Margaret Thatcher: 'What’s wrong with politics?’
What's wrong with politics
Criticism of politics is no new thing. Literature abounds with it.
In Shakespeare we find the comment of King Lear:
‘Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.’
Richard Sheridan, reputed to have made one of the greatest speeches the House of Commons has ever heard (it lasted 5 hours and 40 minutes), commented that ‘conscience has no more to do with gallantry than it has with politics’. Anatole France was perhaps the most scathing: ‘I am not so devoid of all talents as to occupy myself with politics.’
Nor have political leaders escaped criticism:
‘Disraeli unites the maximum of Parliamentary cleverness with the minimum of statesmanlike capacity. No one ever dreams to have him lead. He belongs not to the bees but to the wasps and the butterflies of public life. He can sting and sparkle but he cannot work. His place in the arena is marked and ticketed for ever.’
This from the Controller of the Stationery Office, in 1853, quoted in The Statesman by Henry Taylor.
There is no need to remind you how utterly wrong that judgment was.
There are even some things that have improved over the years. Bribery and corruption, which have now gone, used to be rampant. The votes of electors were purchased at a high price. The famous Lord Shaftesbury when he was Lord Ashley, spent £15,600 on successfully winning Dorset in 1831. It is interesting to note that £12,000 of this went to public houses and inns for the refreshment of the people. And this when gin was a penny a glass! Some forty years before, Lord Penrhyn spent £50,000 on his campaign — and then lost!
But we can't dismiss the present criticisms as easily as that. The dissatisfaction with politics runs too deep both here and abroad. People have come to doubt the future of the democratic system and its institutions. They distrust the politicians and have little faith in the future.
Why the present distrust?
Let us try to assess how and why we have reached this pass. What is the explanation? Broadly speaking I think we have not yet assimilated many of the changes that have come about in the past thirty to forty years.
First, I don't think we realise sufficiently how new our present democratic system is. We still have comparatively little experience of the effect of the universal franchise which didn't come until 1928. And the first election in this country which was fought on the principle of one person one vote was in 1950. So we are still in the early stages of dealing with the problems and opportunities presented by everyone having a vote.
Secondly, this and other factors have led to a different party political structure. There is now little room for independent members and the controversies which formerly took place outside the parties on a large number of measures now have to take place inside. There is, and has to be room for a variety of opinions on certain topics within the broad general principles on which each party is based.
Thirdly, from the party political structure has risen the detailed programme which is placed before the electorate. Return to power on such a programme has led to a new doctrine that the party in power has a mandate to carry out everything in its manifesto. I myself doubt whether the voters really are endorsing each and every particular when they return a government to power.
This modern practice of an election programme has, I believe, influenced the attitudes of some electors; all too often one is now asked ‘what are you going to do for me?’, implying that the programme is a series of promises in return for votes. All this has led to a curious relationship between elector and elected. If the elector suspects the politician of making promises simply to get his vote, he despises him, but if the promises are not forthcoming he may reject him. I believe that parties and elections are about more than rival lists of miscellaneous promises—indeed, if they were not, democracy would scarcely be worth preserving.
Fourthly, the extensive and all-pervading development of the welfare state is also comparatively new, not only here but in other countries as well. You will recollect that one of the four great freedoms in President Roosevelt's wartime declaration was ‘freedom from want’. Since then in the Western world there has been a series of measures designed to give greater security. I think it would be true to say that there is no longer a struggle to achieve a basic security. Further, we have a complete new generation whose whole life has been lived against the background of the welfare state. These developments must have had a great effect on the outlook and approach of our people even if we cannot yet assess it properly.
Fifthly, one of the effects of the rapid spread of higher education has been to equip people to criticise and question almost everything. Some of them seem to have stopped there instead of going on to the next stage which is to arrive at new beliefs or to reaffirm old ones. You will perhaps remember seeing in the press the report that the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit has been awarded a degree on the result of his past work. His examiners said that he had posed a series of most intelligent questions. Significant? I would have been happier had he also found a series of intelligent answers.
Sixthly, we have far more information about events than ever before and since the advent of television, news is presented much more vividly. It is much more difficult to ignore situations which you have seen on film with your own eyes than if you had merely read about them, perhaps skimming the page rather hurriedly. Television is not merely one extra means of communication, it is a medium which because of the way it presents things is radically influencing the judgments we have to make about events and about people, including politicians.
Seventhly, our innate international idealism has received many nasty shocks. Many of our people long to believe that if representatives of all nations get together dispassionately to discuss burning international problems, providence and goodwill will guide them to wise and just conclusions, and peace and international law and order will thereby be secured. But in practice a number of nations vote not according to right or wrong even when it is a clear case to us, but according to their national expediencies. And some of the speeches and propaganda to explain blatant actions would make the angels weep as well as the electorate.
All of these things are a partial explanation of the disillusion and disbelief we encounter today. The changes have been tremendous and I am not surprised that the whole system is under cross-examination. I welcome healthy scepticism and questioning. It is our job continually to retest old assumptions and to seek new ideas. But we must not try to find one unalterable answer that will solve all our problems for none can exist.
You may know the story of the soldier of fortune who once asked the Sphinx to reveal the divine wisdom of the ages in one sentence, and the Sphinx said, ‘Don't expect too much.’
In that spirit and against the background I have sketched, let us try to analyse what has gone wrong.
The great mistake — too much government
I believe that the great mistake of the last few years has been for the government to provide or to legislate for almost everything. Part of this policy has its roots in the plans for reconstruction in the post-war period when governments assumed all kinds of new obligations. The policies may have been warranted at the time but they have gone far further than was intended or is advisable. During our own early and middle period of government we were concerned to set the framework in which people could achieve their own standards for themselves, subject always to a basic standard. But it has often seemed to me that from the early 1960s the emphasis in politics shifted. At about that time ‘growth’ became the key political word. If resources grew by X per cent per annum this would provide the extra money needed for the government to make further provision. The doctrine found favour at the time and we had a bit of a contest between the parties about the highest possible growth rate. Four per cent or more. But the result was that for the time being the emphasis in political debate ceased to be about people and became about economics. Plans were made to achieve a 4 per cent growth rate. Then came the present government with a bigger plan and socialist ideas about its implementation, that is to say if people didn't conform to the plan, they had to be compelled to. Hence compulsion on Prices and Incomes policy and with it the totally unacceptable notion that the government shall have the power to fix which wages and salaries should increase.
We started off with a wish on the part of the people for more government intervention in certain spheres. This was met. But there came a time when the amount of intervention got so great that it could no longer be exercised in practice by government but only by more and more officials or bureaucrats. Now it is difficult if not impossible for people to get at the official making the decision and so paradoxically although the degree of intervention is greater, the government has become more and more remote from the people. The present result of the democratic process has therefore been an increasing authoritarianism.
During July The Daily Telegraph published a rather interesting poll which showed how people were reacting against this rule of impersonal authority. The question was: ‘In your opinion or not do people like yourselves have enough say or not in the way the government runs the country? (68 per cent not enough), the services provided by the nationalised industries (67 per cent not enough), the way local authorities handle things (64 per cent not enough—note this rather high figure; people don't like remote local authorities any more than they like remote governments).’
Recently more and more feature articles have been written and speeches made about involving people more closely with decisions of the government and enabling them to participate in some of those decisions.
But the way to get personal involvement and participation is not for people to take part in more and more government decisions but to make the government reduce the area of decision over which it presides and consequently leave the private citizen to ‘participate’, if that be the fashionable word, by making more of his own decisions. What we need now is a far greater degree of personal responsibility and decision, far more independence from the government, and a comparative reduction in the role of government.
These beliefs have important implications for policy.
Prices and incomes
First, Prices and Incomes policy. The most effective prices policy has not come by controlling prices by the government, through the Prices and Incomes Board, but through the Conservative way of seeing that competition flourishes. There have been far more price cuts in the supermarkets than in the nationalised industries. This shows the difference between the government doing the job itself and the government creating the conditions under which prices will be kept down through effective competition.
On the Incomes side, there seemed to be some confusion in the minds of the electorate about where the parties stood. This was not surprising in the early days because a number of speeches and documents from both sides of the House showed a certain similarity. For example, here are four separate quotations—two from the Labour Government and two from our period of office. They are almost indistinguishable.
1. ‘Increases in the general level of wage rates must be related to increased productivity due to increased efficiency and effort.’ (White Paper on Employment Policy, 1944)
2. ‘It is essential therefore that there should be no further general increase in the level of personal incomes without at least a corresponding increase in the volume of production.’ (Sir Stafford Cripps, 1948)
3. ‘The Government's policy is to promote a faster rate of economic growth ... But the policy will be put in jeopardy if money incomes rise faster than the volume of national production.’ (Para. 1 of Incomes Policy, The Next Step, Cmnd 1626, February 1962)
4. ‘... the major objectives of national policy must be ... to raise productivity and efficiency so that real national output can increase and so keep increases in wages, salaries and other forms of income in line with this increase.’ (Schedule 2, Prices and Incomes Act, 1966)
All of these quotes express general economic propositions, but the policies which flowed from those propositions were very different. We rejected from the outset the use of compulsion. This was absolutely right. The role of the government is not to control each and every salary that is paid. It has no means of measuring the correct amount. Moreover, having to secure the state's approval before one increases the pay of an employee is repugnant to most of us.
There is another aspect of the way in which Incomes policy is now operated to which I must draw attention. We now put so much emphasis on the control of incomes that we have too little regard for the essential role of government which is the control of money supply and management of demand. Greater attention to this role and less to the outward detailed control would have achieved more for the economy. It would mean, of course, that the government had to exercise itself some of the disciplines on expenditure it is so anxious to impose on others. It would mean that expenditure in the vast public sector would not have to be greater than the amount which could be financed out of taxation plus genuine saving. For a number of years some expenditure has been financed by what amounts to printing the money. There is nothing laissez-faire or old-fashioned about the views I have expressed. It is a modern view of the role the government should play now, arising from the mistakes of the past, the results of which we are experiencing today.
Tax and the social services
The second policy implication concerns taxation and the social services. It is no accident that the Conservative Party has been one which has reduced the rates of taxation. The decisions have not been a haphazard set of expediencies, or merely economic decisions to meet the needs of the moment. They have stemmed from the real belief that government intervention and control tends to reduce the role of the individual, his importance and the desirability that he should be primarily responsible for his own future. When it comes to the development of the social services, the policy must mean that people should be encouraged if necessary by taxation incentives to make increasing provision for themselves out of their own resources. The basic standards through the state would remain as a foundation for extra private provision. Such a policy would have the advantage that the government could concentrate on providing things which the citizen can't. Hospitals are one specific example.
The other day I came across a quotation which you will find difficult to place:
‘Such a plan as this was bound to be drastic and to express nothing less than a new pattern ... (for the hospitals of this country) ... Now that we have it, we must see that it lives. As I have said before it is a plan which has hands and feet. It walks and it works. It is not a static conception stated once and for all but something which is intended to live and to be dynamic ... My Ministry will constantly be carrying this review forward so that there will always be ten years work definitely projected ahead.’ (Hansard, 4th June 1962, Col. 153.)
No, it doesn't come from Harold Wilson. It is not about our enormous overall plan, but a very limited plan in a small area in which the government could make a distinctive contribution. It was Enoch Powell introducing his ten-year hospital plan in the House of Commons on 4th June 1962.
Independence from the state
To return to the personal theme, if we accept the need for increasing responsibility for self and family it means that we must stop approaching things in an atmosphere of restriction. There is nothing wrong in people wanting larger incomes. It would seem a worthy objective for men and women to wish to raise the standard of living for their families and to give them greater opportunities than they themselves had. I wish more people would do it. We should then have fewer saying ‘the state must do it.’ What is wrong is that people should want more without giving anything in return. The condition precedent to high wages and high salaries is hard work. This is a quite different and much more stimulating approach than one of keeping down incomes.
Doubtless there will be accusers that we are only interested in more money. This just is not so. Money is not an end in itself. It enables one to live the kind of life of one's own choosing. Some will prefer to put a large amount to raising material standards, others will pursue music, the arts, the cultures, others will use their money to help those here and overseas about whose needs they feel strongly and do not let us underestimate the amount of hard earned cash that this nation gives voluntarily to worthy causes. The point is that even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side. In choice of way of life J. S. Mill's views are as relevant as ever:
‘The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it ... Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.’
These policies have one further important implication. Together they succeed at the same time in giving people a measure of independence from the state — and who wants a people dependent on the state and turning to the state for their every need — also they succeed in drawing power away from governments and diffusing it more widely among people and non-governmented institutions.
The problem of size
The second mistake politics have made at present is in some ways related to the first one. We have become bewitched with the idea of size.
As a result people no longer feel important in the scheme of things. They have the impression that everything has become so big, so organised, so standardised and governmentalised that there is no room for the individual, his talents, his requirements or his wishes. He no longer counts.
It is not difficult to see how this feeling has come about. In industry the merits of size have been extolled for some years now and too little attention given to its demerits. Size brings great problems. One of the most important is the problem of making and communicating decisions. The task of decision tends to be concentrated at the top, and fewer people get used to weighing up a problem, taking a decision, sticking to it and carrying the consequences. The buck is passed. But even after a decision has been made, there is the problem of communicating it to those who have to carry it out in such a way that it is understood, and they are made to feel a part of the team. In a large-scale organisation, whether government, local government or industry, failure to do this can lead to large-scale mistakes, large-scale confusion and large-scale resentment. These problems, can, and must be, overcome, but all too often they are not.
Government agencies and the public
The third mistake is that people feel they don't count when they try to get something done through government agencies.
Consider our relations with government departments. We start as a birth certificate; attract a maternity grant; give rise to a tax allowance and possibly a family allowance; receive a national health number when registered with a doctor; go to one or more schools where educational records are kept; apply for an educational grant; get a job; start paying national insurance and tax; take out a television and a driving licence; buy a house with a mortgage; pay rates; buy a few premium bonds; take out life assurance; purchase some shares; get married; start the whole thing over again; receive a pension and become a death certificate and death grant, and the subject of a file in the Estate Duty Office!
Every one of these incidents will require a form or give rise to some questions, or be recorded in some local or national government office. The amount of information collected in the various departments must be fabulous. Small wonder that life really does seem like ‘one damned form after another.’
A good deal of this form-filling will have to continue but I think it time to reassert a right to privacy. Ministers will have to look at this aspect in deciding how to administer their policies. There is a tendency on the part of some politicians to suggest that with the advent of computers all this information should be centralised and stored on magnetic tape. They argue that this would be time-saving and more efficient. Possibly it would; but other and more important things would be at stake.
There would be produced for the first time a personal dossier about each person, on which everything would be recorded. In my view this would place far too much power in the hands of the state over the individual. In the USA there is a Congressional enquiry sitting on this very point because politicians there have recognised the far-reaching dangers of such a record.
Too much reliance on statistics, too little on judgment
Fourthly, I believe that there is too great a reliance on statistical forecasts; too little on judgment.
We all know the old one about lies, damned lies and statistics, and I do not wish to condemn statistics out of hand. Those who prepare them are well aware of their limitations. Those who use them are not so scrupulous.
Recently the economic forecasts have been far more optimistic than the events which happened. The balance of payments predictions have been wrong again and again.
For example, in February this year the National Institute of Economic and Social Research forecast predicted a surplus of £100m. in the second half of this year. In August they predicted a deficit of £600m. for the whole of this year, but a surplus of £250m. next year.
They commented, ‘The balance of payments forecast taken year by year look a lot worse than previously estimated, but the difference is largely one of timing — with the movement into surplus coming later, and with a still large rate of improvement.’
The truth is that statistical results do not displace the need for judgment, they increase it. The figures can be no better than the assumptions on which they are based and these could vary greatly. In addition, the unknown factor which, by its very nature is incapable of evaluation, may well be the determining one.
The party political system
Fifthly, we have not yet appreciated or used fully the virtues of our party political system. The essential characteristic of the British Constitutional system is not that there is an alternative personality but that there is an alternative policy and a whole alternative government ready to take office. As a result we have always had an Opposition to act as a focus of criticism against the government. We have therefore not suffered the fate of countries which have had a ‘consensus’ or central government, without an official opposition. This was one of the causes of trouble in Germany. Nor do we have the American system, which as far as Presidential campaigns go, appears to have become almost completely one of personalities.
There are dangers in consensus; it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority.
A short time ago when speaking to a university audience and stressing the theme of second responsibility and independence a young undergraduate came to me and said ‘I had no idea there was such a clear alternative.’ He found the idea challenging and infinitely more effective than one in which everyone virtually expects their MP or the government to solve their problems. The Conservative creed has never offered a life of ease without effort. Democracy is not for such people. Self-government is for those men and women who have learned to govern themselves.
No great party can survive except on the basis of firm beliefs about what it wants to do. It is not enough to have reluctant support. We want people's enthusiasm as well.