The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 7)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which have appeared on the blog since 1st January, 2008. Fifth up is this posting by Matt Michael, which appeared on LDV on 21st November…

Welcome to Nursery Britain

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

In 1945, perhaps in a desire to continue the communal spirit of the war, Britain elected its only Socialist government. Swathes of privately-owned businesses were nationalised, capitalism was abandoned in favour of state ownership, and Liberalism, which had taken Great Britain from a dreary archipelago at the corner of Europe to a global powerhouse of industry and enterprise, was abandoned. And while the Attlee government did some great good in the creation of the NHS, after six years the British electorate had come to hate the drab, rationed austerity of the 1940s. Perhaps in a desire to resurrect some vestige of imperial prestige, they re-elected a decrepit Churchill – like Britain, a tragicomic echo of his old self.

But once in power, the Tories did nothing to reverse the Attlee revolution. Instead, they effected the mixed economy, a dismal synthesis of state socialism and capitalism that proved to be sclerotic for free trade and launched the nation into a thirty-year spiralling descent that was only arrested with the wholesale dissolution of British industry and the sale of the City of London to overseas investors.

Since the brief experiment of Socialist government between 1945 and 1951, Britain has been faced with a choice between two essentially social democratic parties, both believing that the state can – and should – intervene in every aspect of public and private life in order to impose their vision of what society should be. And even the lady who believed that there was no such thing as society couldn’t control her instincts as a curtain-twitching busybody, prying into the most personal corners of our lives, enacting unfair taxation and betraying the promise of a Liberal revolution in favour of the continuation of the social democratic consensus.

For almost 60 years we’ve tolerated – actively encouraged – government that has infantilised us “from cradle to grave”, that has taken away our freedom of choice and encouraged us to become increasingly reliant on central government to direct us: a state of affairs that removes any incentive to act as grownups. This is the insidious mollycoddling of the nanny state, and it’s therefore hardly surprising that some British people are disinclined to go to school, get a job or take responsibility for their own lives – what’s the point? The state will pick us up, stick a plaster on our knee, pat us on the head and pop us back in the playpen.

The paradox is that most people, if pressed, would prefer to choose how to spend their money or live their lives rather than abdicate that responsibility to the state. But words and figures don’t match. And for all that The Guardian might claim that Blair-Brown have created a cosy consensus that means we’re happy to pay high taxes for ever-proliferating (and more costly) government, this is only because neither of the two largest parties is actively offering an alternative.

For all that Tories might claim they want to “roll back the state” there’s scant evidence in the previous 60 years to suggest that they have any desire to limit or undo what successive Labour governments have done. In truth, their centralising impulse – manifested in opposition to devolution, prurient laws to limit personal freedom and government management of exchange rates and international trade – belies the Tories’ claims. Though the emphasis differs, they believe in a state-controlled society as much as Blair or Benn or Brown ever did. David Cameron’s Conservative Party is a social democratic party, just as Major’s, Heath’s and Thatcher’s were.

Social democracy is the problem, not the solution. A definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It follows that electing either Labour or the Tories at the next election will simply prolong the pain. But Labour and the Tories have got us greedily suckling the milk of state welfare. Not only will Britain vote to prolong the pain, like an indulged child, we aren’t even consciously aware that there is another way. And so we’ll keep paying ever higher taxes for ever more inefficient services, giving up our freedoms, one by one, and living in Nursery Britain because the Government (Red or Blue) tells us that the world outside is a scary, dangerous place. But if we’re good children and we play nicely and do as nanny says, everything will be all right.

At the moment, the Liberal Democrats are part of this consensus. We don’t talk enough about reducing central government, empowering local communities to make their own decisions and shouting out that free trade and free markets, with socially responsible regulation, are far better at generating wealth and delivering efficient and effective services than the state has ever proved itself capable of. We don’t talk up the choice. In short, we don’t treat people like adults.

The state can’t fix every problem, and we shouldn’t perpetuate the illusion that it can. Of course there are many hard choices to be made, between taxation and public spending, the level of government provision of welfare, and about what kind of regulation is required to discourage irresponsible borrowing and unethical business practices. Devolution in itself is not the answer, without revisiting what the role and scope of central and local government should be – that’s simply exchanging one nanny for another. But to avoid debating these questions openly is to continue the infantilising of the electorate. It’s also deeply illiberal.

As a party, we are best placed to make the case for the constitutional limitation of government, the importance of devolution and the benefits of free-market capitalism. We have not been in government for almost a century and so have not been blinded to the limits of social planning by the exercise of power. We are not responsible for creating Nursery Britain. Liberalism offers the real choice for change. But only if we start talking about it.

* Matt Michael is a Liberal Democrat member in Lewisham.

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