Why should the Iraqis trust Blair if we can't?
Here is a picture of Tony Blair, looking friendly. And here are his promises: a peaceful, prosperous nation run “by and for” its people. A new beginning. National wealth used for the people, not siphoned off into the comfort and entertainment of the leadership. Safety. A “truly representative government which respects human rights and the rule of law” and develops public services. Freedom to “build prosperity for you and your family”.
This is not a UK election address. This time the promises are being made in Iraq, to win the hearts and minds of poor devils in Basra and Baghdad who are not yet sure which side offers the best chance of keeping their children alive. Even those who opposed the war must fervently hope that the Iraqis believe the leaflet and make the right decision. Stop fighting, and call in those promises.
Meanwhile, though, the Blair leaflet sets thoughts running in another direction. It is Budget week, the time when we are made most intimately aware of how tightly our private destinies are micromanaged by government. At the same time a raft of new employment legislation comes into force, and a large increase in national insurance begins to bite. In the background we have the sound of angry friction between a home secretary and our independent judges, with rising bitterness over the catch-all concept of “human rights”.
We also follow with interest the spending habits of government: the way that special advisers now cost the taxpayer more to maintain than the elected Cabinet; the presidential style of prime ministerial entertaining and travel; and the expenditure of public money and effort on 10,000 small interferences in daily life: the quangos and regulators; the facile health and education propaganda; everything from attempts to outlaw wooden chopping boards in bed-and-breakfast kitchens to the distribution of free glossy magazines telling fathers to cuddle babies. On top of all that, we worry about our physical safety — from crime; from terrorism coming at us across pathetically porous borders; from the incompetence of transport authorities; from errors and maladministrations in the health service.
Of course, we live with infinitely more comfort and democracy than the Iraqis have known or will for a long while yet. The comparison is not intended to be heartless or insulting. Yet reading promises made by our own Prime Minister to another nation is a useful way to recall life’s basics. It reminds us that governments owe their peoples a bottom line, a bedrock of fundamental freedom and security, and that over-government is as dangerous as anarchy. Looking at this bottom line, we might ask why we have allowed things to become so damn complicated. When did we vote for governmental fingers to be poked into every thing we do? Look at Western life from the simpler perspective of the souk and the farm and the village, and it appears to be quite startlingly mad.
Take industry, trade, and employment. What are the basics? Well, free human beings make things or provide services, banding together in groups for convenience and economies of scale. They accept leadership, either from the best leaders or just those who own the tools. These groups hire other individuals who sell a certain amount of their time and skill in return for a wage. If they work well, the employees grow richer (barring extremes of exploitation) simply because they are more valuable and can demand more. If they are not useful, they are sacked. Obviously, a good society builds in safeguards for the weak and poor and pregnant and temporarily ill. Obviously, those who cannot work must not starve. Government, however, must smile upon those who produce and pro-cess the wealth of the nation. It must, surely, be on their side?
But looking around in amazement, we find that governments of both colours have taken us a very long way from such basic principles. Whole departments, even in quite small firms, now have to be devoted to administering the government-imposed rights of workers to muck their employers about. The new maternity and paternity rights which begin this week — six months’ paid leave and the continuing right to return after another six, even if you had previously worked for only a few days — are difficult for employers to swallow. But they are the least of it. Take the new unisex right to demand “flexible working” until your youngest child is six. Fine, up to a point: compassion for new parents is a good thing, though not necessarily compassion by statute. But these things are loaded on top of a seriously burdensome set of employment regulations, which already make it excessively difficult and time-consuming to get rid of any employee, however lousy, without risking an expensive and long-winded tribunal.
Countless well-meant interferences in the ancient, robust relationship of earner and paymaster are a huge factor in the flight of manufacturing from Britain to less fussy countries: they make companies ever more reluctant to employ anyone. So does workplace regulation. I know a small family cycle-hire business which longs to take on a school leaver but cannot. They could not possibly guarantee the ambient temperature of the shed, nor dedicated employee rest facilities. So the notional lad (who might have been happy enough to put on a fleece and eat his sandwiches on an oildrum) goes jobless, and the company struggles on.
Beyond that, the Chancellor piles on to businesses tax upon tax: heavy rates, ever-rising stamp duty, #4 billion more on employers’ national insurance this year (one in five firms says it will have to cut staff). Then there is the climate change levy, which has made energy bills rise by #328 million (I wonder whether Mr Brown read in the papers yesterday the theory that it was warmer in the 14th century? Perhaps he wll give them a 600-year refund). Administration is again immense. Whenever government offers something helpful, like a “community investment tax credit” or an “enterprise management incentive”, it is throttled by festoons of red tape. A Midlands businessman, asked what government should do for business, replied hopelessly: “Less!”
All these things weaken the visceral, basic sense that the harder and more cleverly you work, the more you prosper. Our governments are certainly not vicious thieves such as Saddam, Ceausescu or Mugabe, but they do have an incurable habit of seizing every possible lever of control over their citizens’ business, and spending great tranches of taxpayers’ money on initiatives which are, when you look at them closely, often founded on very airy and insubstantial wheezes.
And what of the other basics for a decent state, as promised in the Basra leaflet? Well, there are “public services”, about which Britain is not wholly happy: OK, the water runs in the pipes and the power is usually on, but only the most optimistic believe that we have seen improvements in healthcare and transport worth the #5,500 per annum per household in extra taxes that have built up since 1997. Education is tackling its problems but is hindered and choked by as much administrative bindweed as business.
Then there are “human rights” and the “rule of law”. Yet we hear repeated full-on challenges from the Home Secretary to our independent judges; our local authorities are hobbled by central power; and national decisions are devolved to Brussels without so much as a referendum (the proposed European constitution has some truly terrifying sentences for democrats, and a nasty little clause saying we cannot even leave unless two thirds of the others say so). As for personal safety, we may not have Fedayin but we do have gangs, drug wars, burglaries, car crime and an ever more threatening, virtually unchecked culture of urban begging. Our Polish visitor this weekend was quite taken aback by this: she thought that aggressive begging belonged in nations such as her own, emerging from a dark age. Not here, in prosperous Britain.
And of course, we are prosperous. The last three weeks of news bulletins leave us in no doubt that it is pleasanter here than in Iraq, let alone Zimbabwe. Yet we ought to notice and resist all erosions of freedom, enterprise and self-determination. The small trader in Swindon wants the same freedoms as the shopkeeper of Umm Qasr; the schoolteacher or doctor in Basildon should be respected as much as the professionals of Basra. As the proverb implies, you can probably kill a cat by choking it with cream. We should be aware that there is more than one kind of tyranny.