Sunday, 3 April 2016

What links Peter Hitchens, John McDonnell and Donald Trump?


The answer is a hatred of free markets, free trade and free enterprise plus a belief that the solution to our supposed economic problems is economic nationalism. All these fine men promote nationalisation, speak of the evils of foreign investment, and play to the fears of workers about foreigners, big business and the bankers.

I considered heading this article with some like "In which Peter Hitchens goes full Fascist" but that would be a little polemical. Hitchens has, for over twenty years now, conducted a one man hate fest directed at the Conservative Party. On more than one occasion he has used his pulpit to pray for the Party's destruction so it must be a cause of deep and personal pain that this organisation he despises so much got it self elected with an overall majority in the UK parliament.

It shows:

I am so sorry now that I fell for the great Thatcher-Reagan promise. I can’t deny that I did. I believed all that stuff about privatisation and free trade and the unrestrained market. I think I may even have been taken in by the prophecies of a great share-owning democracy.

And more along these lines, not based on any actual facts or anything as mundane as research, just Hitchens' absolute belief that the Conservative Party and all its works is a thing of great evil. So what we get is an advert for Hitchen's Conservatism - one essentially indistinguishable from that of Donald Trump. It's a sort of admission of defeat, a belief that inside a cosy little barrier built from tariffs, bans and protections we will be reborn as a 'great nation' filled with horny-handed sons of toil bashing away making things. I can see the posters lifting the spirits of our nation now, images of those workers looking to a noble future arm in arm with their families.

Britain, for the Hitchens of this world, is crying out for a new direction - a New Party - that rejects globalisation, foreign investment, free trade and the idea that running a restaurant is as noble a pursuit as pouring molten steel from British blast furnaces. The world conjured up by Hitchens and Trump is a dystopia where foreigners, drug dealers, shadowy businessmen and venal politicians conspire to do down the decent, honest working men of Britain and America. It is a fearful place where only a powerful state with a strong leader can protect what little is left of our greatness.

This is the dark side of conservatism, the place where nationalism and a sense of national injustice push aside the hopeful and aspirational conservatism that yearns for people to be free, for them to be able to make their own choices and live their own lives. This is the consequence of an obsession with security - national security, community safety, energy security, food security, local resilience - that acts only to justify the longer reach of the state, that fools people again into thinking that our telephone services before privatisation was in any way at all better than the service we enjoy today.

This is the world where the intervention of government in industry, supposedly driven by some sort of 'industrial strategy', is determined by political considerations, by the imminence of elections and the influence of union barons or the media. Billions of our taxes are splurged on bailing out industries, mountains of tariffs are built and, before we know it, prices are being fixed and markets set in stasis with the result being decline, poverty and economic collapse.

It'll look so fine at the start as Hitchens' New Party winds back the liberalisation of the Thatcher years. Vital national industries are defined, plans and strategies are written, solid, broad-bottomed men are set onto the boards of the industries - Great Britain is reborn. And then it doesn't work - small exporting manufacturers close because they can't compete, the higher taxes needed to pay for the intervention mean less investment and billions of foreign investment gets relocated to places that are more friendly, more likely to provide a return on those billions.

It's easy to talk of a lost age of 'making':

A journey across the heart of England, once an exhilarating vista of muscular manufacturing, especially glorious by night, turned into archaeology. Now, if it looked like a factory, it was really a ruin.

But this covers over the deeper truth - that we are so much richer and happier than we were when those industries were booming. It's a myth that we are poorer for the loss of dirty, unpleasant dangerous jobs down mines, in foundries and in factories. We are not poorer - the children of those workers are mostly doing better paid and safer jobs of offices and will live to be 80 or older rather than dying painfully in their sixties of industrial diseases. Even Hitchens reluctantly hints at this betterment with his talk of luxuries, better coffee and better restaurants.

These are not fripperies but things that - in Hitchens' golden age - used only to be there for the rich and powerful. The miners, steel workers and factory hands of that age of glory didn't have a decent car (if at all), never went to restaurants and couldn't afford a foreign holiday. Today's equivalent worker has all those things plus a bewildering array of new stuff - smartphones, digital TVs, ice-makers, microwave ovens, power tools and fridge freezers. And their children - our children - will be even richer, having things we can only imagine right now.

But we'll only get those things if we cling to the revolution for which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are rightly praised - free trade, free markets and the celebration of free enterprise. Building walls - real or regulatory - isn't a route to poverty not a salvation. And economic nationalism - whether it's sold to us a 'socialist' by a Labour shadow chancellor or 'conservative' by a Daily Mail columnist - always, everywhere, gets worse results than the free trade it forces out.

The evidence from approaching four decades of neoliberalism, of our embracing a global economy, is that it has led to the biggest, sustained improvement of well-being in human history. To throw all this aside to indulge in an orgy of self-pitying nationalism would be an act of monumental folly. Yet that folly is just what Peter Hitchens, John McDonnell and Donald Trump are offering.


1 comment:

Chris Palmer said...

Hi Simon,

I came across your blog and this article while searching for something else. However, I read your article and decided to reply. I'm afraid you are deeply wrong about Peter Hitchens and his views. Correct me if I am wrong, but I expect you have not read any of his books? If you had, you certainly wouldn't be able to make the comment that his writing is "not based on any actual facts or anything as mundane as research". He spent years researching and writing them - particularly A Brief History of Crime (which later became The Abolition of Liberty). For the most part they were not reviewed by the media and the political class in this country, who preferred to ignore them rather than argue against his views.

Next, Peter Hitchens and Donald Trump have very little in common. Hitchens said of Trump recently, "Donald Trump is a symptom, not a disease. The disease is the death of real political conservatism: a cool, intelligent reluctance to believe that all change is good, a love for the established, the particular and the well-worn. During the 1980s, many people mistook Thatcherism and Reaganism, actually a wild form of liberalism, for conservatism. They lapped up the temporary riches it provided and now find themselves yearning for leaders to take them back to a world of secure jobs and secure borders. Mr Trump, Olympically stupid and ignorant in many ways and virtually thoughtless, has the low feral cunning to spot this need and to pretend to meet it. Of course, he hasn’t a clue how to go about it. But it’s not impossible that such a person will gain high office before long."

Peter Hitchens is a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke. Donald Trump is not. As you correctly say, what Thatcher and Reagan produced was a "revolution", and revolutions by their very nature are anything but conservative.

Regarding your point, "we are not poorer" - life is not purely measured by material riches. As Hitchens says, we have become materially richer, but arguably morally poorer. Life is more than the sum of economics.

Also, you are a Conservative Councillor, so unlikely to side with Hitchens on the Conservative Party. The Conservative party is not, and probably never has been, conservative. What exactly does it attempt to conservative? (Except for perhaps the careers and positions of its members.) There is very little difference between the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Therefore, he is correct, it is the biggest block against an actual conservative revival in this country. Consequently, it needs to be destroyed.