David Cameron is interesting. “Optimism,” he says, is the word that defines him. He admonishes Conservatives, warning us not to look back.
As we age (I will be 50 next year) we acquire wisdom, cynicism and the problem of how to tell one from the other. I constantly check myself before posting here to ask “is this realistic, or are you just one of the grumpy old men you used to despise?” Having daughters who are young adults helps. Their reactions often answer my question.
When Margaret Thatcher was transforming Britain, I was optimistic too. She promised a vibrant, energetic country, with free markets in goods and ideas. Finally, we were going to turn our backs on the British Empire, 1940’s municipal socialism, Trade Unionism and all the other tired ideas of which my generation was so heartily sick
I admired Mrs Thatcher so much I named my first-born after her. As Prime Minister, she did her impressive best but still she failed. I think she never understood that the truths so obvious to her were anathema to fellow-citizens raised in the cocoon of the Welfare State and educated in the Socialist never-land of State schools.
She carried the field for a while by the sheer strength of her will, but she could not imagine what it was like NOT to be her. She underestimated the difficulties for the more ordinary politicians who would succeed her. Had she understood those difficulties she would have sought to change institutions, rather than minds. Because institutions are harder to change back.
An American client suggested to me during the Thatcher years that I should move to the States. He paid me the back-handed compliment of saying that I was more like an American than an Englishman. I told him that Mrs Thatcher was going to make England more like America and that I wanted to stay to be part of that. He simply said “England is England. When Thatcher is gone, everything will go back to how it was.”
I remember being very upset with him, but he was right. The British State today employs as many people as before the Thatcher Revolution. Today’s State employees may be “LGBT awareness co-ordinators” rather then steel-workers, but the only difference is that they cost more and contribute less to the economy.
In the course of a lifetime, the average British family will pay £600,000 in tax. Even the poorest working family will pay £250,000. After servicing the highest personal debts in Europe (there is more such debt in the British Isles than in mainland Europe), and paying spiralling council taxes from net income, discretionary expenditure is pitifully low. Many Britons are effectively serfs to their government, local government and banks. Average monthly household expenditure exceeds average monthly income with the results Mr Micawber would predict.
No wonder then that Britons increasingly resort to the short, intense escapism of drugs. On a typical weekend, four million of them (not the same four million each weekend, presumably) are using Ecstasy. That’s just one of many chemical recreations. Who can blame them? Drugs are high-speed pleasure for the time-poor. For a brief ecstatic period, Winston Smith flies above the drab realities of Airstrip One. Some of those who don't do chemical vacations are studying in Pakistani madrassas or indulging in "animal rights" extremism. The less palatable ordinary life is, the more people are drawn to the extremes.
In the context of so many things going so wrong, David Cameron’s optimism frightens me. I hear pleasant warbling noises from him about ID cards, community, family and the voluntary sector. But his every actual commitment is to maintain the status quo. Even conservatives surely need to be careful about what they conserve?