LONDON — Opinion polls continue to put the British Labour Party well ahead of other parties, and the general expectation of the political pundits is that Prime Minister Tony Blair will win yet again when the general election comes, most probably on May 5.
How can this be, when he is in such deep trouble on so many fronts, and now openly at loggerheads with his chief rival Finance Minister Gordon Brown, who is convinced he would make a better leader?
One explanation offered is that the Conservatives have not been effective enough as the day-to-day opposition. Yet, in practice, the Conservatives, led by the able lawyer Michael Howard, have been tireless in holding Labour to account and in challenging exaggerated and misleading government pronouncements. The real reason goes much deeper.
Just as in the 1970s, when the country was waiting for Margaret Thatcher to come along and challenge the prevailing, and crippling, consensus of the day — to “break the mold” — so, today, a consensus exists that has become stale and ineffective. But as long as it holds, Blair, for all the criticism he receives, will sit at the heart of it and agilely bestride the apparent center of politics and opinion. He will be dislodged only when, and if, that consensus is skillfully challenged and punctured.
Here are a few of the more radical and myth-busting views that could change the political climate as Margaret Thatcher did 25 years ago:
* Governments do not create wealth (although they can, and do, most certainly prevent its creation). Wealth generation is the role of profit-seeking and competitive businesses, large and small. Even when the government “gives” big sums away, that generosity costs officials nothing because it is the private sector’s money taken in taxes that is being handed out. Every time ministers talk about “government money,” they should be sharply rebuked. It is the people’s money; there is no other source.
* Governments, and government plans and grand strategies, do not produce growth or higher productivity. Most of Europe seems to be in the grip of this fallacy, with lengthy agendas emerging from EU summits promising European revitalization. Yet Europe stagnates. The more agendas and plans, the worse the stagnation. Does anyone think that China’s amazing growth, or India’s awakening vitality, arise from government plans? Asian growth has come in every case from grassroots enterprise and business dynamism.
* State aid from one country does not produce prosperity in another. Obviously, as in the present Indian Ocean disaster, massive short-term humanitarian assistance is essential. But long-term growth will only come from within the stricken societies. Even debt relief may not help, while actual aid transfers may delay, rather than boost, economic recovery. Most of the dramatic growth in poor Asian economies over the last few decades has occurred where there has been almost no foreign assistance at all.
* Most official statistics are suspect. Even apparently “solid” figures like gross national product are being questioned nowadays because no one can decide what the true “product” of a society really is. Government budgetary figures are particularly slippery. Generally the so-called science of economics has turned out to be a very hit-and-miss art, one that invariably fails to foresee major developments or innovations like the Internet.
* Because common sense tells most people that one cannot predict the future and that the unexpected always happens, the most effective opposition politicians should avoid being too precise about what they will or will not do. People want to hear arguments along with the alternative, consensus-breaking story; they don’t want to be confronted with details that in the end cannot be delivered because of changing circumstances.
* There is much talk about the gap between rich and poor in the world, but whether this gap is actually widening or narrowing (and it is probably narrowing fast, at least in Asia) does not make the slightest difference in the prospects of poorer countries’ growing richer. Their material progress depends on their own good governance, their openness, their inherent business dynamism and their access to markets.
* A current myth about globalization is that countries must get together in large blocs to be effective, and that national sovereignty has somehow been devalued, with power drifting to great multinational corporations. This has led Britain, for example, into a mistaken foreign policy that puts far too much emphasis on submerging itself within the European Union, and not nearly enough on relations with the growth areas of Asia or on bilateral relations with the new and increasingly proactive Japan.
Many other myths abound, such as the “duty” of business to go for sustainable development and replace profit-seeking with social activities and “partnerships” with governments. The World Bank and the World Economic Forum love this sort of talk, but while it has probably made the richer world poorer than it would otherwise be, it has done little to make the poorer world richer.
Another consensus favorite is that green energy and wind pylons can provide a carbon-free energy future, when every expert knows privately that civil nuclear power is the only answer.
And so it goes. The consensus declares that man is destroying nature, that everything is getting worse in the world, but that, in most cases, salvation can be secured by government action and clever plans and policies. Wisdom tells us otherwise — that most things are transient and that progress and nature can live in harmony anyway — an insight of Japanese philosophy that the rest of the world should learn.
As the Thatcherites found a quarter of a century ago, even the most entrenched consensus and belief model can be overthrown. But the challenge must begin at the deepest intellectual levels, where the roots of the old myths lie. Until that challenge is mounted, incumbent guardians of the old consensus and the old myths, like Blair, will continue to dominate and prove very hard to budge.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.