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Mad As Hell

Transcript of part one of Simon Jenkins' series of essays for The Westminster Hour

Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins

Are you mad as hell? Has something really got your goat and put a bee in your bonnet.

We journalists may not be good for much, but we're useful dustbins for the nation's rage. The cause may be a wind turbine, a travellers' camp, a threatened runway or a curved cucumber directive. But as the gorge rises, the green and red ink comes out and lines are underscored. Let the world go just a little crazy and even a normally equable citizen is moved to literary fury. And I've never known it like today.

I've a file on my shelf labelled simply 'mad as hell'. The title is taken from the cry of the newscaster in the Seventies film, 'Network'. Demented by the sins of the world he tells his viewers at the end of each show to open their windows and scream, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more."

To give you some flavour of the file, it currently has letters protesting the new swimming pools order which requires every pool, including private ones, to be surrounded by a locked railing, a metre high. I kid you not. Another is from a grocer protesting at the need for all his staff to wear a different pair of rubber gloves for each loaf of bread sold, as if they were delivering babies. Another is from a vicar told his medieval church floor is sloping at more than the regulation angle and must be concreted over.

Likewise a police chief is told that before raiding a crack-house he must risk-asses its stairs in case one of his men is injured falling down them. Then there are the 300 pages and five miles of forms to be filled in by every British farmer for the Single Farm Payment scheme, which makes the European constitution read like Raymond Chandler. You know the rest, the conkers fiasco, the village ponds hysteria, the hanging baskets absurdity, the safety inspector with agoraphobia. It all makes as mad as hell.

My favourite historical figure is William Cobbett, the first truly modern journalist. He was a farmer's son at the end of the Georgian era. He was self-taught, tall, handsome and incorrigibly plain-speaking. His life straddled the English revolution at the turn of the 19th century. The ancient, static, rural economy little changed from Tudor times was being transformed into the dynamic Victorian one. Cobbett was partly an old codger. He thought everyone should farm. He hated machines and believed education should come from nature. The view was evoked in his nostalgic masterpiece, Rural Rides. Yet he was also a radical. As champion of the underdog and common man, he craved political reform, and was the moving spirit behind the great Reform Act of 1832.

Cobbett's most abiding hatred was of government, especially Tory government. This was small wonder since Tories were in power for the 30 years of his maturity. They twice drove him to exile and jailed him for sedition. Government, to him, was a pestilence. It curbed liberty and ruined the economy with paper money. When the House of Commons went up in flames in 1834, he cheered and listed all the rotten statutes it had passed. He never called a minister incompetent. He would be a weasel, a nightmare, a crack-skulls and (best of all) an indigestions. A bad law would not just be bad but "the greatest insult that ink and print has ever directed at paper". Even as an old man, an MP, successful and a public celebrity, Cobbett began a play with the title "Bastards in High Places". He was perpetually mad as hell.

Whenever I go on a rural ride - or even an urban one - I wonder how apoplectic today's government would render Cobbett. His Britain was liberty hall in comparison. Time and again I am like the wedding guest trapped by the Ancient Mariner. Last week I casually asked a country pub-owner if he was having a good summer. His jaw tightened and he began shaking. He had just been visited by two girls with clipboards from some health and safety apparat. They had marched into his spotless kitchen, stuck a thermometer into his rolled tuna and banned it. They banned his cheese board, objected to his cutting knife rack and demanded to see his "rare steak customer indemnity form". Yet he knew these petty Napoleons had the power to ruin his business.

He was not alone. Up the road a farmer friend was updating her cow passports. She was fuming that it was now more complicated to be a cow than a person. Their passports had to be revised each year. In the churchyard next door I noticed that half the old gravestones had been bound, literally, in bright red tape. A risk assessment had apparently declared them 'leaning', which meant they might fall on top of a partly sighted person. The spectacle was absurd.

Some listeners may remember back in 1979 - a full quarter of a century ago - we voted, or some of us did, for Margaret Thatcher. Her programme at that election was to 'roll back the frontier of the state'. She proposed less government, less meddling interference, less red tape. She promised it. People voted for it. Yet the state today is just as big as it was in 1979, indeed by some measures bigger. And its intrusiveness - its bureaucracy and regulatory zeal - is greater beyond compare. So how did a political crusade aimed at freeing citizens from the embrace of government go in the opposite direction? We feel more enslaved, not less. Talk to any professional these days, farmer, doctor, teacher, plumber, youth worker, hotelier, even broadcaster, and they all utter the same cry. Red tape is making their life hell. And they thought they'd voted against it.

How this came to pass is the subject of these three talks. My thesis is that Conservative government in the 1980s did indeed refashion the political economy. As Thatcher put it, she set out "to squeeze socialism out of the system". In many respects she was successful. Above all, she squeezed it out of the Labour party. But something polluted the project. To rid Britain of socialism Thatcher claimed to need more power. It was the same claim socialism had made for its creation. Thatcher came to need more Treasury control, more quangos, more regulators, less insubordination, less lower tier democracy. She might claim that she only needed the power so as later to return it to the people (those in power always say that). But she took it, and we let her. Indeed we willed both the rolling back of the state and its advancement. "Get off our backs", we cried, and then in the next breath "something must be done" about every passing evil. Let me give an example. Before Thatcher there were four criminal justice bills in 50 years. Under her there was one every 18 months. Under Blair there've been three every year. The state is rolling forward not back.

In my view Thatcher reversed Marx's dialectic. His began with revolution against the bourgeoisie, continued with dictatorship by the proleteriat and found synthesis in the withering away of the state, in true communism. As we know Lenin and Stalin never got round to the synthesis. But nor did Thatcher. She began with a revolution and continued with a dictatorship. She never withered away the state. The British public sector today is the most centralised, standardised and dirigiste in Europe. That at root is why we are mad as hell.

I believe than in trying to understand political leaders we must look deep into their personalities. Thatcher was brought up in a rigidly middle-class provincial home in Grantham. Though she later reinvented her background as that of a simple grocer's daughter, her father was a successful businessman. He became an alderman and mayor of Grantham, chairing virtually every committee and charity in town. He financed his daughter at a fee-paying secondary school and saw her through university without a scholarship. At Oxford Thatcher enjoyed the most traditional of political launching pads, chairmanship of the Conservative association. She duly found an early parliamentary candidature and married a wealthy husband.

In the Commons she was the first new MP to be made a minister by Macmillan and was soon in the shadow cabinet and then cabinet. She herself admits in her memoirs that she benefited hugely from being a woman. She would never have progressed so fast otherwise. Thatcher's rise to power was not tough. It embodied the postwar meritocracy.

What is astonishing is that none of this changed her. She remained throughout her life the daughter of Methodist mercantilism. She was a true outsider. She never adapted to the establishment, made friends easily or joined any club. She never relaxed and was ascetic to a fault. When told that an aide was on holiday she was baffled, "Poor man," she said, żis he so unhappy here?" Above all, she retained the attitudes of a domineering, puritanical grandmother, with whom she was raised. She learnt that the individual should live self-contained within a strict moral framework. The outside world was suspect and lazy. Fight it. In power Thatcher's favourite television show was 'Yes Minister'. But to her it was a morality play. It showed what the system would do if you took your eye off the ball. Throughout her life Thatcher was being mad as hell about something.

The result was a Britain transformed. Thatcher's governments restructured a sizeable chunk of the political economy. We need to pinch ourselves today to recall that in 1979 the government still built cars, ships, planes, even computers. It ran airports, harbours, hotels, even banks. It had a monopoly on gas, electricity, water, railways and telecommunications. Government owned vast swathes of cities and countryside. Thatcherism brought all this to an end.

In doing so I believe it changed the whole cast of mind of British people. This is well-displayed in the current attitude to Europe. Thatcherism replaced defeatism with confidence. The Seventies had been awful. Britain was the sick man of Europe, riven by strikes, economic decline and defeatism. Edward Heath fought the 1974 election on the theme of "Who runs Britain?" In 1976 the Labour government had to beg help from the IMF, as if Britain were a Third World country. Commentators were genuinely mystified as to how a once-great nation could possibly rescue itself.

Two decades later this was not the case. Britain was surging ahead of Europe. Strikes plummeted, markets boomed. Britain stopped apologizing for itself. Thatcher may not have been very popular. There are still people who profess they "can't stand that woman", even if they regard her policies as necessary. But she won the national argument. Under Thatcher no one doubted who ran Britain: she did. There had been a revolution, propagated by one leader. There was nothing inevitable about this. Thatcherism was not imitated elsewhere for another decade, and not even now in parts of the Continent.

This is the Thatcher revolution about which legends are created, books written and conferences held. It is what I call the First Thatcher Revolution, Hegel's thesis. But buried within it was the antithesis. The first revolution was radical, liberating, reinvigorating. The second was a revolution of control. Its genesis lay in the remark I have just quoted, that under Thatcher "no one doubted who ran Britain: she did."

This is not the free-market, libertarian Thatcher who believed in individualism to the point of isolation. It is rather the stern East Midlands Methodist, who learned to give way to no one and never ever to lose control. Thatcher may have risen easily to the top of politics, but she did so bellowing from the cab of a bulldozer. In office she was transformed by the Falklands war from a hesitant leader who wrote yes or no on government papers, to one who wrote, "I will not tolerate failure on this". She loathed the word consensus. She boasted in her memoirs that she liked to start meetings by declaring her decision - and see if anyone could knock it down. When Keith Joseph went to meetings, he would tell his staff to send an ambulance in half an hour. And he was a friend.

At first this style was still that of a traditional prime minister, first among cabinet equals. Thatcher knew she was opposed by many in her party and cabinet, the so-called wets. She might hate consensus but she had to tread warily. As time passed her style became more assertive. Gradually the system adapted itself to this pattern of leadership. Nothing was done without Downing Street's permission. Power was drained from departments of state and gathered under the wing of the Treasury and Number Ten. While the outer fringes of the state were privatised, the rest - 40 per cent of the economy- was concentrated as never before into a ruthless subservience.

This is the second Thatcher revolution because it was no less upheaving than the first. What began as "I will not tolerate failure" became a dismantling of the pluralism of Britain's informal constitution. I shall illustrate this in my next talk. It became an attack on parliament, the civil service, the judiciary and professional autonomy. It sent regulators and inspectors even into the newly privatised sector. And it was vastly extended under Thatcher's loyal disciples, John Major and Tony Blair.

They might continue to privatise government corporations. They might call on the private sector to help run the public under contract. But at every turn they demanded greater control for the centre. Thatcher pretended that the state was no different from a family. This was nonsense. The state is bigger. Run it on a loose rein, respect its institutions, check and balances, and it sort of runs itself. Try to run it tight and you will need reins made of steel.

I once interviewed Thatcher shortly before her fall in 1990. I asked about the paradox of her yearning for more control and the Tory tradition of laissez faire. She exploded. Never call me laissez faire, she said, dreadful French word. "There are always things to be done!" she shouted. "There is always more to do!"

That was the authentic cry of Thatcher's second revolution. Where there is more for government to do, more will surely be found. It is to this second revolution that I turn next week. It underpinned the new Thatcherite state, Leviathan. It is what has made us mad as hell.

Sunday Supplements in 2005
15 Jun 05 |  The Westminster Hour


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