You can take a boy out of Trotskyism…

SmokestackIf this is what conservatives are writing, perhaps I should reverse a lifelong phobia and sully my hands with a copy of The Guardian (a note to my American readers: The Guardian is like The New York Times minus the solvency).

Then again, Peter Hitchens isn’t like any old conservative columnist. A former Trotskyist, he often gives the impression of trying to shoehorn a contrived form of conservatism into his heart.

Sometimes it works, but at times the heart rejects the implant, for example when Hitchens goes all weak-kneed over Putin’s kleptofascist state.

Sure enough, in his today’s Mail blog, Hitchens mentions in passing that the West is so overcome with its ill-advised hatred of Russia that it doesn’t seem to mind ISIS very much, an assertion so bizarre that it falls into the realm of psychiatry, not political analysis.

But the main thrust of his today’s offering is economics. Hitchens’s eagle eye espied that Britain’s economy today doesn’t closely resemble that of the Soviet Union during the early stages of its industrialisation, nor indeed that of Victorian England.

As a result, the columnist suffers an acute fit of nostalgia for nationalisation, though not yet, at least not expressly, Five-Year Plans, slave labour and concentration camps.

Our nationalised industries worked so much better than today’s privatised ones do, laments Hitchens, an assertion that screams for factual proof. This he attempts to provide by citing British Telecom:

“I think anyone who has ever tried to contact BT when things go wrong would now happily go back to the days of nationalisation. Soviet-style slowness was bad, but surely better than total indifference.”

The man is bonkers, God bless his cotton socks. There’s not a sane word in this paragraph, and the only discernible emotion is a repressed craving for anything Soviet-style.

In addition to the vastly improved quality and speed of service, Hitchens should compare his today’s phone bills with those of 30-odd years ago. In those days, I – and I’m sure he – paid hundreds of pounds every quarter for international calls, those that today cost next to nothing.

Of course BT isn’t ideal, and of course one can complain about its being impersonal, but preferring the antediluvian ‘Soviet-style’ nationalised service attached to the Post Office? One has to be clinically mad.

Another thing Hitchens misses badly is a landscape richly adorned by smokestacks, each spewing fumes and driving thousands to a premature death from pulmonary disorders. He doesn’t mention the coal pits of yesteryear, black lung and all, but I bet he misses them too – as I suspect he does Victorian workhouses.

This is how he waxes nostalgic: “A journey across the heart of England, once an exhilarating vista of muscular manufacturing, especially glorious by night, turned into archaeology.”

An aesthetic preference is expressed here, and de gustibus… and all that. But one also detects a Marxist belief in the inherent moral goodness of manufacturing, as opposed to the evil of financial services.

Using this creed as the starting point, Hitchens then attacks the very idea of a free-market economy, the only one, may one add parenthetically, that has ever been able to deliver wide-spread prosperity.

He manfully admits to the mistake of buying the capitalist canard in the past: “I am so sorry now that I fell for the great Thatcher-Reagan promise… I believed all that stuff about privatisation and free trade and the unrestrained market.”

A resounding mea culpa, but at least now Hitchens has seen the light, or rather has seen it again, shining out of a nationalised economy run by the state. For others the light is rather dimmed by the sustained record of abysmal failure everywhere this perversion has been tried in earnest, including the UK.

An optimal ratio of service, financial and manufacturing sectors is a serious issue meriting serious discussion. But crypto-Trotskyist romantic rants don’t qualify as such.

There’s nothing wrong with “privatisation and free trade and the unrestrained market”. The more of those, the better – to this notion there are no known exceptions. The problem is, this remains as idealistic as Hitchens’s craving for a benign version of slave economy.

In Britain today, the government controls 50 per cent of the economy directly and more indirectly – there goes privatisation. Our free trade is crippled by regulations, most of those coming courtesy of the EU. Our markets are very much ‘restrained’, nay suffocated, by red tape, much of which has the same cross-Channel provenance.

The problem with the “great Thatcher-Reagan promise” is that it was mostly talk. Only a few good things were done (privatising BT emphatically one of them), many couldn’t be done because of the rearguard fight put up by the socialists, many were attempted but not done well.

Specifically, the transition from an economy in which manufacturing accounted for almost 50 per cent of GDP to one in which it makes up only 14 per cent should have been handled with more tact and less speed.

But to use the failures of some inchoate attempts at freeing up the economy, while ignoring the successes, is disingenuous. And Hitchens’s craving for ‘Soviet-style’ nationalisation as a viable remedy ought to be examined by competent psychiatrists.

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