Nostalgia for the Vestry

James Buchan

  • Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins
    Allen Lane, 375 pp, £20.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9595 5

Of the monuments of the Thatcher era, one of the most intriguing is a small file card, on which are written four pairs of words: Discord-Harmony, Error-Truth, Doubt-Faith, Dispair [sic]-Hope. These are the bones of the prayer attributed (not very plausibly) to St Francis of Assisi that Margaret Thatcher quoted on the steps of 10 Downing Street on her first day as prime minister, 4 May 1979: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.’ Thatcher had just called on the queen and no doubt wrote the words as an aide-memoire on the short drive back through St James Park from Buckingham Palace. It is as if on 18 June 1940 Churchill had had before him in the House of Commons a note saying Battle – France – Over – Battle – Britain – Begin.

In her 11 years in power, Thatcher duly gave the public all the contradictions she had jotted down: discord, harmony, error, truth, despair and hope, often at the same time. In doing so, Simon Jenkins argues in his new book, she set in train a pair of revolutions which continue to do whatever revolutions do – revolve? – today. The first revolution is the one everybody knows about and, with few exceptions, accepts as a precondition for the material prosperity of this country in the past quarter-century. This is the one of which Thatcher boasts in her memoirs: the privatisation of state enterprises, the cutting-down-to-size of the trade unions, the revival of profit as a category of pecuniary return and the creation of a competitive market for capital in the City of London.

This revolution was imitated in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Russia and the former Comecon countries and became the orthodoxy of such agencies as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their lending to the Third World. As Jenkins says, in Britain it did for Butskellism, the mixture of planning and social welfare and nationalised industry that was accepted by both main political parties until the 1970s. In the process, Thatcherism dismantled the imperial and wartime economy that had passed more or less unreformed into the welfare state of Attlee, Bevan and Beveridge. A bureaucratic ideology devised for dominion over palm and pine, or at least for making more fighting aircraft than the Germans, was directed into managing hospitals, railways, shipyards, power stations, car factories, schools, prisons, ports, coalmines, airlines and airports. At its peak, in the final paroxysms of the Labour administrations before Thatcher, the government in some form or other was a party to half the commercial and industrial activity in the UK, and the country was heading for the poorhouse.

The second revolution, which Jenkins holds in a formal contradiction to the first, did not roll back the state but rather accumulated power for central government and in London. Local government was humiliated and civil institutions such as universities subjected to financial and ideological control from the capital. This British Gleichschaltung, which Jenkins sums up under the motto ‘Privatise what you can, control what you can’t,’ has proved congenial for different reasons to John Major and Tony Blair, and to Blair’s heir apparent, Gordon Brown. These men are to Jenkins Thatcher’s political ‘sons’, with David Cameron trotting along behind as a ‘grandson’. (The book was completed before Cameron’s Conservatives abandoned any formal adherence to the Thatcherite slogan of reducing the role of central government.) In the process, Jenkins says, Thatcherism lost its shrill, partisan, feminine, belligerent, eccentric, almost clownish character, and faded into a parade of dark blue suits and red ties.

The result has been a restoration of one aspect of the Butskellite state: government spending, financed by taxation and borrowing, will next year (according to the OECD) comprise a larger proportion of the pecuniary economy (47 per cent) than in 1979 (40 per cent). This is happening at a time of prosperity when demands on the state for unemployment benefits and other entitlement payments are low. Imagine what will happen when recession drives people out of work. In the new Butskellism, even the small business of government is subject to targets, sanctions and incentives from London. Health and education are prey to incessant and convulsive reform. Once again, as Nye Bevan promised, the sound of a bedpan dropped in a hospital in South Wales resounds through the Palace of Westminster.

Bevan made his promise to reassure a public that was used to a superintending government and trusted it, for together they had defeated Hitler. For Jenkins, the excessive power of the centre is the cause not of success but failure. ‘Only when viewed as a whole,’ he writes, ‘does the recent incompetence of modern British government come into focus: the poll tax, rail privatisation, the on-off saga of hospital autonomy, computer procurement, child maintenance, farm support and tax credits . . . Twenty-five years into the revolution, there is no sense of a job well done.’ Everybody has a favourite list of clangers, from overcrowded prisons to the dispatch of British soldiers on hopeless missions to not one but two theatres.

All this has been a theme of Jenkins’s writing, and conversation, for a long time, at least since he published Accountable to None: The Tory Nationalisation of Britain in 1995. His strengths are a civic passion, a manly delight in small bureaucratic detail and a good (if not quite perfect) memory for the facts. He possesses in good measure what David Hume called ‘the antipathy which every true-born Briton naturally bears to ministers of state’. His literary style is vigorous, sometimes too much so: at the Party Conference of 1981 in Blackpool, Mrs Thatcher ‘passed through the valley of the shadow of doubt’, which is a buy-one-get-one-free approach to metaphor. For those who can bear another revolution, Jenkins proposes a third, to make good the deficiencies and resolve the dialectical antinomies of the first two.

At the heart of Jenkins’s argument are certain contradictions he detects in Thatcher’s nature. While formally committed to Adam Smith’s understanding of liberty as the free disposal of labour, she did not really trust the British either to work or to be free. For all her talk of choice and competition, Thatcher left many public services unreformed – defence procurement, the security services, the NHS, the Royal Mail, British Rail – and she was strongly attached to elements of the British constitution such as the House of Commons and the monarchy. She believed that socialism had become ingrained in great parts of the public administration, and had to be winkled out through competition or, where that failed, with the handbag. Local government was a particular bugbear and the poll tax, her attempt to place its financing on a new footing, did for her.

Without strong beliefs of his own, Major (according to Jenkins) sought to prolong the successes of Thatcherism without the embarrassment of Thatcher herself. He took privatisation into parts of the national estate that his predecessor had marked as out of bounds, such as the railways and the coal industry. He brought in a national lottery, of which she strongly disapproved. Humiliated on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when sterling was driven out of the ERM, and commanding only a small majority in Parliament, Major was often confined to a sort of government at retail (remember the ‘cones hotline’).

Blair, for Jenkins, combines the worst features of his two predecessors, for he is possessed of ‘convictions on everything but ideas on little’. He all but campaigned as a Thatcherite, telling David Dimbleby before the 1997 election that ‘there are certain things the Conservatives got right in the 1980s, and we should have been quicker to face up to that.’ (Asked recently why he appeared to be imitating Blair, Cameron replied: ‘He has won three elections, you know.’) Blair has extended Downing Street’s control ever further. The Thatcherite notion of competition in education and health serves merely, according to Jenkins, to demoralise teachers, medical staff and civil servants.

While Thatcher could be insufferably rude and bullying, she at least respected the forms of constitutional government and made use of her cabinet. Blair, in contrast, relies on specialist advisers. Jenkins says that, according to Lord Turnbull, who was cabinet secretary from 2002 to 2005, the cabinet met just 38 times, often very briefly, in his first year in the post. In 1975, when there was less business to government, there were 56 cabinet meetings. ‘Political leadership’ in Britain, Jenkins writes, ‘is less subject to institutional restraint and is closer to being an elected dictatorship than in any other Western democracy.’

The threat to national security from terrorism has merely strengthened Blair’s passion for control. Jenkins compares the prime minister’s response to events since 9/11 – his flurry of bad laws and heavy-footed militarism – with Thatcher’s sangfroid after the bombing of her Brighton hotel by the IRA in 1984. Above all, unlike Thatcher in the Falkland Islands, Blair has never been in control of his wars, but has always tagged along behind the Americans. Thatcher was lucky, which is the most important quality in a leader. Blair is not.

For Jenkins, Blair is destroying the British constitution and the country’s good name abroad. But the real villain of this book is Gordon Brown. This is not merely because Brown is Blair’s likely successor, but because for Jenkins the Treasury is the great beneficiary of the bureaucratic fights of the Thatcher years. Long before Brown, British finance ministers had convinced themselves that local councils and most spending departments could not be trusted with money. Jenkins believes the powerful Treasury of Nigel Lawson and Kenneth Clarke was made yet more so by the bargain struck by Blair and Brown in 1994 that promised Brown (at least, according to the Brownites) a sovereignty over domestic policy.

Here Jenkins passes over what is still Brown’s masterstroke or Schachzug immediately on coming to power: the devolution of power over interest rates to a committee of the Bank of England. The stability since then in both domestic prices and the external exchange rate passes almost without mention, as if such amenities were a feature of modern British history rather than a glorious novelty. Jenkins accepts, too, that there has been heavy investment in the physical plant of hospitals and schools and that the PFI, for all the windfall gains enjoyed by some contractors, has spared this generation of taxpayers, at the expense of the next one and the one after that. The question is whether these things should have been built at all.

Jenkins’s delight is in the sheer waste, mismanagement, duplication and inefficiency of a centralised system that will not delegate. It is in little corners, where millions can go missing on a Post Office computer or on refinancing the Tube or some botched reorganisation of police services, that Jenkins is at his best. In a banquet of compulsive waste, who cares that it costs nearly £2000 million a year to keep a single nuclear-missile submarine on station! We spend that on the NHS every ten days! For all its supposed parsimony, the Treasury has treated the British Medical Association in precisely the same way as Bevan and stuffed its mouth with gold.

Britain is rich, much richer than it was when Thatcher first came to power, but it cannot go on sinking money into hospitals and its military without becoming much less rich. It was Brown’s townsman Adam Smith who reminded the world that, for all their useful work, the Royal Navy and physicians are no different from buffoons and opera-dancers, in that they must be supported by the productive labour of somebody else. Now that Cameron’s Conservatives have abandoned any attempt to reduce the scale of the state, Britain has become that old nightmare of the German left, eine Gesellschaft ohne Opposition. The Tory position would be worthy at least of sympathy had there been a palpable improvement in public services under Labour, but that is not what the Tories believe or indeed many people in the Labour Party. Even when it is not spent killing and maiming Arabs and Afghans, and exposing our own soldiers to the same treatment, money taken from the public is wasted on incessant meddling with Lilliputian institutions that should be beneath the notice of ministers. A permanent air of emergency, most recently over climate change, is used to justify sumptuary taxat-ion which adds further wealth and patronage to the Treasury.

Jenkins’s solution or third revolution is to revive the local and civic government so despised by Thatcher and her successors. Public services, he says, should be provided not by London but by elected local governments in proud Victorian cities or even by country parishes. In particular, healthcare should be taken away from the crippled and demoralised NHS and revert to the local control that existed before World War Two. At the lowest level, district councils should be abolished in favour of what Jenkins calls the ‘“sleeping tier” of democracy’, the ten thousand or so rural parishes.

It is no coincidence that this last idea has been taken up by the government, though only as a new opportunity for handing out punishments. Ruth Kelly, the Red Queen in this Alice in Wonderland world, is proposing that parish councils be given back the right to make bye-laws and to fine yobs up to £80. As a rural parish councillor, one of the very few to write for any London paper, I do not want to fine anybody. Anyway, the only yobs in my part of the country are multi-millionaire absentee farmers, aristocratic thugs and quoted supermarket groups, and they can all afford eighty quid.

Central government is big not just because of its own compulsive greed but because business is big. Jenkins’s rural devolution could have a chance of succeeding only if it were matched by an equivalent devolution of commercial power, the introduction and enforcement of draconian anti-trust laws, an abolition of most subsidies and restraints on competition, and a removal of the privileges of monopoly utilities. While to himself Jenkins is the last word in truculent civic radicalism, he is in reality a mere nostalgist for the vestry.

The matter at stake is not parish democracy but the legitimate duties of a peacetime government and the means of financing those duties. Brown professes to admire Adam Smith, but not, it seems, his categorical restriction of government to the defence of the realm, an exact administration of justice and those unremunerative public works (including education) that private citizens will not provide. It was not Adam Smith, but the Jacobite economist Sir James Steuart who saw more clearly than any British economic philosopher how a modern state, relying on taxation, would abridge the liberty of the public far more comprehensively than the worst of the ancien régime. It is as if Steuart, as he mouldered in continental exile after the Forty-Five, saw Gordon Brown and Ed Balls in a dream. The modern armoury of taxes, duties and prohibitions, Steuart wrote in An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767),

vests an authority in a modern statesman which in former ages, even under the most absolute government was utterly unknown. The truth of this remark will appear upon reflecting on the force of some states, at present in Europe, where the sovereign power is extremely limited, in every arbitrary exercise of it, and where at the same time, it is found to operate over the wealth of the inhabitants, in a manner far more efficacious than the most despotic and arbitrary authority possibly can do.

Fortunately, when two great political parties are in close agreement on a policy, it is certainly doomed. Somewhere, not a Thatcher or a Brown or a Jenkins, but a true revolutionary is slouching towards Westminster.