I woke up this morning with a question for the British government: Do you work for these zealots, or do they work for you?
The zealots I was thinking of were the antismoking zealots, and the environmentalist global warming zealots, and the Eurozealots. And I wasn’t sure what the answer to the question might be.
Thing is that, back in the early 1990s, both the UK Conservative party and the UK Labour party needed to somehow re-invent themselves. The UK Conservative party needed to get away from the corrosive legacy of Thatcherism, and the older ‘landed gentry’ image of the party embodied by the likes of Harold Macmillan. The Labour party was in even worse shape, and was struggling to get away from its ‘cloth cap’, union-dominated image. Times had moved on, and the parties needed to change.
The first to manage this was Tony Blair’s New Labour party, which contrived to be a ‘people’s party’ in which there was room not just for the old unions, but also for wealthy entrepreneurs as well. It was ‘champagne socialism’.
But it also adopted a number of the political trends that had grown up in Britain over the previous 30 or 40 years. All of which helped New Labour look like it had its ear to the ground, and knew what was happening on the street.
The first of these was a growing enthusiasm for Europe and all things European. More and more people were taking holidays in France and Italy and Spain. They were even learning how to cook in European ways. Insular Britain was becoming less insular. And so New Labour decided that the future for Britain led to Europe, whatever the misgivings of a few Tory backwoodsmen.
The second was the growing environmental/green movement, as exemplified by Greenpeace and others, and the growing Green party. And so New Labour bought shares in environmentalism too. They decided that the future was going to be Green.
And finally, although not overtly, they bought into the antismoking movement, as exemplified by ASH and others. From having smoking rates of 70% or higher in the 1950s, British smoking rates had fallen to 25-30%, as people gradually gave up smoking. So New Labour decided that the future was going to be ‘smoke-free’.
The result was that New Labour won the next three elections, and carried on doing so until the Tories under David Cameron also re-invented themselves – to be more or less the exact same thing: pro-European, environmentalist, and antismoking. Because that was the future. That was the way things were going. That was the direction that the tide of history was flowing.
And of course the Lib Dems followed suit too.
The result has been that government money has flowed into all these various political projects, and they became even more influential and powerful than they had ever been.
But the future maybe no longer seems quite as sure and certain as it once did.
In the first place, the EU eurozone has turned into a disaster area for the relatively uncompetitive southern nations of Spain and Portugal and Italy and Greece. These countries would have once been able to devalue their currencies to escape their debts, but stuck inside the eurozone they can only use austerity measures – cutting public spending and wages -, with the result that 25% unemployment is commonplace. The survival of the EU and the eurozone has become far from certain.
And in the second place, now that environmentally friendly windmills are slaughtering millions of bats and birds, environmentalism is looking rather less environmentally friendly, particularly when the windmills deliver a fraction of the power promised, and last for half their design lifetimes. Add to that the failure of any global warming to materialise over the past 15 years, and the collapse of carbon trading schemes, and the discovery of scientific malfeasance among climate scientists during the Climategate affair. Environmentalism is beginning to look more like the past than the future, as governments consider returning to coal and oil-fired and even nuclear-powered electricity generation.
The antismoking agenda is perhaps the only one that looks like it’s been successful. But it’s gradually becoming clear that one of the effects of the 2007 smoking ban – instantly hailed as a great success at the time – was that many smokers stayed home and stopped spending, and many of them had their social lives profoundly disrupted by the loss of their smoky old pubs in which they once congregated. ‘Smoke-free’ Britain is set to be seen as another failure.
Yet none of this should come as a surprise. For all these political movements were driven by idealism rather than reason. Antismoking zealots are not driven by reason, but by a pathological hatred of smoking. And environmentalism is driven by a nostalgia for a past era in which Britain was the green and pleasant land it once was before factories and railways and motorways transformed it into something else. And the European project is the idealistic pursuit of a sort of new Roman empire in which the tribes of Europe become citizens of Rome once again, and cast off their tribal identities in a new pax Romana.
Such idealistic fantasies have a habit of getting shipwrecked on the rocks of reality. In fact, it might be said that that this always their inevitable fate. For such idealism is really nothing but wishful thinking.
And perhaps the political class is beginning to have second thoughts about the direction it took. David Cameron’s recent speech was probably made in response to growing calls for disengagement from a moribund EU. And, despite the earlier enthusiasm for all things green and environmental and carbon neutral and sustainable, there’s a distinct sense that the British government is no longer quite as enthusiastic as it once was. And since many of UKIP’s voters are smokers (UKIP being about the only smoker-friendly political party), and smokers are becoming more and more vocal not only in Britain but across Europe (e.g. Bulgaria), there may also be some hesitation about proceeding with plain packaging and other new antismoking measures.
It’s beginning to look as if the Labour party and the Conservative party are going to have to re-invent themselves all over again, as the idealistic future that once beckoned so promisingly turns out to be not just an illusion, but a terrible mistake.
What political fashion will they follow then? But in the meantime, they have become so inextricably wedded to these various idealistic projects over the past 20 or more years that it is hard to discern who is working for who. Which brings me back to the question I began with:
Do you work for these zealots, or do they work for you?