Brian Monteith is a former Conservative MSP whose new book, The Bully State: The End of Tolerance was recently published by The Free Society and is available to buy via Amazon.
Recently I had a book published, my second in fact. Now there’s nothing especially remarkable about this except for the different reaction the two books have elicited from readers. Both books are political. The first looks at how our overweening government takes too much of our hard-earned money while the second considers how politicians have given up on the nanny state and have created a more malevolent and malicious bully state instead.
The first book by definition, being limited to Scottish political economy and declaring the moral case for lower taxes there, spoke to a relatively small market. It would be fair to say that its reach beyond natural conservatives and liberals of the old Joe Grimond school was fairly limited. While its arguments are still relevant to today’s economic and constitutional questions most people that liked it were already in the same camp as me.
Not so with my latest offering The Bully State: The End of Tolerance. It is provoking an entirely different reaction. I am receiving some very nice compliments from people who are not, and in many cases have never been, Conservative supporters. It is the mothers and spouses of friends, the politically uninterested, the work acquaintances that don’t care to talk politics who are sending texts saying they are my number one fan (how scary and embarrassing at the same time), or how can they order a dozen copies for Christmas presents (go to Amazon!) or that I would make a better First Minister than the present incumbent (flattering, but Scotland’s more likely to qualify for a World Cup!).
I don’t reveal any of this to hype myself up. I now work in Trinidad and have no political ambitions other than to continue arguing for the open society I believe in. I raise the point that non-conservatives are agreeing with what I’ve written simply to illustrate what I think is a gaping void in the Conservative strategy for the next general election, the silence on what will be done about the overbearing politically correct bully state.
Post-war welfarism has slowly smudged the edges between freedom and liberty. With governments having a financial interest in our lifestyle choices it was only a matter of time before nanny’s wagging finger would be replaced by on-the-spot fines, children being taken into care and CCTV inside peoples’ homes. It used to be enough to try and alter people’s behaviour. Governments would tell the public what was good for them and admonish people for making the ‘wrong’ choices. But we ignored them. Despite knowing that we are all mortal and that many of the pleasures of life, if taken in excess or even at all, are likely to lead to our premature death, we kept smoking, drinking, eating and relaxing in all the ‘wrong’ ways.
A day does not pass when a new piece of political correctness in schools, nannying instruction from health boards, bullying behaviour from our council officials and further new laws to give entry into our homes and limit our freedom and liberties is enacted – so much so that the job description has been changed from nannying to bullying.
At the recent Manchester Conservative conference David Cameron made it clear that, once Prime Minister, he would tackle “Big Government” – a section of his speech that was particularly well received in the hall and by the media. I believe Cameron is pushing at an open door here.
The media in particular never stop ridiculing the latest daft rule introduced by bureaucrats – such as removing Marmite from school breakfast clubs because of alarmist fears about salt content – or banning texting on phones when crossing the road to prevent accidents. The Daily Mail, Sun and Express, three papers with a large proportion of Labour readers, know what people want to read and are especially vociferous in exposing and opposing the bully state.
The question remains though – just how will a Cameron government tackle big government? It is not enough to say that overbearing inspectors, prying officials, quality assurance jobsworths and the like will be given their P45s without repealing the screeds of legislation that have brought them into being. I’ve heard it said that thousands of faceless bureaucrats will go, but I’ve yet to hear which of the laws that created them will be abolished.
In fact Conservatives often voice their own ideas about what government can next do in our own best interest such as introducing minimum prices on alcohol and giving more power to the Chief Medical Officer – who is responsible for starting many of the health-based “it’s for your own good” bans and restrictions. And then there’s the idea of just giving a “nudge” – also known as an elbow, push or shove – if you are on the receiving end.
The answer is for a Conservative government to return responsibility for health to the individual by allowing us to make informed choices for ourselves – and adopting the localist agenda where decisions are taken at the lowest possible level rather than by centralised ministries or unaccountable quangos. It can pay electoral dividends. Last year in the New Zealand general election the outrage at the incumbent Labour government’s proposal to restrict shower flow rates caught the public imagination and summed up all that was wrong with an arrogant and petty-minded elite. They were given a cold bath.
Cameron has pledged to stop and demolish Labour’s plans for identity cards – but we are yet to hear if its database backbone will also be dismantled. Campaigns to save our pubs and clubs are in vogue – but where is the willingness to let them offer smoking rooms with licensed air quality standards that would help give them a financial lifeline?
Those who, like me, believe we should be free to make the wrong choices so long as we pay for them ourselves want to hear more from Cameron about how Conservatives will stop the bullying of the state and its agencies. It could be a new second front that Labour – as architects of our Bully State – would find indefensible, and Labour voters in marginal seats that still have to be won would respond with open insurrection.
My experience tells me ordinary punters are just looking for a lead. If Cameron can respond with details behind his end to big government slogan, then the bullies will be on the run.