning policy was about how you create communities, and education policy is a clear part of this, the national parks, the idea of the BBC, ministers thought that we would progress from Radio 1 to Radio 3 — they genuinely believed that. It’s just wonderful, isn’t it, that idealism? And then come the sixties and Lord Devlin was saying, “You can’t teach morality without religion.” We’re testing that to destruction, aren’t we?

DJ: The underlying idea, it seems to me, behind the Equality Bill, and similar pieces of legislation, is discrimination; that the real evil of our society is discrimination. It’s a real grievance culture, isn’t it: “It’s not fair. I’m being somehow disadvantaged.” And yet, the more of this kind of legislation we pass, the more grievance, the more misery and resentment there seems to be, so perhaps this whole approach is rather questionable, that you can achieve greater equality by passing more and more laws of this kind. Because don’t these sort of laws restrict people’s liberty in all kinds of ways? By imposing new layers of bureaucracy, more interfering state bodies, rather than, as you say, trying to make it a bottom-up kind of equality, a genuine equality of opportunity.

JJ: Like all of these key terms in that political discourse, equality is open to a multitude of different definitions. It’s a word like liberty, we use it and we think we know what it means, but obviously it comes in different shapes and sizes. I think you’re right. It’s very interesting if you look at the proposals behind the Equality Bill; it is, I think, essentially talking about equality as the absence of discrimination. So it’s very much a cultural agenda. As I say, there’s no reference to class in it, whatsoever. You have just been talking about equality of opportunity, which is another version of equality. Equality before the law is yet another. But you also have the concept of equality of outcome.

That’s to say, if you really are serious about equality, it seems to me you’ve got to tackle what tends to be referred to as structured inequality, and that basically means inequalities in wealth. If you’re serious about it, that’s what you’ve got to do. I don’t think this Bill is serious about that, and I don’t think it should be, incidentally, but there’s no indication that’s what it intends.

If you’re serious about equality, it strikes me you’d close public schools, you’d end private healthcare, you’d think about having legislation indicating maximum salaries, and a whole series of other measures, 100 per cent taxation, really stringent inheritance laws and so on. If you were serious, if you really believed, as some of the summaries of the Bill say, “We want a fair and a just society, which is an equal society,” if you really mean that then you have to start thinking about tackling inequalities of wealth. That is the fundamental cause of inequality.

DJ: But can you do that and preserve a free society?

JJ: No, but if you’re serious, that’s what you’d do. No, this is a form of legislation that is basically concerned about inequalities as forms of discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity and religion. It is a question of deciding which inequalities matter.

The problem is, if you go along with the strategy I’ve just outlined, you’ve got major problems. You began by asking a question about liberty and equality. There is, in my view, a mistaken assumption that you can increase equality without decreasing liberty, and I think it’s one of the things we all like to believe. Isaiah Berlin pointed out a long time ago that we like to believe all of these political values are commensurate. They’re not; if you have one, it often means you’re going to take away from the other. And if you aim to increase equality, you’re going to reduce liberty. The simplest way you’re going to do it is through taxation — every month we lose a considerable amount of our salary, which is taken from us and given effectively to someone else. That money which is taken away prevents us from doing the things we might otherwise wish to do. It’s very simple. That’s the most obvious example of how if you believe in equality you’re going to start reducing people’s liberty.

FF: Well, let me try and get some disagreement in here, by highlighting the role that I think, for me anyway, equality plays. I think the primary motive force in the human spirit is freedom. And that’s sacred. But we know that, from history, all heresies are not peddling untruths, but peddling a single truth not being buttressed by another truth. And I think there’s a relationship between freedom and equality, in that we are all created in God’s image. So there is a check on freedom that we do have to regard: that the most basic fact about the people who might be on the receiving end of our freedom, or their loss of freedom, is that we might do harm to the integrity of them. I’m always very happy to argue that the primary purpose of my political action is freedom. And it sometimes will result in greater equality.

But the definition of equality which appeals to me — which is the most difficult one, the most intangible — is one of respect. It’s fairly easy to say that you have respect, but to actually have respect — it is about bringing that revolution about in one’s own character, about the sort of person you are and how you relate to other people. And what I find foreign about [the Commons], and I’ve been here 30 years, is that we almost never frame our measures within this framework. My biggest shock coming here is how little we ever discuss political ideas. I somehow naively thought that this would be a hotbed of it. There’s less here than outside.

JJ: But I would think that in some respects this proposed legislation, when it talks about equalities, is talking about respect. Is that how you see it? By saying effectively that we cannot discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sexuality, their gender, their ethnic group and so on, isn’t that really saying what this is about is treating people with respect and that’s what we’re aiming for? Is what you have in mind?

FF: No, because although legislation can obviously play a part in changing attitudes, it might change them in the wrong way. Because of the historic fact that the Church of England is established, their laws have to come here. I mean for example the approval of women priests: we had no right to change it (although I wanted to support it). It seems to me extraordinary that we have a society that organises itself while excluding half the population. And that’s why I found Mrs T such an attractive person, because when this whole row was going on, the Deanery of St. Paul’s became vacant and I went in and said: “Mrs T, one way of showing that women can come to the top without necessarily going down the route that people are proposing — what about a woman for Dean of St Paul’s?” And her immediate response was: “Can we do it, Frank? Look at the statutes!” And you can imagine all of her successors saying that it would cause trouble, I don’t think we should do that. But she was for, in that sense, using what power she had without changing the law. Within the existing law, how do you give a message about how women should be treated? I think that we’ve lost the whole sacramental side of trying to use examples to teach.

DJ: But how can a political class expect to change people’s character and morality in this way when it is itself seen by much of the country as, to say the very least, not setting a very good example? We talked earlier about what one might call the underclass being an old problem, but what about the political class? Are they practising what they’re preaching here? I’m not just thinking of MPs’ pay and expenses: more generally the bankers, and so on. Are we in the West going through a phase at the moment of looking at ourselves in the mirror and not liking what we’re seeing?

FF: Two things are happening when looking in the mirror. One is we’ve looked in it and it’s all pretty shocking, because I think probably lots of people hadn’t realised how representative the House of Commons was of the outside world. Therefore, we have shattered what was all part of this: that people in public life aspired to it, somehow their characters were ones we looked up to. And I don’t think after the last few weeks that they could say that. It does come back to what I think is the central problem we have as a society, that somehow if we on the centre-Left raise character, that we were somehow trying to promote a moral means test, so that we could fail people. Instead of thinking that this was the great engine force which changed Victorian into Edwardian England, into Georgian England — something glorious — there was then a backlash against it, and everything was going to be mechanical. And of course we can change the laws with MPs and with bankers, and of course we can enforce them and put them under the criminal code. But all of that is a glorious demonstration of failure, isn’t it? You want people to have freedom and behave properly, and have a sense of order about their life and know what their duties are. That’s what’s so shocking about the last 18 months, isn’t it?

JJ: What’s very amusing if you read the proposals for the Equality Bill is that one of the things that it talks about is increasing transparency. That’s flagged very prominently: increasing transparency in order to overcome persistent inequalities and to foster good relations. But for everybody else. Not for us. And that I think is where people are very angry, when we know that MPs try to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, and things like this. Why them and not us?

FF: We did originally, and it’s a wonderful payback, because of course had we actually conceded straight away and behaved properly, none of this detail would have come out. It would all have been disguised under main headings. So in a sense it’s a very painful lesson that one is actually learning.

JJ: I’m trying while listening to Frank to get a sense of his understanding of British history, and when, in his view, things started to go well. From the sound of it, it is around the late-Victorian-Edwardian period.

FF: But if you look at the crime figures, and I’ll just take those, there are now more crimes against the person in Birkenhead in the last year we had figures for than in the whole of the country 50 years ago or 100 years ago. And if you take every similar seat, it would be true.

JJ: A bit of historical knowledge would tell us that we shouldn’t always imagine that the Houses of Parliament in the past were bastions of virtue. The Houses of Parliament in the 19th century — read any Victorian novel and the account of politicians you receive is basically that they’re always on the make, they don’t really have any principles, that politics is solely about power and gaining office.

FF: But it is true, don’t you think Jeremy, that part of the problem is that the public view us through idealist eyes? They actually do think that politicians would be people of a certain character. That’s the great change that the idealists did bring about in this country.

JJ: I do think that this expenses scandal is a sideshow. Yes, people will look upon Parliament with increasing scepticism and doubt. But I think there’s a more fundamental lesson which we can draw from the last decade of the Labour government in power, which is that enormous amounts of money have been spent on no doubt very worthy social schemes and so forth. And on the whole, the results don’t bear scrutiny. In other words, the last 12 years have been a real test case of social democracy in power. The conditions could not have been better: there’s been no shortage of money, we’ve poured money into education, health, Sure Start, all of these things, for a long enough period now to be able to say: has it worked or not? And, on the whole, the answer is no.

FF: I agree totally. That form of social democracy has been tested to destruction, and found wanting. It hasn’t delivered. And therefore that’s part of the more general political crisis that we have. The first modernisation of the Labour party was going to take place after the Attlee government, but we all fell about and fought for a time. And then when we began modernising, the modernisation centred on social expenditure making these fundamental changes. And under the Gaitskellites, though they led noble, cultured lives and so on, for the rest of us the change was going to be brought about by mechanical means — and you’ve got to be mad to advocate that that’s the way forward.

So for me, as a radical, I love this. We’re going to go into this period of cuts in public expenditure, so how can we achieve objectives when you’re massively reducing the amount that the government can actually spend, because it can’t raise that money? In 2012 the government seems to think it’ll be all hunky-dory, growth for years and all the rest of it. But expenditure, outsiders have said, will be 48 per cent of GDP, and the government will be raising only 38 per cent. It’s a mega issue. So huge programmes have got to come out: it’s not just old-fashioned cuts, squeezes that we’ve had before. I think that it will be a huge opportunity.

So I’m now girding up my loins for a second political life. I thought we were going to get it under Tony Blair, and that real reform would be so much easier when the budgets were increasing. But when the budgets were increasing we didn’t have the reform. Might we not get the reform with the budgets cut?

Just one little example: we subsidise pensions and pension failure by means tests for pensioners, that’s £15 billion and rising; each year we subsidise pensions savings very inefficiently at £30 billion a year; and we’ve got an insupportable public sector pensions scheme. Now the reform that I wanted to implement in the age of plenty was that we wrapped the funded scheme around the state scheme, and put it at arm’s length from the government. We’d say the one function of the government or the community is to guarantee a minimum for all those who play the game, so that over time the means test bill goes to nothing. We say we can’t do it quickly because you’ve got savings plans, but over 20 years we’re going to phase out that £30 billion of tax subsidies to inefficient pension savings, and we’re going to say in a very civilised way that we’re closing all public sector schemes, including MPs, to new members, because our function is a much more limited one.

You’ve made huge structural changes, but you are putting in place an objective to abolish pensioner poverty, which we’ve never had. But it’s not been a government objective — even if all the government schemes go through, which would put five-and-a-half-pence on income tax (although that would never happen), 40 per cent of pensioners would still be poor.

So I think it’s an age for great radicalism. We will all define what the role of the state is and what we’ve got to do in different ways and different forms as a community. Of course, it could be terrible, where you just slash and burn, but I think it’s the flipside now of accepting that that model of social democracy has been tested to destruction. No one’s going to vote for a party that is going to give them more of failure, are they? I wouldn’t have thought so, anyway.

JJ: They might do out of tradition.

DJ: Which functions do you think the state should withdraw from?

JJ: Well I think it’s a very difficult question, and you’ve got to have some fundamental reform. But here’s one obvious example — higher education. I can see no reason why higher education should necessarily be in the state sector. I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of imagination to think of ways of taking the universities out of the state sector.

FF: But Jeremy, if you were Secretary of State wouldn’t you actually say: the game is up, boys and girls, you are independent and this is our budget? Because you wouldn’t want to have to stand up in the House and say: we’ve cut the student intake target from 50 per cent to 30 per cent. You’d say: the universities have decided this is what university education is about, and it’s up to them. One of the real indictments of this age of wealth is that we only have one independent university; all the others are carefully ensconced on the nipple of state support. They don’t want life on their own. And they’ve got to be forced to be free, I think.

I once asked Mrs T, what was your greatest disappointment in government? And without hesitation she said, “When I cut taxes I thought the rich would develop a giving culture, and that would be one of the great forces to change society.” In other words, people would take huge pride and social esteem from being the big givers, setting up universities, and art galleries, and making sure the next generation has got the social capital to get out of the ghetto. So that people would make their names, and they made money so that they could do good with it, not so they could have a lifestyle foreign to the rest of us.

JJ: Being a political theorist, I tend to see these things in abstract ways, and again to go back to this liberty-equality issue. Mrs Thatcher tried to roll back the frontiers of the state, but what we’ve seen for the last 200 years is that the state has been growing and growing, at certain points faster than others, occasionally there’s a slight reverse, but never very much. And so we now have a society where around 50 per cent of GNP is spent by the state. And yet what’s remarkable is that most government ministers admit that there is not that much that they can do.

So they spend this enormous amount of money to little effect. And they themselves feel powerless. And, on the whole, there’s no result. I find it incredible that so much of a society’s money is taken by one institution, which gives it enormous power. It doesn’t necessarily use that money efficiently, well or wisely. In taking all that money and taking on these functions which it does badly, it deprives individuals, communities of the opportunity to do it themselves and therefore of learning through the process. It needs a fundamental rethinking. Because the solution of throwing more money at it is simply not working.

FF: But it’s also partly that we need a change in attitude, not just from the ministers, but from our constituents. I’m always pleased that they come to my surgery, but the boyfriend comes in with the single mum and says she wants a new house or flat because they’re three storeys up with no lift, and I say, but why don’t you carry the pram up? It’s your child, isn’t it? Why do you think someone’s going to produce a flat for you? There’s a shortage. And of course I’m concerned and I do my letters for them, but I also can’t resist saying it. It gets to me sometimes.

I remember when I was selected as Labour candidate for Birkenhead. I couldn’t see for the smoke, and my eyes were watering, and one old lady said: “Look at him, he’s already crying.” And one turned to the other and I heard her say: “They’ll lick him dry.” In other words, I’m there as the entrance for them. And of course I am partly that, but I just don’t want to say at the end of one’s stewardship that that’s all that one’s been.

And that’s why I think it’s so exciting with the money running out, because I do think individuals are going to think that maybe we have to do these things ourselves, because there just genuinely isn’t the money — we’ll run our schools more independently with less money, but I think with far better outcomes, because parents will be in the driving seat.

DJ: We all know that if the government tries to do too much, it will do everything badly. But none of the parties, almost nobody in the political establishment — you may be one exception, Frank — and very few people in the academic establishment either, Jeremy, is saying: perhaps it would be better if the government did less, and individuals did more — that God helps those that help themselves.

FF: Well, I put a motion down, and Vince Cable signed it, saying that as the two major parties are too feeble to start the discussion on how we cut public expenditure, the Commons should start that now. Because I think that there’s a real danger that as the government each week tries to offload on the market shedloads of debt, there’ll come a week when someone will say, “No one’s buying mate!” And that evening the government will have to meet in crisis, and if they don’t slash and burn that night the currency will disappear the next morning. So the function of government will be transformed. Not rationally, but in moments of panic. And I think that it’s a real failure of both the major parties not to see this as a huge opportunity. I think the first one that comes up with a plan is going to scoop the electoral rewards, because I don’t think the people out there think that this game can go on for much longer.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"