Is Cameron a con? If he wins, are we in for a shock?

Saturday, 14 August 2010 16:08

Who is David Cameron? We know the facts of his life but not who he is as a person. ‘More spin than substance,’ say many voters. Close friends and colleagues say that they have no idea why he wants power. Is he merely a vacuous politician, or is he a front man for those Tories who are planning a return to the Friedman market-driven, small state economy once they are in power? Cameron’s ideas of ‘the broken society’, and ‘the Big Society’ and the parent-run private school could come from the Milton Friedman Handbook. A sudden, savage cut in public spending would create the shock that is central to the Friedman programme. A hung-parliament that was incompetent and divisive would give these Tories the chance they need.

In the introduction to his book about the global financial crisis Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone Money and No One Can Pay John Lancaster wrote, ‘The aftermath of the crisis is going to dominate the economics and politics of our societies for at least a decade to come. It’s important that we try to understand it, and begin to think about what’s next.’ To understand what comes next we need to know about the past.

Lancaster is a writer, so his book, as well as being very informative, is full of good stories and interesting ideas. One of the themes of the book concerns how Britain ceased to be a country where the manufacturing industry was balanced by the finance industry and became instead one where the financial service industry became ‘the biggest and most important sector of our economy and one of the few areas of British life which had a claim to dominate the world in its sector.’ He went on, ‘there are four sectors in which Britain is world-class: finance, arms manufacturing, the creative arts and higher education. Of these, the first receives strong government support, the second lavish investment, the third is largely left to mind its own business, and the fourth has been gradually run down, with three decades of consistent discouragement and underfunding. What would Britain look like today if instead of the arms industry or the City it had been our Russell Group universities which had been the subject of attempts to achieve world supremacy?’

The website of the Russell Group states that the Group ‘represents the 20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.’ Had all British universities received the money that the government gave to the the arms and the financial services industries how different education, not just in universities but in schools and colleges would be today!

There was a time, back in the 1960s and 1970s when some politicians, both Labour and Conservative, dreamed of a Britain where education was valued because it produced people brimful of ideas in every worthwhile area of life. All this soon vanished when Jim Callaghan lost his grip on the economy and Margaret Thatcher came to power. Since then power has resided in the hands of politicians who fear new ideas because new ideas create change in ways that these politicians cannot predict, much less control. They feel much happier with moneymen and arms manufacturers. The one idea that sustains the financial sector is making money, while the arms industry is sustained by the ideas of making money and killing people. John Lancaster wrote, ‘I have people I count as friends who work in the City. We get on in the ways in which people get on, but there is sometimes a moment when you hit a kind of a wall. It’s usually to do with fundamental assumptions based on the primacy of money, and the non-reality of other schemes of value.’ The history of the arms trade shows very clearly that all that arms manufacturers want is a continuous series of wars. They do not care who is fighting whom, and they are very happy to supply both sides at once. Stupid political leaders oblige them by creating wars. This paucity of ideas held by immensely wealthy moneymen and arms manufacturers and the politicians who support them explains in part why so little is being done to deal with climate change. Understanding climate change requires a scheme of what is valuable that includes the Earth and the welfare of other people.

When those in power fear all ideas other than the few that they possess, they use their power to impoverish and constrain the creative imagination that generates ideas that go beyond ordinary, everyday experience. The creative imagination also allows us the freedom to doubt anything that we are told is true. When our leaders hold few ideas, education ceases to be a ‘leading out’ as the Latin root of the word educate implies, and becomes a controlling and moulding of the child in order to produce the kind of people that those in power require.

I wrote about this in my book Wanting Everything, published in 1991 when the effects of the Thatcher government were becoming very clear. Margaret Thatcher wanted to destroy all those brave experiments in education that had developed over the 1960s and 1970s, and to create an ideology based on the ideas of the economist Milton Friedman. Friedman had rejected the Judaic faith of his parents but could not give up the idea of having a faith. In his autobiography Two Lucky People, written with his wife Rose, Friedman called himself an agnostic, not an atheist. An atheist sees a faith as an unnecessary burden, whereas an agnostic is searching for a suitable faith. Friedman came to see the free market as an infallible god, and this is where he placed his faith. If Friedman was the Jesus in the free market faith, Thatcher was one of his many disciples. The result of this, as Lancaster wrote, ‘The free market stopped being one way of arranging the world, subject to argument and comparison with other systems: it became an item of faith, of near-mystical belief. In that belief system, the finance industry made up the class of priests and magicians, and began to be treated as such. In the UK, that meant ideological hegemony for the City of London.’

The essence of the free market is competition. Tony Blair, a man who tried on faiths like suits to see which one would best enhance his charm, readily adopted the faith of the free market. He saw that competing in the free market required a certain kind of education. Students needed to be well versed in the basic literacy and numeracy skills, and they needed to be focused on one aim, making money. Hence his stated aim of ‘education, education, education’. For him the arts were unnecessary, except as providing opportunities for his friends to parade their wealth and he his charm.

The Thatcher-Blair kind of education as moulding always produces in the recipients what Fintan O’Toole, in his marvellous book Ship of Fools about the economic crash in Ireland, called ‘an ideological induced stupidity’. Here O’Toole was talking about the ideology of the Catholic Church, but this term also applies to the application of any ideology to young minds. The ideological stupidity produced by the Thatcher-Blair form of education was ideally suited to the kind of output the media empire of Rupert Murdoch was producing, and this output reinforced the kind of ideas that emerged in the Thatcher-Blair form of education.

Gordon Brown as Chancellor went along with the faith of the free market. This belief did not clash with his Presbyterian beliefs. Protestantism and trade have always been closely entwined. However, at a deeper level, Brown is held fast by the ideology of Presbyterian guilt. When the falsity of the free market faith was revealed, Brown could abandon his attachment to that faith, even admitting publicly that he had made mistakes, but he cannot break free of the ideology that says that we have to earn the right to exist, and whether we have achieved that right we cannot know until we face our Maker. However, it seems that it is not the question of God’s forgiveness and acceptance that troubles Brown. It is the improbability in this world or the next of ever getting from his father, the Reverend John Brown, the unqualified words, ‘Well done, son.’ Presbyterian parents know for certain that praising a child spoils him. (I speak from experience.) Had Brown been able to free himself from his Presbyterian guilt, he would have left politics when he was on the high of being the Prime Minister who knew how important it was, when the credit bubble burst, to abandon Friedman economics and pay heed to the words of John Maynard Keynes. Greatly praised by his friends and by those who wished to see him go, Brown could have left the insoluble problem of our successful financial future to politicians young and foolish enough to think they can solve this problem. Then he could have spent time with his young children, and returned to the work he loves best in the Third World. However, that would mean that he was enjoying himself, and, as Malcolm Fraser when Prime Minister of Australia told pleasure-loving Australians, ‘We weren’t put on Earth to enjoy ourselves.’

Although David Cameron has been Conservative leader for five years and much in the media, I cannot write a sketch of him as I can of Gordon Brown. I have no idea who Cameron actually is. When he first became leader and thus under media scrutiny, the consensus was that he was modelling himself on the young Tony Blair. However, Blair himself was then playing the role of a young, enthusiastic politician destined to do great things. (He is now playing the role of international statesman.) Thus the Cameron we see is an imitation of an imitation. There might be a real person inside this imitation of a person, but who he is I do not know. He might be a man of hidden shallows, or a power-hungry opportunist. Julian Glover of the Guardian found that Cameron’s close friends had no idea why Cameron wants power. Pollsters, so Glover reported, find that voters see Cameron as being more spin than substance. Blair had some skill as an actor but Cameron cannot act. He has a small collection of facial expressions, chiefly being anxious, being statesmanlike, being angry, listening, but none is convincing. Even when he speaks publicly about the death of his young son, his expression of grief seems to have been taught to him by a drama teacher who has never encountered the splintering, insupportable pain of grief. Cameron the real person must feel such pain but Cameron the actor seems to believe that he must distance himself from what he actually feels.

Many political leaders have played the role of being a political leader and have been reasonably effective as a leader because their acting was a cover for what they saw as their own personal deficiencies. Initially Cameron played the role of a nice, concerned leader, a younger version of the pre-Thatcher Conservatives who had inherited from their landed forebears a sense of duty towards those who were less fortunate than they. However, in the Thatcher years that kind of Tory disappeared, and in their place were the heirs of Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics.

To understand the assumptions on which Friedman economics is based we need to read Two Lucky People, especially the sections written by Friedman himself. His is one of those autobiographies where the writer reveals not only more than he intended to reveal but what he did not know was there to be revealed. The parents of Milton and of Rose migrated from Eastern Europe to America in the early years of the 20th century. They worked hard and were able to establish a home and to educate their children. Both Rose and Milton drew from their childhood experiences the conclusion that without exception people can stand on their own two feet and not need help from the State. They were both economists, yet they seemed not to notice that their parents had arrived in America at a very special time in that country’s history. Its economy was growing and immigrants were needed. This is no longer the case, and has not been so for some considerable time. Would-be migrants crossing the border into the south-western states of the USA find themselves, at best, being exploited by people wanting cheap labour or, at worst, being attacked and perhaps killed.

Two Lucky People reveals a man who has never really understood what it is to be a human being. He was not interested in the internal worlds of other people. This lack of interest in what people thought and felt prevented Friedman from understanding that he could never achieve his aim of tidying up and organising the world. The way our brains work means that we cannot perceive anything unless we can also perceive its opposite. Hence we know black because there is white; life because there is death; good because there is bad, and so on. Thus, at the same time we can have opposing ideas, needs and wishes. No matter how much we try to organise and plans our life and keep it under control, we find that living is always a kind of white water rafting on a wild river whose end is unknown, and not an organised march to a defined goal. Any leader and his followers who believe that they have an infallible plan for how people should live their lives is doomed to failure, as Communism, Fascism and free market economics have shown.

Friedman was sure that his ideas were the right ones, and that anyone who disagreed with him was either mad or bad. Socialists and Communists were both mad and bad. He refused to see that everything we do has unintended consequences for which we are to some degree responsible. He rejected most vehemently and at length the charge that, in advising General Pinochet about the Argentinean economy, he bore some responsibility for the terrible events that followed.

In his letter to General Pinochet in April, 1975, Friedman referred to the advice he had given Pinochet as ‘a shock program’. In his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom Friedman pointed out that ‘only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’ In The Tyranny of the Status Quo in 1984 Friedman and his wife wrote, ‘A new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively in that period, it will not have another such opportunity.’ Every action that needs to be carried out should be carried out ‘all at once’. ‘A shock program’ became known as ‘the shock doctrine’, where the word ‘shock’ referred not just to the shock felt by those who were the recipients of unexpected economic actions but metaphorically to the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) so popular with psychiatrists when Friedman was writing. The rationale for ECT was that the electric current passing through the patient’s head wiped out all the troubling thoughts in the patient’s mind. In practice patients found that they had lost chunks of their memory, such as of a family holiday, or even the whole of their child’s childhood. The application of the shock doctrine to a country’s economy has an equally devastating effect on people’s lives.

Thatcher’s application of her version of the shock doctrine to the British economy was not as brutal as that applied by Pinochet to the economy of Argentina, but those of us here who were affected by it suffered in many different ways. Thatcher and her most of her cabinet showed the same lack of interest in and concern for her fellow human beings that Friedman had shown. In all the countries where the shock doctrine was applied the rich were protected, and they flourished.

Under Cameron the Conservative Party has followed a ‘don’t mention Friedman’ policy while patronising Thatcher who, luckily for them, can now be safely patronised. This does not mean that all Conservatives have abandoned the Friedman faith. Quite the reverse. Just as when in this country Catholicism was forbidden, priests lived in hiding and conducted secret masses, so Friedman priests have been conducting the equivalent of Friedman masses and drawing up their plans. The Friedman faith combines the pleasures of knowing that you are virtuous and strong because you are not afraid to inflict pain on those you despise, and of getting richer and richer.

Could it be that Cameron is not merely a bad actor but a front for a very cunning plan? It goes like this: first, Cameron and his colleagues lull the electorate, many of whom have left school full of the ideologically acquired stupidity of the Thatcher-Blair form of education, into believing that the Conservatives have a plan for the economy that is even more caring and concerned than Labour’s, and that they know what to do about the huge deficit, unlike the incompetent Brown. Second, the Conservatives win the election with a large majority. Third, once in power, they will launch their shock program under the guise of needing to deal with the huge government deficit. Without delay they make huge cuts in public spending and sell off what remains of the businesses owned by the state. Fourth, the country goes into recession and unemployment rises to astronomical levels. Fifth, shocked, confused, and perhaps ideologically stupid, people are unable to organise protests. They accept that, if they want schools, a health service and the like, they have to organise it themselves. Sixth, the economy stabilises, with the rich being secure and the rest doing the best they can without any government help.

This sounds like a really idiotic plan, but it is the basic programme of Friedman economics. There are more than whispers of this plan in the Conservative policy, particularly in education. Cameron has promised parents ‘the power to get a good new school in your community.’ These schools would be modelled on Swedish independent schools and Charter schools in the USA. Friedman and his wife felt so strongly about the ‘importance of privatising the school system’ that they ‘established the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation with the sole mission of promoting the public understanding and support of the measures to achieve that objective.’

Who is David Cameron? Is he able to give an account of himself that rings true to his listeners? Or is he no more than the part he had learned to play? If he is no more than an actor who exists only in the roles he plays, why does the Conservative party have him as their leader? Is he a front man who will be kept in place until others with their own plans seize power and discard him? Or is the plan that, on winning the election or the election after the hung parliament fails, the nice Mr Cameron whips off his disguise and reveals himself as the latter day Thatcher, friend to Pinochet and Milton Friedman, ready to eat Nick Clegg for breakfast?

We all need to know what lies in store.

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 04:45