These days I’m rooting for Donald Trump to become the next President of the United States. And yet 10 years ago, if I’d seen the choice as between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would have been rooting for Clinton. How odd. What happened? Why did I swing from Left to Right? Why did I ever regard myself as Left in the first place? And what does Left and Right mean anyway?
One explanation is that I grew up in post-war Britain. The state seemed entirely benign back then. It provided free school milk. It provided schools and universities. And above all it provided the National Health Service, all courtesy of the Labour government that swept into power in 1945, shortly before I was born. Many of Britain’s industries were nationalised by the 1945 government, if they hadn’t effectively been nationalised during the war.
Post-war Britain was also post-Imperial Britain. The empire was being peacefully dissolved. Colonies were being granted independence. And Britain was broke. The landed British aristocracy, no longer getting an income from the colonies, were in terminal decline. And Britain had run up huge debts during the war.
Post-war Britain was also a remarkably egalitarian country. Nobody was very rich, and nobody was very poor. Rationing continued for years after the war. The state had expanded during the war in response to the need for careful war planning, and the post-war Labour governments were now using the state to plan the peace. Planning was all the rage. Town planning in particular. What Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe had helpfully started, the British town planners completed. Huge areas of housing were demolished and replaced with uniform tower blocks. Motorways were constructed. Schools and universities and hospitals were built. But it was all very dull and uniform.
The Sixties saw a revolt against this uniformity. Many of the icons of the sixties were art students in the new colleges that had sprung up. John Lennon went to art school. Mick Jagger was at the London School of economics. Most of Pink Floyd seem to have been architectural students. Together they invented new music, new art, new fashion, and a whole new culture and sensibility. They may not have been exactly what the planners had been planning, but they were many of them the product of the new colleges nevertheless.
But the state that had been created in response to the exigencies of war kept steadily growing. The NHS got bigger and bigger. The universities became more and more numerous. Local governments got larger and larger.
Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s government reversed the trend a little. Many of the nationalised industries were de-nationalised. Council houses were sold to their occupants. But the state still kept getting bigger.
But at some point, the benign state of the 50s and 60s and 70s began to gradually metamorphose into the bully state. The same happened in Europe, where the benign European Community gradually metamorphosed into the imperial bully state of the European Union.
For me personally what marked the transition was the 2007 smoking ban. For me that was the point when, overnight, the benign state became the bully state.
It was perhaps the inevitable product of state gigantism, rather than of any new ideology. As the state bureaucracy expanded, its managerial class became more and more detached from the ordinary people they were supposed to be serving. They spent more and more time talking to each other, and to other branches of government. They began to inhabit a separate state culture. They became an aristocracy. And they started to treat ordinary people as if they were their masters rather than their servants. And of course this process was vastly amplified in the EU, where the new aristocracy were even exempt from taxation and prosecution.
So one cause of my transition from left to right came from seeing a benign state turn into a bully state, from a benefactor into an oppressor.
This wasn’t the only cause, however. I spent much of my youth outside Britain, in countries in which there wasn’t a boring, tedious, sameness of post-war Britain. They were all countries in which there were stark differences.
And none exhibited such stark differences as Rio de Janeiro. Not only was the mountainous terrain of the city a stark contrast to the gently rolling hills of England, but so also was the poverty of the favelas on the hills above the multistorey hotels along Copacabana beach. Or the beggars on the streets among the prosperous businessmen of the city centre (there were no beggars on the streets of England).
For Rio de Janeiro was part of a capitalist country in which some people were very, very rich, and most were poor – and in some cases desperately poor.
And the inequality of it all seemed greatly offensive in my young eyes. How could such wealth co-exist side by side with such poverty? The same thought seems to have crossed the minds of revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who were at that time busy promoting revolution throughout South America. I became something of an egalitarian. And I could see some merits in uniformitarian Britain.
I think now, looking back, that I saw Rio de Janeiro as somewhere where wealth and poverty had become fixed for all time. I think I felt that Rio de Janeiro would remain as it was in the 1960s for all time thereafter. I didn’t realise that I was watching an unfolding process. Rio de Janeiro was a prosperous seaport that exported sugar and coffee and any number of other agricultural and mineral products all over the world. And it was this wealth that attracted people from all over Brazil, to find employment as bus drivers and maidservants and cooks and teachers. And the only place that many of them could live was in the ramshackle, corrugated-iron terraces on the steep slopes where there were no roads, and where the rich didn’t want to live. In time, those same terraces would become much-sought-after bijou residences with astonishing views across Guanabara Bay – much like many former slums of London are now the residences of millionaires.
For the dull, tedious, uniformity of 1950s Britain had followed on from the imperial Britain of a century earlier. Britain in 1800 or 1850 had been much like Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, where the rich and the poor lived side by side, the one in palatial country houses, the other in rickety slums. In the Britain of 1850 there had been a rich aristocracy and an entrepreneurial middle class and the urban poor who had come to London or Manchester or Liverpool for the exact same reasons they arrived in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
And the Britain of 2007 was a Britain that had followed on from the Britain of 1950. Over a century or so, between 1900 and 2000, the power that had been concentrated in the hands of the rich British aristocracy and entrepreneurial middle class instead became concentrated in the hands of a state bureaucracy which had itself become a new aristocracy, as tyrannical as in any previous era. In a century privately-owned power has been exchanged for publicly-owned power. And the result is just as oppressive. Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of too much power being concentrated in too few unaccountable and unresponsive hands.
And the Left-Right pendulum swing is perhaps simply the swing from private to public and back. At one extreme of the (rightward) swing, all power is highly concentrated in private hands, perhaps even a single man (e.g. Louis XIV of France), and a century later at the other end of the (leftward) swing it is concentrated in the hands of the public, and perhaps even a single man (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte). The Britain of the 1950s marked the mid-point of the swing, when there was neither a concentration of private nor public wealth and power, and hence very little oppression. But power and wealth were at that time passing from private to public hands, and 50 years onwards it has become highly concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable and unresponsive new aristocracy, and therefore become oppressive. And the backswing is now beginning.
And the same seems to be true across the whole of the western world. The presidency of Barack Obama seems to have been one of unaccountable public power (Congress has been a rubber stamp), and the presidency of Hillary Clinton (a woman with a monstrous sense of entitlement) looks set to be even more unaccountable and crooked and corrupt. Donald Trump, by contrast, is an entrepreneur with considerable private wealth, and a Trump presidency would see the beginnings of a swing from public back to private.
At the extremes of the Left-Right swings (which are mirror images of each other), autocrats or dictators are thrown up. It’s not impossible that the imperial EU and USA may yet produce dictators. But at present it would seem that, having expanded to 28 members, the overlarge, over-bureaucratic, over-regulatory EU is set to either contract or disintegrate.
One might also suggest that in Russia (or as it was then, the Soviet Union) the extreme of unaccountable public state power was achieved under Joseph Stalin, and a century later it has swung back to the private ownership of an oligarchy, perhaps under the control of a single man, Vladimir Putin. A century ago, the USA was privately owned, and the Soviet Union publicly owned. But now more or less the converse is true.