THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Ends, ways and means

Political debate in Britain is often an argument between two stupidities (three if you count the LibDems). Democracy is all very well, but the peoples' verdict on rival idiocies does not make the victorious idiot a clever man.

Life is marvellous (compared to the alternative) but it is also full of horrors. Disease, poverty, natural disasters, injustice, oppression and so on. We would all like to "do something" about them. Many of us do. We make charitable donations or volunteer. We help a stranger in trouble. But for many that's not enough. They want that most dangerous of things - a total solution. I can understand that. I may now understand the truth behind Mencken's witticism that:

For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong

but I was an idealist once, intent on making a better world, rather than being a better man.

Will the end however and you must will the means. If you want total solutions, you must deploy serious power. Those powerful forces in Britain which once rivalled the state are gone. The aristocracy is impoverished and/or marginalised. Philanthropy has been nationalised and the rich are now rarely interested in giving more than has already been taken by force. The Church, pace one of my favourite bloggers (albeit one with whose views I have not one jot of sympathy) is a spent force. Once great charities are now - in many cases - independent in name only.

If you really want "something done" in today's Britain, it seems you must turn to the state. Only it can muster the resources and apply the coercion radical solutions require. Yet it almost never works at all and even more rarely works well. Does anyone believe that the billions spent in the public sector in the last 10 years have produced an overall improvement in services? You do? Welcome sir! I didn't know the Prime Minister read my blog. More often than not, in giving a problem to the state, we are merely washing our hands of it. We are salving our consciences. It is the modern version of Scrooge's cry, "Are there no workhouses?" Deep down we know the state will not solve the problem. It will merely remove the need for us to address it ourselves. It will allow us to think ourselves "caring" when we have neglected our most basic duties as humans.

We all want to protect vulnerable young people, for example. Many years ago my late grandfather (a bluff aggressive sort) took in a young boy whose drunken father had beaten him. He just told him not to go home and reared him alongside his own sons. When the father turned up, my granddad sent him away with a flea in his ear and that was the end of the matter. Were you or I to do such a thing, Social Services would have both benefactor and child in state custody. Yes, my grandfather's solution was ad hoc and limited. Yes, he could have been a danger to that boy. Yes, his robust strap-based discipline would be regarded by today's social workers as child abuse, but has the modern state really a better answer? Was the state in Jersey a better answer? Was the state in Islington?  Was the state in North Wales?

I am haunted by the memory of finding a school mate from one of the notorious North Wales childrens' homes' drunk in the street one night. With kind intent I took her - despite her protests - back to the home. Tellingly (where did she learn this?) she offered sexual favours to take her somewhere else; anywhere else. Shocked, I took her back anyway - to a place where I now know public servants were running a sort of state brothel for paedophiles. If I say children are safer in their own family please don't tell me I don't care. If your solution is to depute the problem to the state, please don't tell me that you care.

If the definition of madness is to keep trying the same solution, despite repeated negative outcomes, the British public is mad. So completely are we hooked on big government that to suggest the state should not intervene is now seen as approval of the given wrong (or even a confession of being a wrongdoer). This, despite state solutions so often being worse than the original problems. This, despite the fact that day after day the state fails in its self-appointed tasks. Trying to solve social problems with a state is like trying to make an omelette with a JCB. I am not saying it couldn't be done, but so skilled an operator would find better work. I am not saying you are not entitled to your breakfast. I am not even doubting the value of a JCB; an admirable tool when deployed for the limited tasks it's designed to do. Such is the nature of our political debates.

A sensible politician would acknowledge the limits of state power but can only do so if the people accept them too. As long as his political opponent offers to solve obesity in children, how can he stand there and say "the government can't do this, it's your own problem".  He must compete in promising the undeliverable, even if he knows he will end by undermining faith in the political system and being damned as a lying scoundrel. The naive inter-war politicians who conceived the welfare state must take much blame for having infantilised us by the million, but only we, the people, can fix the problem now. Unless the ground on which the battle of ideas is fought can be moved (as some are valiantly trying to do), I can't see that happening for a long time yet.

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