Fighting our National Malaise

‘The British body politic, once so widely imitated throughout the world, now resembles an empty husk

Corruption and incompetence at home, cowardice and impotence abroad: this is the ugly reflection of British politics that stares back at us over the eventful year since Standpoint was launched. So grave is the damage to the reputation of Parliament that the Queen herself is reported to have expressed her concern to the Prime Minister. 

The British body politic, once so widely imitated throughout the world, now resembles an empty husk, hollowed out by varieties of downmarket depravity. The bravado with which British ministers habitually respond to foreign threats of aggression, persecution or proliferation is belied by their diplomatic ineptitude and military weakness. Not only does disillusionment run the gamut of British public life, but the domestic malaise makes itself felt overseas, too. Never in recent memory has Britain’s prestige stood lower than it does today. Never has the nation that can claim most credit for the globalisation of liberty felt so oppressed, decadent and dependent.

It is not that the British are unique in having dissipated over a few years the accumulated intellectual capital of centuries. All the Western democracies are guilty of compromising their own core values of reason, objectivity and truth. Most have a much more problematic historical inheritance, and many bear the scars of totalitarian episodes in their recent past. 

But the British appear to be uniquely eager to abdicate personal responsibility for their own actions. When Gordon Brown is confronted with the evidence that his policies have ruined the economy of which he was steward for more than a decade, his first instinct is to blame other, impersonal forces. The inability of this Prime Minister to utter the word “sorry”, no matter what the circumstances, has been much remarked upon. No less obvious is his inability to rise above party politics, even in a national or international emergency. But the real indictment of this supposedly most erudite of politicians is his fatal combination of arrogance and ignorance: an inability to think through the consequences of a theory while refusing to brook contradiction from those who were in a position to know better. As Tim Congdon reveals in this issue, Mr Brown and his sidekick Alistair Darling have slavishly adhered to false economic doctrines long after their catastrophic effects were beyond reasonable doubt. It was one of Mr Brown’s heroes, John Maynard Keynes, who wrote: “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” 

The economic consequences of Mr Brown will be with us for a long time to come, but the moral and political consequences may last even longer. While the Prime Minister was fiddling the figures, Rome was indeed burning. As Frank Field remarks in his Dialogue with Jeremy Jennings, Margaret Thatcher believed that a more prosperous society would also be a more generous one. Mr Brown has ensured that this could not happen, by depriving the middle classes of the wealth or time that they would normally have invested in good works. “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions,” Mrs Thatcher once said. “He had money as well.” Not any more. Under Mr Brown, the state, not the individual, has spent society’s surplus, and in doing so has demoralised both rich and poor.

The baleful consequences of Mr Brown are audible in Lionel Shriver’s cri de coeur. An admired but impoverished writer for 30 years, she finally hit the big time and now earns a decent income. But Lionel’s life is made a misery by the increasingly onerous tax regimes of her native America and her adoptive Britain. Confiscatory tax rates of 50 per cent and more lay waste to all our noblest and most creative impulses.

If the Tories are wise, they will heed voices such as those of Tim Congdon, Frank Field, Lionel Shriver and other Standpoint writers. Mr Brown’s intellectual chutzpah, which once struck awe into his Tory counterparts, has now been exposed as mere bluff. But there is still no persuasive Conservative diagnosis, let alone prescription, for a Britain that is once again in danger of becoming the sick man of Europe.

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