Sean Gabb, Review of “Saturn’s Children” (1995)
Saturn’s Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue
Alan Duncan MP and Dominic Hobson
Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1995, 448 pp., £16.99 (hb)
(ISBN 1 85619 605 4)
Note by Sean Gabb. I was sent this book just after it came out in 1995, and asked to review it for a Conservative Party magazine. Chris Tame read a first version that has now vanished, pointing out that, for a Law lecturer, I showed a worrying indifference to the law of libel. Even the shortened version that I sent in was received with cries of outrage and sent back to me. I am not sure if it was ever published elsewhere. If not, it is probably worth publishing now. The evidence is in, and my review shows that I had a fair understanding of where we were headed in the mid-1990s.
It is truth discreetly veiled, that politicians seldom write the books that bear their names. This is manifestly the case with the present work. I doubt even if it was all written by the named collaborator. The variations of style and deep inconsistencies of opinion between the chapters indicate at least three writers. I go further, doubting if Mr Duncan put himself to the trouble of reading what his ghost writers finally sent him. It may be that he believes in the relegalisation of drugs. It may be that he is so strongly convinced by the arguments that he was willing to risk a career in the Conservative Party by putting his name to them. If so, he would not be the Alan Duncan I have occasionally wasted the time to see speaking. More likely, since the chapter in question comes late in the text, he skimmed the typescript to make sure all the pages had writing on them, and sent it off to his publisher.
This being said, the book is unexpectedly good. Parts of it read like an extended Libertarian Alliance pamphlet. Its subtitle is a summary of its contents. During this century, the twin evils of welfare at home and adventure abroad have made the State from an incompetent servant to an absolute and often arbitrary master. We were assured fifty years ago that state control could turn nasty only in countries without a liberal tradition. Well, we have it now by direct experience that a liberal tradition is less a block on the road to serfdom than at best a set of speed restrictors.
Already, the heavy weight of taxes has abolished any true right to the fruits of our labour – which are better seen as a commission paid on how much we add to a collectivised national income. The equally heavy weight of regulation has tended to abolish most other property rights, turning these into conditional loans to be varied or resumed almost at will. The consequent loss of independence has exposed us to the whims of a politically correct bureaucracy, no different in principle from the past tyrants who imprisoned Galileo and burned Servetus and shot anyone who thought Mendel a better scientist than Lysenko.
And what benefits have we had from this new serfdom? When Esau sold his birth right, he at least got his contracted mess of pottage. When this country went statist, it simply got the most rapid fall from greatness on record. The loss of Empire is nothing worth lamenting. But given a consistently liberal policy since 1900, we might still be the most prosperous nation on earth – replacing Japan as the island equal of the great land masses. As it is, we are falling behind countries like Italy and Thailand.
We cannot even now say that any loss of freedom and prosperity has been compensated by gains in material equality. We are fast learning what the Victorians took for granted – that poverty is as much a moral as an economic fact. Not only has a welfare budget of £90 billion failed to prevent the emergence of an underclass as degraded and dangerous as anything drawn by Hogarth – it has actually encouraged the process. Head lice now coexist with satellite television, illiteracy with designer clothing.
After several hundred pages of describing how awful things have become, and are still becoming, the authors make their recommendations. Despite the radical analysis, I expected nothing unusual here. When a Tory MP on the “right” of the Party commissions a book to bear his name, the rule is to let the real solutions emerge from the analysis but remain unspoken. All that can be spoken is the usual “Thatcherite” agenda of spending cuts and deregulation – the sort of thing Lady Thatcher never actually did while in office, but which it is quite respectable to claim as a Party orthodoxy. Interestingly, the authors break this rule. As well as for the relegalisation of drugs, they for the privatising of state education. Their scheme of a basic income is also interesting and worth considering. In short, they put forward a programme that, if implemented, would within thirty or forty years repair all the harm done during the past hundred.
If implemented! I began reading this book the day after John Major resigned as Party Leader. I am writing this article the Sunday after the Cabinet reconstruction. Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister! Malcolm Rifkind as Foreign Secretary! Michael Howard left at the Home Office to complete his abolition of the Common Law! All this in a party that has lost two thirds of its membership since 1990, and has fewer Councillors than the Liberal Democrats! I see no hope here of implementation. Mr Duncan has commissioned a good book. But he is attached to the corpse of a Tory Party that stinks to high heaven.
Some of my friends are more optimistic. “Wait for the next election” they tell me. “Major and co. won’t last forever. Once they are out of the way, our people will take over. The Party will be reborn.” But will it? Never mind the body of ideas ready and waiting to slide onto the political agenda – look at the people whom we are expecting to give those ideas the necessary push. The present wet ascendency within the Government may be a coalition of intellectual and spiritual dwarves; but these tower above most of “our” people in the House of Commons. Just look at them.
Look at Norman Lamont, the earliest of the potential challengers in the leadership election. I have friends who actually respect this most discredited of politicians. His Euroscepticism did not keep him from sitting in the Cabinet that approved the Maastricht Treaty – or from doing everything possible to keep the Pound in the Exchange Rate Mechanism. We must all swallow the occasional toad, but Mr Lamont in office had an almost Gallic passion for them. Except he was finally sacked, he would still be at the high table with his mouth wide open.
Look at Teresa Gorman, twice last week described to me as a “libertarian pin-up”. One look at her voting record should knock this phrase on the head. In 1988, she supported the clause in the Local Government Bill banning the promotion of homosexuality and nothing else. In 1994, she voted against lowering the homosexual age of consent either to sixteen or to eighteen. Since she was not whipped into these things, and doing otherwise was hardly the political kiss of death, I take them as more reflective of her true beliefs than any impression she may accidentally have given my friends that she is “one of us”. Of course, we need to make alliances with such people. But I see no reason for worshipping them.
Look at John Redwood, the real challenger. Like Mr Lamont, he sat for years in a Cabinet that he now denounces for following policies hostile to the public interest. To be fair, he is an open authoritarian; and had he become Prime Minister, there might have been even more police state laws than Mr Major is delivering. If my friends swarmed round him, that is purely their desperate folly. But take his promise to end corruption in high places. This was an odd promise from a man who – though himself of spotless integrity, I have no doubt – ruled Wales as something like a mafia colony.
Look at Michael Portillo, the preferred challenger. There is nothing wrong with being only half English and bilingual. There is nothing wrong with denouncing foreigners as corrupt. It is strange, though, to combine them. It is no recommendation to do the second twice in the same month, and to excuse each occasion as “off the cuff”. Nor, when pressed, is it any recommendation for a man of forty to let his friends join in with remarks about the exuberance of youth. Nor, perhaps more seriously, am I impressed by a man who could neither honestly challenge the Prime Minister in the leadership election nor honestly support him. I disliked Mr Portillo on sight. Even without evidence, I thought him a vain buffoon, less interested in ideas than in getting the right starch for his shirts. Nothing I have learned since then gives me reason to think he is worth supporting for the Party leadership, now or in the future.
I could continue like this for page after page, weighing the leading figures on the Tory right. But it is enough to say that I find them all wanting. We cannot look to them for deliverance. We might find people with more sense of what needs to be done, and with more ability to do it, by picking names at random off the House of Commons catering payroll. Bearing which in mind, the book that I am sort of reviewing is best regarded not as a programme for action, but as a beautiful dream – rather like the proposals for reform made in France at various times before 1789, that had every excellence, lacking only the smallest chance of being enacted.