Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
State of the argument
Dear Dominic Hobson,
Thanks for the letter. I have been finishing my own book (Ruling Britannia) and am now sinking into Harold Wislonism, so apologies if this is less considered than it ought to be. First, I agree with your point that our difference may be a matter of perspective; the modern state might seem relatively impotent to us, but it would seem highly intrusive to our Victorian forebears.
We can also find some common ground by agreeing that “politics” has lost power over bureaucratic or otherwise unaccountable “statist” activity; a lot of Christopher Boo-ker’s journalism, for instance, shows what happens when politicians, submerged in paperwork and small decisions, are unable to control and monitor self-serving public administrators. All organisations tend to be interested first in their own survival and growth.
I also agree that welfarism has had an impact on self-reliance; though one of the interesting things happening at present, as the welfare state reaches and falls back from the boundaries of what can be financed and delivered, is a great growth in self-help and support groups.
So far, so consensual! But in the end, I think the harking-back to levels of taxation and state involvement of the Victorian period is excessively romantic. There are simply so many of us, equipped with so much noisy, fast-moving gear-so much human velocity-that higher (than Victorian) levels of regulation over everything, from how we use the internal combustion engine, to river pollution, to child abuse, are not only inevitable but also good. Food hygiene inspectors, left to themselves, become madly bossy and intrusive; but as someone who endured hepatitis after eating in a fish restaurant last year, I can confirm that it will be hard to convince the country that the mere existence of food hygiene laws is a form of “oppression.” This is not to say that the state should, or could, grow; nor that it should not be cut back. I think Whitehall is incompetent and ignorant about so much of the country that it should cede far more to local politics…