“The first rule of compounding is to never interrupt it unnecessarily.”
- Charlie Munger.
“[Ronnie Millar] was.. surprised to be ordered by [Mrs. Thatcher] to contribute a script for her first television party political broadcast as leader, which was to go out on 5 March 1975. For it, Millar chose some words which he, like most others, attributed wrongly to Abraham Lincoln (the true author was one William Boetcker, writing some seventy-five years later): ‘You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift..’ When he came to see Mrs. Thatcher with the draft, she asked him to read it aloud to her. After he had done so, there was a silence which Millar attributed to her dissatisfaction. Then she reached slowly and dramatically for her handbag and produced from it a piece of yellowing paper containing the same ‘Lincoln’ lines. ‘It goes wherever I go,’ she told him.”
- From ‘Margaret Thatcher: the authorized biography’ by Charles Moore.
Anyone reading Charles Moore’s 2013 biography of Mrs. Thatcher these days does so with a growing sense of unease. Whether on the right or on the left, British politicians of the 1970s and 1980 were, on the whole, decently educated, conviction politicians who, regardless of their differences, treated each other with respect. No matter how intensely it was fought, the war of ideas was conducted according to Queensberry rules. By comparison with the motley array of career politicians today busily attempting to overturn the largest democratic mandate in our country’s history, the politicians of Mrs. Thatcher’s day were moral and intellectual giants. Today’s political class are by and large, by comparison, a mob of nasty, ignorant dwarves.
Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered by Moore by dint of being outside the scope of his brief is: just how did the Conservative Party get so disastrously separated from its source code in the post-Thatcher years ? The essence of Thatcherism is expressed in this speech given in her Finchley constituency in January 1975:
In the desperate situation of Britain today, our party needs the support of all who value the traditional ideals of Toryism: compassion, and concern for the individual and his freedom; opposition to excessive State power; the right of the enterprising, the hard-working and the thrifty to succeed and to reap the rewards of success and pass some of them on to their children; encouragement of that infinite diversity of choice that is an essential of freedom; the defence of widely distributed private property against the Socialist State; the right of a man to work without oppression by either employer or trade union boss.
There is a widespread feeling in the country that the Conservative Party has not defended these ideals explicitly and toughly enough, so that Britain is set on a course towards inevitable Socialist mediocrity.
From the vantage point of July 2019, that last paragraph looks dangerously prophetic.
We still maintain that the best summary of our political – and economic – malaise has been delivered by the philosopher John Gray, by way of the New Statesman. His piece ‘The strange death of liberal politics’, written shortly after the EU referendum and published in July 2016 has, in our opinion, yet to be surpassed by any cultural or political critic. Here is a taste:
..The vote for Brexit demonstrates that the rules of politics have changed irreversibly. The stabilisation that seemed to have been achieved following the financial crisis was a sham. The lopsided type of capitalism that exists today is inherently unstable and cannot be democratically legitimated. The error of progressive thinkers in all the main parties was to imagine that the discontent of large sections of the population could be appeased by offering them what was at bottom a continuation of the status quo.
As it is being used today, “populism” is a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand. A revolt of the masses is under way, but it is one in which those who have shaped policies over the past twenty years are more remote from reality than the ordinary men and women at whom they like to sneer. The interaction of a dysfunctional single currency and destructive austerity policies with the financial crisis has left most of Europe economically stagnant and parts of it blighted with unemployment on a scale unknown since the Thirties. At the same time European institutions have been paralysed by the migrant crisis. Floundering under the weight of problems it cannot solve or that it has even created, the EU has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it lacks the capacity for effective action and is incapable of reform..
Gray recently issued a companion piece to that July 2016 essay. May 2019 saw the publication of a follow-up, ‘Centrists are sleepwalking into the fire’. Again, a taste:
Smart opinion has it that nothing is about to change in the Brexit dilemma: a new Conservative leader, even an incoming Labour government, will face much the same unpalatable options and parliamentary arithmetic. In fact, both have already changed. The idea that no deal has been taken off the table has been exposed as the nonsense it always has been. As an Institute of Government report last week showed, there is no parliamentary procedure that can reliably prevent a determined government taking Britain out in this way. Nor is it clear that an immovable body of MPs still exists to block no deal. For all but a handful of the most committed Remainers, the existential threat posed by Farage looms larger than any positions they may have taken on Brexit. To be sure, a new Tory leader who embraced no deal would split the party, perhaps irretrievably. But Tory centrists who jump ship could find themselves sinking and drowning like Change UK. If there was ever a majority of voters that identified with them, it no longer exists.
A Conservative split may in any case be the price of averting the party’s extinction. In the past, a surge in Ukip has been regularly followed by a hardening of the Remain vote. Today the paradox works the other way. No deal means no Farage, while failing to deliver Brexit means even greater disaster for the Conservatives at the polls. The next leader may be compelled to accept no deal in order to prevent the annihilation of the party. On the other hand, if they use the threat of no deal to present parliament with a rebranded version of May’s withdrawal agreement, it could again be rejected. In both cases the result could be a general election, which could prove more problematic for Corbyn than many have assumed. No deal is not as dangerous for the Conservatives as continued division and dithering.
Labour’s options have also changed, and not for the better. Following large losses in Remain regions and near wipeout in Scotland, constructive ambiguity no longer makes any strategic sense. Yet backing a second referendum is also a risky strategy. The only purpose of a second referendum, for those who most fervently support the idea, is to overturn the first. But if the European elections were a trial run, the result was not encouraging for Remainers. With around a third those who voted endorsing no deal parties and another third supporting parties that declared for Remain, this is not a very safe bet. Equally, a rigged referendum – such as the confirmatory vote now being proposed by Labour, which would include a Remain option while excluding that of exiting without a deal – could backfire. The exercise would be boycotted by Leavers, led by the Brexit Party. This was the issue that toppled May, and there is no chance of the Conservatives supporting such a vote. If it ever happens, it will settle nothing..
There is, in any case, insufficient time for parliament to legislate for a referendum and hold it before the legal default for leaving comes into play in October. Unless the next Conservative leader requests and secures an extension, the only way Brexit can now be prevented is by revoking Article 50. With her Remainer instincts, Theresa May might have been ready, if all else had failed, to trigger this nuclear option. None of her most likely successors, with the Brexit Party roaring at their heels, will be.
When a reckless leader of Britain’s centrist elite called the 2016 referendum he bequeathed it a problem it could not solve. But the dilemma will not remain unresolved for very long. An electoral upheaval is sweeping away the political class that created the impasse. Britain faces a clash between populisms of the right and left, while the forces of the centre sleepwalk into the flames.
What we have described as “centrist mush” is well demonstrated by the laughable editorial piece provided by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, in a recent edition of the BBC’s political magazine programme, This Week. Godwin’s Law states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Powell takes Godwin’s Law to a reductio ad absurdum pinnacle by starting off in comparing Brexiteers to Nazis. Yes, this correspondent has long felt that simply trying to deliver on the result of a legitimate plebiscite and regain national sovereignty from an overarching political superstate was essentially morally indistinguishable from the Holocaust.
Centrism cannot possibly tackle Brexit because the vote was always framed as a binary choice: In, or Out; Remain, or Leave.
It is a sad indictment of our times that the quality of political debate has become so asinine.
But the framing remains important. It is no longer a question of ‘right’ versus ‘left’: that sort of language is best confined to the 1970s, when it meant something.
The binary choice to be made today is between individual sovereignty and totalitarianism. You are either for the rights of the individual, or you prefer to hide behind the skirts of the nanny state. You cannot have both. But if you want to participate in a functioning economy, or enjoy the benefits of a productive economy as an investor within it, the nanny state is the wrong way to go. Unfortunately, arguing in favour of the individual, or for laissez-faire economics, is fighting the tide of the last decade, which has seen a resurgence of implicit or explicit state control of banking, monetary policy and currency management in the strangest of places. “Lopsided capitalism” is exactly right. It is a necessary perversity of our investment process that we now see more opportunity in the equity markets of recent Communist states (such as Vietnam) than we do in notionally Capitalist ones, such as the UK.
If the world of economics has become unpredictable, the world of politics has become wildly so, which is bad enough for the long-suffering electorate, but no doubt doubly unsettling for the metropolitan liberal elites who have had it their own way for the last several decades. John Gray, back in July 2016:
Anyone who wants to understand the present will have to throw away the old progressive playbook. Cascading events allow for possibilities that do not feature in linear theories of history. One of them is that the antiquated British state will still be standing after the EU has fallen apart.