Perhaps the most compelling service which The Rotten State of Britain can offer American readers is that it provides a tell-all diary of the reign of the Labour Party and how each of its glowing policy concepts and promises eventually ended up as heaps of ash.
If we could add an American subtitle, it would be: “Don’t Let This Happen To You.” The author of the book, Eamonn Butler, director of the highly respected Adam Smith Institute, sat down with HUMAN EVENTS for an exclusive interview recently in London. Here is what he had to say about the rotten tale he penned for political posterity. He began by explaining how the Institute evolved.
“When Madsen Pirie, my brother, Stuart, and I were at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in the early 1970’s, Britain was going to the dogs. Trade unions ran everything. The government asked the Trade Unions what to do and they did it. Everybody thought that Britain was going to be more like Eastern Europe — as it then was — rather than Western Europe. Indications were that Britain was going to turn into a socialist country. With a capital S.”
“Like many other people, we joined the brain drain and went over to America. Madsen worked with Ed Feulner (of the Heritage Foundation) on Capitol Hill, then taught at Hillsdale College. My brother Stuart also taught at Hillsdale, and I followed them (working for the House of Representatives). Each of us thought that we would live in America, enjoy La Dolce Vita and the Almighty dollar, and save ourselves from all the squalor that was going on in Britain. But at the same time, this was our home and we felt we owed it something. We began to see that — in America — there were all sorts of ideas which we had been told were impossible — like competition in the telephone industry. As an economics student, I was taught that the telephone industry was a natural monopoly. When I came to the U.S. and was asked, “Which network do you want to use to make a call?,” I had no idea. I said: I’m sorry. I’m not used to choice. We don’t have it in Britain.”
“On the other hand, we would hear people like Senator Edward Kennedy telling everyone that America needed a National Health Service and how wonderful it was in Britain. I wanted to shout out, “No it’s not! We have queues. We have to wait two years for certain treatments.’”
“We saw that there was important work to do in taking ideas in either direction across the Atlantic. We came back to London and subsequently joined forces to start The Adam Smith Institute. We rented a room and began building the Institute from the ground up.”
“As it happened, I returned in 1978. It was the ‘Winter Of Our Discontent.’ There was rubbish in the streets and rats in Trafalgar Square. You were awakened by the government-run BBC on the clock radio. Then you boiled your state-licensed egg in a pot of government provided water with state-owned gas. You took your children to school in a car produced by a state-owned factory or took a government-controlled bus. If you needed cash, you went to your state-owned bank. Everything was done by government employees. The nominal tax rate was 83 percent. It was all simply dreadful.”
“Then Mrs. Thatcher was elected in 1979. Once she was in office, we could see real opportunities ahead. The idea for our first publication was borrowed — with permission — from The Reason Foundation. Robert Poole had written a book called Cutting Back City Hall. It was all about how various cities (primarily in the U.S.) had contracted out their government services. We read the book and asked ourselves: Why can’t we do the same thing here? We wrote a monograph and got a school chum of ours, then a would-be politician (Michael Forsyth, who eventually rose to become Secretary of State for Scotland) to read it, suggesting he use it to develop ideas for the British government. He wrote a proposal entitled “Re-Servicing Britain.” Well, Mrs. Thatcher read his recommendations and — in an outrageous breech of copyright — printed up 20,000 copies and sent one to every politician in the land, telling them they had better get busy doing these things. Many of them did, and that was the start of contracting out local services in the U.K. My colleagues and I quickly learned that, in running a think tank, your ideas start out on the fringe of lunacy and end up becoming central policy. “
“Privatization had to be home grown, but nobody knew how to do it. Mere de-nationalization would not have worked. We had to devise a plan which recognized that every industry was different and that particular interest groups would have to be brought on board to see the benefits of restoring a free market spirit in Britain. We had to be creative in the sense that we had to explain to all the factions in society what was in it for them."
Here your correspondent must add that, considering the U.S. government’s foray into nationalizing banks and the car industry (and its desire to do the same with health care), it is comforting to know that the tide can be turned at some point. But the next chapter of British history dawned in 1997, when the Thatcher and Major governments gave way to the rise of New Labour. Here is where Butler’s book begins.
Swept into office with promises of ending Tory “sleaze,” Tony Blair announced that things could only get better with his “People’s Government” in place. And yet, Butler notes, it was not long before Blair began filling Number Ten Downing Street with unelected advisers who answered to one no but him. They were not called Czars, but the pattern is unmistakably familiar. So is every page of this chronicle. From economics — “We were promised no more boom and bust. We got both,” to the creation of the nanny state, the explosion of government debt, immigration dilemmas, the stagnation and failure of the schools, the disintegration of the National Health Service, and spiraling corruption within the bureaucracy, all is cataloged here. Butler delights in sharing his new pet neologism, “IDIOCRACY,” which he defines as “a system of government run entirely by idiots.” He regrets to observe that this system predominates on both sides of the pond these days.
On Ireland’s second vote to accept the EU Treaty, the Czech President’s decision to sign it last week after being assured it did not conflict with the Czech Constitution, and Conservative Leader (Prime Minister apparent) David Cameron’s subsequent announcement that he would not give the Britain public its promised referendum on accepting the document, Butler quips, “What did you expect? When EU treaties are negotiated, the political class of the member states all sign them, passing them through their parliaments. What they don’t do is put it to a vote of their people. Unless of course their constitution demands it, as Ireland’s does. And if they vote the wrong way, they are told that they ‘misunderstood’ the question, or some face-saving supposed concessions are agreed, and then they have to vote again until they give a ‘yes’. How undemocratic is that?”
“Ireland’s Yes vote is a direct result of the credit crunch. It has hit Ireland badly and they believe that to get jobs and the economy going again they need the EU’s help — and subsidies. They’re not going to vote against the hand that feeds them. The trouble is that in touching the EU, one also picks up a lot of other nasty diseases, like costly over-regulation in the workplace, the transfer of power abroad, and the lack of proper accountability in the decision-making process. “
The eerie part of The Rotten State is that Butler’s description of where Britain now finds itself foreshadows where the US has begun heading under the Obama Administration. One can find so many comparisons between the disastrous policies of Blair’s “New Labour” and Obama’s “Hope and Change” agenda that readers are bound to feel they are peeking at the end of a mystery novel to see who done it. Along the way, like a classic Agatha Christie detective, Butler leaves unmistakable clues as to how the wealth — and dignity — of a nation can come to a grisly end.
The Adam Smith Institute (www.adamsmith.org) is the UK’s leading innovator of free-market economic and social policies. Politically independent and non-profit, the Institute promotes its ideas through reports, briefings, events, media appearances, and its website and blog. Madsen Pirie serves as President and Eamonn Butler as Director of ASI. The Rotten State of Britain: Who Is Causing the Crisis and How To Solve It, was published by Gibson Square Books, London.