I recently read one of those stories that offers up so many lessons that it is difficult not to be enlightened by it. In one comedic report, it summed up New Labour’s obsession with regulation and control, and its fear of creativity and the unorthodox.
Liam Byrne likes his day just so. Espresso at 3pm, thoughts in grid form – "Moving something from a grid slot is a very, very big deal" – and explanations kept to 60 seconds (no word on whether he wants his explanations in puppet form or by way of football analogies). In the (2006, when he was a junior minister) paper, entitled "Working with Liam Byrne", he spends 11 pages detailing how he is to be treated, as if he were a basic material, like a thick plank of wood. This might be forgivable if he were an eccentric genius, but he is not that or even a regular genius. He is an average man of average effect who is desperate to lord above other men. Seeing that he could not do this over his own cabinet, lest the Opposition, he plays Little Caesar to the only people he can: his civil servants, who were assigned to him.
This story would merely be laughable if it did not epitomise the ethos of New Labour. This is a government mesmerized by tax, regulation, detention, and above all, control. And right now, both the Government and Britain is trapped in a downward spiral of doublethink. New Labour knows that there is no regulation-and-repression related problem that cannot be solved with more regulation and repression. If tax receipts are higher, it is a sign that higher taxes are working and should be extended. If they get Laffered and take in less tax, it is merely a sign that their tax hikes have not gone far enough. Keynes, never my favourite economist but easily the most quotable, summed this up nicely when he said "When someone convinces me I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Most people would also answer that they change their mind. New Labour just stands there with a stupid look on their face, and, when unable to come up with an answer, sends Andrew Marr to come up with something that sounds like one.
This is not just an affront to logic; it is an affront to Britain. Scan any list of the greatest Britons and you will not find many Liam Byrnes. What you will find is a collection of oddballs bordering on freaks. Isambard Kingdom Brunel might best be remembered for his bridges and the Great Western Railway, but was rarely seen without a smoking apparatus, invented the Bar (not the establishment, but the piece of furniture used in such establishments), and was known to inhale gold sovereign coins. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was a philanderer of small stature who repeatedly disobeyed direct orders in order to deal Britain’s enemies a string of naval upsets rivalled only by Francis Drake. Closer to our time, Francis Crick revolutionised genetics when he tripped out on LSD and conceptualized the double helix.
The greatest Briton by at least one survey was Sir Winston Churchill,
and you will not find any disagreement here. He was not merely
successful, he was the poster boy for the rebellious yet brilliant
Briton. Having smoked opium in college (and continued to smoke pretty
much everything else), he was daring, disobedient, and usually drunk
(he reportedly drank a half bottle of whisky every morning. This is
disputed, however, by those who believe he drank the full bottle). But
when called upon to do his duty he was able to employ his mind in the
most unorthodox ways possible, using barrage balloons, bouncing bombs,
and sheer force of will. And while the result was the defeat of the
greatest military machine ever deployed, it is certain that today he
would not be let anywhere near a Labour cabinet. He would probably be
ejected from a Labour rally.
Britain ought to be well placed to use these traits to deal with modern
world challenges. Al-Qaeda is not merely a military threat but an
ideological one with which military defeat will not suffice. Climate
change is not a current problem but a forward-looking one that requires
an unconventional approach. New Labour believes it can stop climate
change via marginal taxes on various forms of emissions. But this will
not solve a world problem, so long dirty energy remains the cheapest
world source. The answer might draw on British ingenuity with regard
to stuff that was weird but worked anyway- by creating a better,
cheaper source of power, you defeat dirty energy simply by making it
And this is why New Labour’s crusade against alcohol, tobacco,
prostitution and the like is misguided. It is not that any of these
vices are inherently good. It is that in the long and even medium
term, they are irrelevant. Creativity and the freedom to act on that
creativity is the only way that humanity progresses. And while Britain
has these traits in spades, New Labour is in danger of stamping them
I am quite confident that in a hundred years the statues of Nelson and
Churchill will still be there, and I am equally confident that there
will not be one of Jacqui Smith. But I know for a fact that there will
be no statue honouring Liam Byrne.