Monday, January 05, 2004

Reading Michael Howard

Well, after a prolonged Christmas break blogging recommences today. Michael Howard, the exciting new Conservative leader or tiresome hasbeen depending on view, has greeted the New Year by spamming the entire party membership (and some poor unfortunate homonyms) with a "declaration of personal principles" patterned quite obviously on those on the Rockefeller Centre. link to the full text This curious document has been described variously as being obvious, motherhood+apple pie stuff, an impressive piece of spin and blatantly dishonest. But I believe - laugh! - that it is sincere. The question is not whether Howard means what he says but what the things he says mean. It is a question of reading Michael Howard.

Mr Howard kicks off with the ringing statement that he believes that "it is natural for men and women to want health, wealth and happiness for themselves and their families". Indeed, and who would quarrel with the idea that politicians should "serve the people by removing the obstacles in the way of these ambitions"? That Maoist injunction to "Serve the People!" is a little odd, but we may put that down to coincidence. What is happening in these first few lines is an exercise in speaking so as not to talk. Rather like John Kenneth Galbraith's idea of the importance of meetings at which no business is done, non-meaning remarks play a useful role. None of these sentences mean anything in the strict sense, but they do fulfil the role of lending an impressive, UN Charter sound to Mr Howard's manifesto. Further, they sound as if Mr Howard is pursuing his supposed new image as being socially conscious and not frightening at all without committing him to anything that might result from dangerous content.

The next three principles, though, take the plunge. All of these contain actual meaning, although it may not be obvious. I believe people are happiest when they are masters of their own lives, when they are not nannied or over-governed. Part of this is just another truism, but the second clause is more interesting. Nannied refers to the Tory cliche of the nanny state. This may be interpreted to mean anything that interferes with the right of the powerful to endanger the less powerful (workplace safety, speed limit enforcement, enforcement of taxation on the rich). Why the state is a nanny is beyond me - my own image of an oppressive state would be more like a large and menacing riot policeman - but perhaps it is because Conservatives traditionally had servants. I don't know. Over-governed is a recent coinage, normally referring in Britain to regional assemblies or Europe. This statement means I am a Tory and I do not like regional government or Europe. The next one is curious in the extreme: the state should be small - a routine statement of conservative faith, but what about the first clause? The people should be big.

I am foxed. Is this sincere belief in big people a coded offer of reconciliation with Kenneth Clarke? Or is it possibly just a weak effort at originality? Still, it will be amusing to watch the state shrinking towards the ever-expanding citizens. No wonder he admires Americans. The next principle deals with the same theme as no.3. This is the one about "armies of interferers", red tape and a truly impressive list of synonyms for administrators you don't like (the word for ones you do is "public servants"). This really covers the same ground as before - so why two of them? Very likely because the Tories' financial plans are founded on the great myth that there is an easily defined secret goldmine of waste in the public finances that can simply be magicked away. As there is no way to measure it, the Bureaucash can be assumed to be any sum you need to fill in the spreadsheet. This is a declaration of faith that it exists - we may translate this as Oliver Letwin has my confidence.

There now follows a mass of filler. Howard binds himself to the controversial propositions that "there is no freedom without responsibility", "injustice makes us angry" (really? I remember when he practically relished it!) and that "every parent wants their child to have a better education than they had". This last means simply that the Tories are trying to be cuddly whilst appealing to ambitious middle class parents. Next up? "Every child wants security for their parents in their old age". Well, I'm sure they wouldn't say no. I doubt if they have given the matter much thought. This means: Many Tory voters are old.

Then we get back to the controversial. There are three negative principles, which have attracted a great deal of comment. The first is the much-criticised one about one person's poverty not being caused by another's wealth. You can argue this out, but in the end it is a mere statement that I am a Tory and I will cut income tax.
More interesting are those dealing with education and health. Mr Howard apparently does not believe that one person's knowledge and education causes another's ignorance. Neither do I. What can he possibly mean? I suspect that this is a coded statement in favour of selective and private education -
it's good to be private (knowledge and education) because nobody else becomes more stupid because of it. After all, the conservative case in this rests on an opposition to supposed "levelling down".

Mr Howard also believes that one person's sickness is not made worse by another's health. Indeed. In a purely medical sense, maybe so. In a political sense, this means that Buying private healthcare is a good thing even if nobody else can afford it. Even if, of course, it uses NHS resources... Strangely, Mr Howard abandons here one of Karl Popper's principles of the Open Society. Popper remarked that as pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure and certainly not one man's pain by another's pleasure, society should minimise the avoidable suffering of all. Howard seems to say nearly the opposite - making yourself well at the possible cost of others at least does not increase their pain. In some degree, then, your own recovery outweighs others' pain. Lovely.

The only other principle that is not pure filler ("The British people are happiest when they are free." No shit, Sherlock!) is the penultimate one. "I believe that Britain should defend her freedom at any time, against all comers however mighty." So do I. What threatens our freedom, then? Terrorism? That's not enough, though - why didn't he say it specifically? What Conservatives mean when they talk about defending freedom is the European Union. This means I am against Europe and unquestioningly obedient to the United States. No mention of the US security authorities' current contempt for British sovereignty here. All in all, Howard's manifesto promises Thatcherism with a cherry on top.

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