Admittedly, I can’t think of many sensible ideas coming from any other than the Conservative Party during my lifetime. However, numerous examples of inane ideas generated by that party aren’t hard to find.
It has all been a bit hit and miss, mostly miss. And even if you contest the ‘mostly miss’ part, it’s hard to argue against the proposition in the title: Tory doesn’t always mean good.
However, it does always mean Tory. Yet Boris Johnson’s grandiose plans make one doubt that lexical relationship.
In a way one can understand his motives. One can’t be a statesman in the absence of power. And, in a parliamentary democracy, power can only be acquired and maintained by deploying a full arsenal of political weapons.
Hence, even assuming generously that the PM is a statesman in the making, he has to find a workable balance between his statesmanship instincts and the rough-and-tumble of political life.
Boris Johnson may or may not be a statesman; it’s too early to tell. But there’s no denying he’s a politician, and some of his political steps contradict the concept of a statesman, certainly a Tory one.
As a politician, Mr Johnson feels called upon to reward the traditional Labour areas in the north of England for voting Tory. That intention doesn’t bother me; the mooted methods do.
The government has come up with the term ‘levelling up’, making every pair of Tory eyebrows go up. Real Tories are suspicious of the word ‘levelling’, and scathing when it’s followed by ‘up’. For large-scale state programmes only ever succeed in levelling down, not up.
In any case, it takes two to level: levelling implies catching up. Hence, even if one party to it grows richer, it’ll only achieve parity if the other party grows poorer or at least stagnates.
That, however, may be just a matter of sloganeering semantics. Mr Johnson may simply mean he’d like to inject new energy into the economies of the northern counties, hit hard by the arrival of the post-industrial age.
That’s a worthy goal. Yet its worthiness may be compromised and even obliterated by the methods chosen to achieve it.
Mr Johnson seems to favour regeneration through giant infrastructure programmes financed out of the public purse. Since that container can only be replenished by either taxes or borrowing, and since the PM seems to dislike the latter, taxes will have to go up.
In fact, considering the amounts involved, they’d have to rise way beyond the presently mooted ‘mansion tax’ and reductions in pension tax relief. The recently approved HS2 alone will cost £150 billion (in reality, probably more), which is a steep price to pay for shaving an hour off the journey from London to Manchester.
All this should be worrying to Mr Johnson, a student of history. One wonders, however, if he has studied modern times as deeply as Hellenic periods.
If he had, he ought to know that all this has been tried and found wanting. The two politicians involved both came to power in 1933 and, though Roosevelt and Hitler differed in many essential respects, their approach to the economy was startlingly similar.
Both had depressed economies to contend with, and both chose the socialist way of dealing with the problem. Both achieved an immediate success, but it was short-lived.
Leaving Hitler out of it for the time being, the New Deal did provide some temporary relief. All those publicly financed construction projects relieved unemployment, or so it seemed.
Roosevelt, waving the megalomaniac Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in one hand and the National Relief Administration (NRA) in the other, rode in on his white steed and saved the day. At least that’s what many thought.
They were wrong though. After Roosevelt’s hasty and ill-advised measures had run out of steam, trouble came back in force.
By 1938 unemployment was again nearing 20 per cent, recession returned, and suddenly it became clear that the depression hadn’t really gone away. It had merely been camouflaged.
Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, admitted as much: “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I say after eight years of this administration, we have just as much unemployment as when we started… And an enormous debt to boot!”
America’s economy was saved by the war, while Germany’s was destroyed by it. That distorted the results of the economic experiments both countries had tried in the 1930s.
Yet, operating in that notoriously suspect subjunctive mood, one can be sure that, but for the war, both economies would have failed. Certainly when the time came to rebuild the Federal Republic, Erhard and Adenauer chose a distinctly non-socialist path, which proved spectacularly successful.
History is a useful but not infallible teacher, and analogies can’t be allowed to go too far. Yet some lessons must be drawn.
Mr Johnson hasn’t inherited a depressed economy, but there are some tectonic tremors capable of producing an earthquake. Most of them deal with excessive taxation, spending and public debt – the same problems that produced the 2008 crisis.
Experience shows that such problems can’t be alleviated, nor a crisis preempted, by higher taxation, more promiscuous spending and greater debt. Yet this is what Mr Johnson seems to have in mind.
None of this is necessary to improve the economy of the North. The government has at its disposal many economic weapons known not to backfire.
It could turn the North into a haven for investment and free enterprise by offering companies – especially manufacturing concerns – tax and financing incentives to operate in the region. Off the top, lowering the corporate tax to, say, 10 per cent or even suspending it altogether for a few years could work miracles.
Whatever the Exchequer would lose in immediate revenue would come back ten-fold as the tax base expands. This isn’t speculation but a simple reference to the great success stories provided by low-tax economies everywhere, including Britain.
Tight money, fiscal responsibility, stimuli to private initiative, encouragement to hard work and thrift – these are essential parts of Toryism. Throwing public money at a problem is the socialist way, and it spells disaster, certainly in the long term.
No, Tory isn’t always a synonym for good. But in this area they overlap, and Mr Johnson could do worse than remember it.