Rishi Sunak’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference this week was a telling moment for so many reasons. While he seemed to offer a return to ‘sensible’ conservative economic management by announcing that tough decisions would be necessary in upcoming months, in only 10 minutes he managed to reveal the arrogance and entitlement that has burrowed into the heart of ‘conservative’ thought and rotted it completely from within. Ostensibly the chancellor is the man of rational thinking and hard-choices, underneath he and the Tories are simply the party of rhetorical assertions and self-congratulation.
Sunak’s attitude is clear from this section of his speech, in which he said:
‘We have a sacred responsibility to future generations to leave the public finances strong, and through careful management of our economy, this Conservative government will always balance the books. If instead we argue there is no limit on what we can spend, that we can simply borrow our way out of any hole, what is the point in us?’
The arrogance on display here is extraordinary. It is an strikingly elitist statement from a man who honestly thinks, ‘I know what the right thing to do is, and I have the God-given right to do it.’ This is not a man who should be trusted with power, neither should his party. Anyone who tells you that he has a ‘sacred duty’ to manage a nation’s wealth or honestly believes that he should always have a place in government to do so should be kept well away from public office.
Again, over this we have seen a remarkable failure of the journalism industry that is utterly unacceptable. Matthew Parris, who is by all accounts a BBC-supporting centre-left columnist, wrote an excellent article in the Times on Saturday about how people who listened exclusively to the BBC would have no idea that there was a scientific debate over the government’s measures, and how the leading broadcasters have basically acted as a mouthpiece for whatever the government has to say. For example, Laura Kuenssberg or Robert Peston saying ‘well, minister, you promised x-many tests last week but you only delivered half that’ is simply not critical journalism. You must scrutinise the policy itself as well as its enactment, and this is not being done to a satisfactory extent.
Similarly, if a Conservative government started preaching to the country not just of its fiscal responsibility but also its ethical and moral duty to manage the nation’s finances they would be met with ridicule and outrage. Instead, the consensus seems to have been to cut the Tories all the slack they like, pointing to ‘how difficult the situation is’ or ‘the courage and generosity’ of things like the furlough scheme, and to Sunak’s ‘maturity’ in acknowledging that difficult decisions will have to be made. We seem to have forgotten that it’s not our job to cut the people who claim the right to rule us any slack, it’s to criticise them relentlessly.
The 1996 work of great American Economist Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, has never seemed more relevant. In this, and other works, the author delivers a devastating critique of the way politics has come to be conducted. He contrasts what he calls the unconstrained and the constrained visions, which in political terms should generally be identifiable with the political left and right, or perhaps with radical politicians and sensible ones, to avoid a left-right distinction. A man who subscribes to the unconstrained vision considers himself the ‘anointed’ – he sees problems in the world and considers it his sacred duty to fix them, and believes that if he only gathers enough power to enact his goals then he can save us all. Those of the constrained vision, which conservatives should be, know this to be false. They understand that there is no individual, or group of people, who through sheer intellectual power know what the law should be or how everything should be managed. They work through trial and error, tentatively trying something here and something there, measuring the results of their policy empirically and going from there, wary both of too much power and of those who seek it. They work cautiously because they know that even with good intentions, and probably because of good intentions, politicians can do tremendous damage.
The anointed on the other hand are convinced of their own brilliance, and hear nothing to tell them otherwise. They don’t need results and evidence, all they need is rhetorical assertions and the approval of their fellow elites. There is no incentive to actually measure results because they can keep getting re-elected without worrying about such trivial matters – and we let them off the hook.
Whether or not you’re convinced by Sowell’s particular brand of conservative-libertarianism, his defence of the constrained vision tells you something else that’s crucial. There are no solutions in politics, there are only trade-offs. Everything is compromise. You can make something a little bit better by making something else a little bit worse. Occasionally you get lucky and make something a lot better by only making something else a little bit worse; more often than not, however, you make something a little bit better by making something else a lot worse.
In terms of the current situation in Britain, you can try to save some lives from coronavirus – and it is not at all clear that you will succeed (in terms of recent policy Manchester saw a 15-fold increase in cases after the local lockdown was imposed) – and in doing so you will do enormous damage to people both in terms of their health because of other ailments that your policy will either cause and exacerbate and in terms of the economy which you will devastate, in time inflicting vast damage on practically every sphere of society. You cannot solve both issues simultaneously. You cannot siphon off resources in order to ‘fight’ the virus, without expecting losses elsewhere, and you have to count these losses and ask whether it was worth it and adjust your policy accordingly. Lockdown policy has triggered enormous cultural and economic change and sufficient justification for these changes has not been satisfactorily given.
If the Conservatives are the party of sensible management, as they claim, then let us ask whether they have taken the time to do their sums. Have they compared the deaths from corona to the increases in deaths from other diseases, or the projected damage from missed cancer-treatments, or have they considered, only considered mind you, the possibility that lockdown policy may have saved virtually no lives from corona while directly causing deaths, such as those from the increases in suicide and domestic violence? Have they taken note that flu and pneumonia have regularly killed 10 times more people than corona in recent weeks?
If you are going to cause death and sickness (which the Tories have done – for comparison see this for the damage potentially done by austerity) then you better have damn-good, irrefutable, evidence that you saved a great deal more lives in the process, (which they simply do not). The government has done no empirical checking of whether their policies did the things they said they would, or if they have, have not made this information accessible in a transparent manner. When Sunak states that the economy is going through ‘changes as a result of the coronavirus that cannot be ignored’ instead of ‘as a result of the government’s response to coronavirus he is blithely asserting a) that not only did his government do everything that was needed to combat the virus and that these measures were in fact necessary b) that they fought the virus perfectly, as if that were even possible, and c) that while doing so did they the best possible job in maintaining the strength of the economy, such that all damage to the economy is only from the virus (as if a virus can harm an economy) and they are responsible for none of it. They have no leg to stand on with regard to any of these assumptions, and they must accept responsibility and admit failure – obviously, they are politicians only interested in re-election and this will never happen.
The so-called ‘Conservative’ party, then, is nothing of the sort; it’s simply not interested in politics or principle. As Peter Hitchens says, ‘the Tories would guillotine the Queen in Trafalgar Square if it believed that would guarantee its re-election.’ Their party is nothing more than a mechanism to guarantee office for the sons of gentlemen.
Consequently, they have no interest in either evidence or self-criticism. Instead they take the path of self-congratulation, referring to polls that show the public demand ‘that more be done’, or to the fact that 51 percent of the 16,000 cases that were omitted over the weekend had been contacted for tracing purposes, which still leaves 49 that weren’t of course. They have abandoned their traditional position, in fact they abandoned it long ago, and have subscribed entirely to the vision of the anointed.
Our government comprises of people who have never really run anything, who have accomplished nothing but the advancement of their own careers, and who have throughout all their lives simply been told how wonderfully clever they are, assured by the prestige of their degrees (PPE really does have a lot to answer for). They steadfastly consider themselves the anointed, and as such demand the right for themselves to run our lives, unafflicted as the rest of us are by those terrible vices: self-doubt and humility.