If only Jeremy Corbyn had won

It doesn’t matter who is in government – it’s the opposition that is more needed than ever

Cast your mind back to December 2019 (or 1BC, Before Covid, as it should probably henchforth be known). The general election has been a fraught campaign between the incumbent Prime Minister Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson who came to power on the back of the toppling of Theresa May, and Jeremy Corbyn who was battling accusations of antisemitism in his own party.

Somebody comes to you from the future – they can’t tell you who wins but they can tell you what is happening a year from now.

The Treasury – they tell you that the rail services have been effectively renationalised, the UK economy has shrunk by 11.3% (the largest for 300 years), the UK has borrowed £394billion, easily a peacetime record, including a government scheme costing £43billion to pay people not to work (indeed, making it illegal for those people to work) and they’ve given a million NHS workers a pay rise.

Unions – they tell you that the teaching unions have managed to persuade the government that all schools should be closed and children are to be taught remotely.

They tell you that everyone is confined by law to their own homes with minimal, strict exemptions and the opposition has not only failed to oppose this, but been incredulous that it took so long to do. They tell you a close government adviser praised the “innovative intervention” of China’s Communist Party in imprisoning their population, even saying “I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March; [China is] a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.” And the government listened to this man and gave him a top table seat.

There’s a new national tradition – everyone has to come out of their homes and applaud public sector workers. The incumbent Prime Minister does it outside Number 10 – it is frowned upon to not do it.

Freedom passes‘ are coming – an official document that would be required to access the most basic services, Anthony Blair’s dream finally come to fruition, even more authoritarian than even he could have imagined. Papers, please.

Who, dear reader, do you think wins the election? The fop-haired [MASSIVE AIR QUOTES] “libertarian” [END MASSIVE AIR QUOTES] who campaigned to leave the EU or the turnip growing socialist who was frightening Jews? The man even gives you £100 to bet on it – where does the money go?

Ok sure, we’ve been sneaky here in neglecting to mention that a global pandemic struck. But ok, fine. Let’s tell them – a pandemic strikes and world leaders are panicking. Tell me with a straight face that you’d still lay a ton on De Pfeffel over Jezza.

And herein lies the problem. Johnson has paralysed the system because the way he chose to react (yes, it was a choice) to an undoubtedly scary situation was entirely against every “principle” he had ever claimed to espouse. Yet his followers, his party, those who have loved him for years, yearned for the day he would embrace his destiny and seize the keys to Number 10, can’t quite take it in. The Tory media can’t figure out how to approach the subject, MPs who love him but hate his approach to Covid have no idea how to hold him to account. They are confused, wrong-footed and nervous to try.

The man spent decades carefully building, honing and cultivating this mawkish, sickly adoration. He became a darling of the Conservatives and built up such a cultish following that, now the illusion has evaporated in plain view of anyone who cares to see it, his devotees are still staring dimly, wide eyed at the small, helpless Wizard of Oz, exposed as nothing more than a carnival showman with silly hair.

Still today, opinion pieces in the Telegraph and the Spectator pine for the ‘Old Boris‘, clamour for him to realise his mythical, non-existent ‘Churchillian spirit‘. It’s as pitiful as watching latter day Branch Davidians hold on to the myth of their founder.

Imagine – imagine – it was Corbyn in Number 10 and McDonnell in Number 11. Imagine the ferocity of the Tory benches. We’d actually have an opposition, which frankly is a damn sight more important at the moment than the resident of the seat of power.

It’s perfectly clear now that the government, of whichever stripe had been selected to lead the country, would have done exactly the same thing, give or take a few hundreds of billions of pounds (who can really take in these vast numbers any more?). What matters is how they are held to account and how they are opposed. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party has been supine, acquiescent at every turn, nay even demanding the government to go harder, faster, deeper. “What he said, but better” is the rallying cry of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition Leader.

The only opposition, once again, is a small sect of the Tory benches, just like on Brexit. This is simply not healthy. The government benches are supposed to back the government, the opposition benches are supposed to oppose. Like it or not, that’s the system and it’s breaking down. Every institution that is supposed to act as a brake on power has failed us – the opposition, Parliament itself, the media, the courts, every restraint on power currently lies slack while the proverbial bull trashes the – irony of ironies – China shop.

I have no love for Jeremy Corbyn. Any time Jewish people speak up and say they’re frightened is usually a good time to be very careful indeed. In that regard it was with a sense of huge relief that he got nowhere near power. But look what we have now. An authoritarian government and no opposition. Even if you believe everything the government has done has been right, even if they chose the right way to deal with this, no power should ever go this unchecked in a democracy. Ever. There is no excuse.

We will pay for this fealty for decades.

Libertarianism: attractive, but ultimately flawed – Part 1

It is not without merits, but the pragmatist in me can’t see it working in practice

Libertarianism – it’s an ideology that has its merits. It’s one of those things that I love in theory, but know I’d be disappointed with in practice. A good dose of small state with a great dollop of trusting people to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. What could be more conducive to a happy, healthy and free society?

Well then, let’s have a brief look at Libertarianism. It is defined on Wikipedia as seeking to “maximise political freedom and autonomy, emphasise freedom of choice, voluntary association, and individual judgement” Libertarians “believe in individual rights and share a scepticism of authority and state power”.

All of which sounds great. But the key words for me are ‘maximise’ and ‘scepticism’. This implies to me that we cannot have complete political freedom or autonomy, nor can we totally dismiss the role of the state. So, whilst I would generally align myself with these stated aims, it becomes a matter of where along those axes you draw the line. And, if I may borrow and adjust a quote from Joey, to most pure Libertarians, ‘you can’t even see my line – my line is a dot to you.’

The state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so

I tend to believe that the state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so. ‘Very good reason’ is the space in which the conversation needs to happen. One person’s good reason is another person’s tyranny.

Strident Libertarians would have it that laws such as the smoking ban or the recent legislation limiting Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are outrageous interferences in the liberty of the inhabitants of Great Britain. The principles of small state limited government, freedom of choice and autonomy of the person would dictate that these laws are grotesque and not required in a society that ought to allow its citizens to smoke and gamble as much or as little as they please. And yet most of us can see the good reasons for these laws.

Taking the smoking ban for a start, if we were to strictly adhere to the Libertarian ideal, people ought to be able to smoke whenever and wherever they like. But it is perfectly clear that doing this doesn’t just affect them. I won’t go through the ins and outs of the effects (or lack thereof) of passive smoking, because that’s only part of the point. Suffice to say that restaurants, bus stops and Anfield stadium have become much more tolerable places to breathe since the ban. But then, as a non-smoker, I would say that.

I’m not in the least saying that people shouldn’t smoke. That is absolutely for each individual to decide for themselves. I also think the ban is starting to go too far and is unnecessarily embarrassing and shaming people who do smoke. The images on the packaging are quite intolerable (yes, I know that is the point) and the prices artificially ridiculous due to tax pressure. These things always affect the poor the most, and this should be taken into account when forcing such laws through Parliament.

But this is where the conversation happens. I can’t imagine a situation where pure ideology makes you either for the complete banning of cigarettes, which are in mass use, or for the complete and untrammelled freedom to infringe on everyone else’s space with your choices. So we need to discuss where the line is.

Let’s take the other example mentioned – the reduction in the amount any person can gamble on a FOBT has been reduced from £100 to £2. That may sound draconian, until you realise this amount of money is the stake that you can wager every twenty seconds. These machines, wherever they are, can suck up thousands and thousands of pounds.

The passing of this law prompted the Spectator columnist, editor of Spiked and staunch libertarian, Brendan O’Neill to complain that the ‘snobs had won‘ the battle over FOBTs. Now I don’t mind Brendan – sometimes he speaks complete sense, other times absolute wham. This feels much more like the latter.

What I do like about him is that he defends the working classes, the poor and the Northern against the horrible caricatures that can so often be painted in national media. He hates paternalism and nanny state-ism, as do I to a large extent.

The state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain…

But taking some lines from his piece, it feels much more like ideology than practical politics.

“I know people who frequent betting shops, mainly to bet on horses, and they will occasionally spend 10 or 20 quid on an FOBT if they’re bored. I expect that’s how the majority of FOBT-users engage with these machines.”

Great – then they won’t be affected by this then will they? They can still gamble their 10 or 20 quid. And the majority of users, I’m sure, do just use them for this purpose. But what about the minority who don’t? I’m not going to get into ‘addiction’ and what that word actually means in theory or practice, but the simple fact is that people can and do sit at these machines and watch their money disappear at a ferocious speed.

“A few years ago the Guardian sent a reporter to Slough — you know things are bad when the Guardian is willing to enter Slough — to investigate FOBTs. She watched in horror as people’s ‘£20 notes disappeared into them’. Yeah, well, I’ve watched in horror as impeccably middle-class people have queued for hours to get into some hip new restaurant and proceeded to spend £40 on glorified hotdogs and dirty chips. We all do stupid things with our money.”

Apart from the nice little dig at the Guardian, which seems to me to be an accurate summation of Guardian attitudes, the difference here is surely obvious? Endless £20 notes going into a machine (which, remember, can take £100 every twenty seconds) is not the same as a very silly (but probably well off) person overpaying for poncey food.

He writes well and much of this piece is persuasive. Whilst I back the legislation, I often recoil at the tone in which the topic is discussed. I agree that the state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain. All the same, I think restricting the amount you can put into these machines isn’t really harming anyone expect the gambling industry – you can still use the machine, you can still see the flashing lights and the spinning wheels, if that’s your thing. You’re just losing less each time.

The other big aspect of Libertarianism – an unshakeable faith in the power of the market no matter what – is something that is attractive, but not without its faults. I’ll come back to this in Part 2.

I’m all for reducing the power and influence of the state. It is too often creeping into our lives where it isn’t needed or welcome and it treats far too many people like they need to be saved and looked after. But it has its place.

The theory of Libertarianism is exactly how I would love the world to be. Alas, the world wouldn’t work like this in practice. It’s a shame, but we have to be pragmatic about these things.

If only hardcore Socialists took the same view…

An open question – what are the alternatives to ‘Left’ and ‘Right’?

Are we still accurately describing the split of opinion?

I currently exist in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Actually, that might be too strong. It’s not quite that bad, but I do find myself in the situation of simultaneously thinking that the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are entirely outdated and unusable, yet the only terms that best describe the two general political wings.

I hate using them, and yet I have used them liberally (no pun er…well…) throughout my contributions to Off the Party Line. Given the deadlines I give myself, I’ve had to write quickly and in short bursts, giving me little time at all to reason properly about this. Given that many of my recent topics have centred (eh? Centered? As in…never mind…) around addressing problems between the two perceived wings and how they come across to the other, it’s been difficult to avoid. I’ve used them about 30 times, at a conservative estimate (YES THIS SENTENCE WAS ADDED JUST TO MAKE THAT JOKE COMPLETE, COME AT ME).

But then, even if I did come to some miraculously accurate conclusion of terms that could be applied, it would be my revelation and mine only. Nobody else would know what I was talking about. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are the terms that most people generally understand and accept.

The terms were discussed broadly here, Left being generally understood as liberal, pro-gay rights, anti-monarchy, Labour/Democrat and the rest, with the Right being more conservative, traditional marriage advocates, stern punishment of crime, Tory/Republican etc. But these broad categories seem to have more and more diversion among them than before, perhaps because of the nature of recent elections and votes. Conservatives seem less conservative, and liberals are certainly less liberal.

There’s the oft talked about libertarian/authoritarian axis which cuts across the traditional spectrum and could apply broadly, but this again seems messy.

Often, attempts to bridge the gap just ends up with ad hominem abuse or epithets, neither of which are very helpful or pleasant. On one end, you’ll have the ‘Regressive Left’, on the other, you’ll have ‘Racists and Bigots’. Or you’ll get ‘Remoaners’ on one side and ‘Racists and Bigots’ on the other. Perhaps you’ll even hear one side described as ‘SJWs’ (Social Justice Warriors), with the other described as ‘Racists and Bigots’.

I think we know which side is the more imaginative…

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for casting off the labels and being interesting. That’s the whole point of Off the Party Line after all. There’s nothing more fascinating than a staunch lefty advocating for the monarchy, or a Tory wanting to nationalise the railways. But we’re simply not in a place where those things are common enough to discuss succinctly.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I’m open to your views. Any ideas on how we can best navigate this? I’ll take anything that means I don’t have to use ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ any more. They are outdated – but what can replace them?