The man who was only a silhouette

James Bond has one identity but many personalities. There’s Sean Connery’s suave savagery and there’s Roger Moore’s eyebrows wiggling their way through Confessions of a Secret Agent. Insofar as the books upon which these films were increasingly loosely based were subjected to serious consideration, it was widely accepted that the high living, promiscuous, invincible secret agent created by Ian Fleming in 1953 was nostalgia for an imperial age which was dying as the books went to print.

Fleming’s books were a publishing sensation. In 1965, as Thunderball became the fourth James Bond film to roar across cinema screens, 27 million Bond books were sold worldwide. Of the first eighteen books to sell a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond novels. They were avidly read by the Duke of Edinburgh, President Kennedy (who rated From Russia With Love as one of his favourite books), and Lee Harvey Oswald. They won some literary admiration. Raymond Chandler was a fan as was Kingsley Amis who wrote a Bond novel himself after Ian Fleming died suddenly in 1964.

But they drew plenty of criticism. While the sardonically downbeat spy novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré were critically lauded, those of Fleming, who had actually been in Naval Intelligence during World War Two, were dismissed as juvenile fantasies. Fleming once came home to find his wife (who had an open affair with Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell) and her literary friends reading aloud from the books and laughing at the naffest bits. In the New Statesman in 1958 Paul Johnson wrote a famous review of Dr No (“the nastiest book I have ever read”) titled ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’

There was plenty of sadism. Every book contains a horrific physical ordeal which wreaks havoc with Bond’s body, from the gruesome carpet beater scene in Casino Royale to Dr No’s grisly assault course. But Bond himself was not a sadist. As he mused in Goldfinger:

“It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare Double-O prefix — the licence to kill in the Secret Service — it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional — worse, it was a death-watch beetle in the soul[…]”

Is there snobbery? True, anyone who reads the books will emerge with plenty of tips on how to live high; they contain endless details of Bond’s expensive wardrobe, sports cars, and fine wines. But to a large extent this is just a function of Fleming’s penchant for detail which borders on the autistic. Bond’s various weapons are chronicled in minute detail. We are told the exact blend of custom made cigarettes he smokes, and 007’s dinner with M at the exclusive Blades club in Moonraker spreads over seven well stuffed pages. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond has to become an expert in heraldry, something you feel Fleming enjoyed researching.

There’s plenty of national snobbery. Fleming’s description of Harlem in chapters like “Nigger Heaven” in Live and Let Die and Bond’s views on Italian-American gangsters given in Diamonds are Forever will send many potential modern readers running.

“They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves[…]”

Bond sounded like Alf Garnett in You Only Live Twice when his Japanese friend dares criticise England:

“Balls to you, Tiger! And balls again!…Let me tell you this, my fine friend. England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars, our welfare-state politics may have made us expect too much for free, and the liberation of our colonies may have gone too fast, but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes. Our politicians may be a feather-pated bunch, but I expect yours are, too. All politicians are. But there’s nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them[…]”

You can see how this went down well with a British public knocked about by the Luftwaffe and Suez. Fleming wouldn’t have bothered to respond to the charge. “My books are just out of step” he said “But then so are the people who read them”.

The sex, however, is central. Each book features at least one prominent female character who allies with Bond as much out of lust as a desire to defeat evil. No woman is immune to his charms; whether they are telepathic virgins like Solitaire or confirmed lesbians like Pussy Galore.

Bond’s views on women seem as one with his views on Italian-Americans. In Casino Royale Bond reacts to Vesper Lynd’s kidnap by asking “Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and their gossip, and leave men’s work for the men?” In Goldfinger he muses on the results of women’s suffrage:

“As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were[…]”

Possibly even more questionable to a modern audience is Bond’s attitude to sex itself. When he ponders life with Vesper Lynd he notes how her emotional distance will give every conquest “the sweet tang of rape”. Vivienne Michel, narrator of the offbeat The Spy Who Loved Me, reflects that “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful”.

Bond’s attitudes to women plainly weren’t any more out of step with the readership of the 1950s and early 1960s than his attitudes to foreigners. But James Bond is more than a compendium of late Imperial prejudices. If he wasn’t, he would be no more remembered now than contemporaries like Matt Helm or Our Man Flint. There is a complexity to Bond which humanises him and draws readers and filmgoers back nearly sixty years after Casino Royale. For all the irresistible invincibility there has rarely been a darker and more damaged hero than 007.

His love life illustrates this most clearly. The first of Bond’s women we meet is Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd. Casino Royale itself is an odd book. Two thirds of the way through its plot, the unsuccessful attempt by British Intelligence to turn a Soviet agent is over. Le Chiffre is dead and Bond is recuperating in northern France with Vesper, the agent who assisted him. With more than fifty pages to go, what’s left?

Fleming takes a devastating detour. Recovering with Vesper:

“His feelings for her were confused and he was inpatient with the confusion. They had been so simple. He had intended to sleep with her as soon as he could, because he desired her and also because, and he admitted it to himself, he wanted coldly to put the repairs to his body to the final test. He thought they would sleep together for a few days and then he might see something of her in London. Then would come the inevitable disengagement which would become all the easier because of their positions in the service. If it was not easy, he could go off on an assignment abroad or, which was also in his mind, he could resign and travel to different parts of the world as he had always wanted.
But somehow she had crept under his skin and over the last two weeks his feelings had gradually changed[…]”

Bond is in love. He resolves to resign from the Secret Service and marry Vesper. Immediately, the relationship collapses.

It is revealed that Lynd was a double agent being blackmailed by threats to her husband; a Polish RAF pilot in Soviet hands. Knowing the torture Bond, whom she also loves, suffered as a result, Lynd commits suicide. Bond’s terse response is “The bitch is dead now”

But despite the many other women, Vesper Lynd lived on somewhere inside James Bond. In Goldfinger, the seventh book, published in 1959, Bond is captured and drugged alongside accomplice Tilly Masterson and, believing himself to be dead, imagines his meeting with St Peter:

“There must be a whole lot of them, going up together. Would Tilly be on the same trip? Bond squirmed with embarrassment. How would he introduce her to the others, to Vesper for instance?[…]”

And ten years on from Vesper’s suicide in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,

“James Bond idled through the pretty approaches to Royale, through the young beeches and the heavy-scented pines, looking forward to the evening and remembering his other annual pilgrimages to this place and, particularly, the great battle across the baize he had had with Le Chiffre so many years ago. He had come a long way since then, dodged many bullets and much death and loved many girls, but there had been a drama and a poignancy about that particular adventure that every year drew him back to Royale and its casino and to the small granite cross in the little churchyard that simply said ‘Vesper Lynd. R.I.P.”

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond finds a woman who lives up to Vesper; vivacious, beautiful but troubled Teresa di Vicenzo, called Tracy.

Bond meets a suicidal Tracy at Royale; “Oh lord! thought Bond. One of those! A girl with a wing, perhaps two wings down” He rescues her from a suicide attempt and her grateful father, head of Europe’s biggest crime syndicate, offers Bond £1 million if he will marry and look after her. Bond refuses the offer but agrees to continue seeing Tracy in return for information on the whereabouts of his arch enemy, head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

In one of the best novels Bond tracks Blofeld to a hideout high in the Alps. Blofeld, longing for legitimate recognition of the power he has gained by illegitimate means, is pursuing a claim to be recognised as the Comte de Bleuville. Posing as an expert in heraldry and genealogy, Bond gains access to Blofeld’s lair, rumbles his plan, and escapes in a thrilling night time chase down the mountain. At the bottom, exhausted, he is rescued by Tracy. Travelling home,

“Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one. She’s got everything I’ve ever looked for in a woman. She’s beautiful, in bed and out. She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings. Above all, she needs me. It’ll be someone for me to look after. I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience. I wouldn’t mind having children. I’ve got no social background into which she would or wouldn’t fit. We’re two of a pair, really. Why not make it for always?

‘Tracy. I love you. Will you marry me?’
She turned very pale. She looked at him wonderingly. Her lips trembled. ‘You mean that?’
‘Yes, I mean it. With all my heart’”

Reflecting on this,

“Bond sat down. His breakfast came and he began eating mechanically. What had he done? What in hell had he done? But the only answer was a feeling of tremendous warmth and relief and excitement. James and Tracy Bond! Commander and Mrs Bond! How utterly, utterly extraordinary!

The voice of the Tannoy said, ‘Attention, please. Passengers on Swissair Flight Number 110 for London, please assemble at gate Number 2. Swissair Flight Number 110 for London to gate Number 2, please.

Bond stubbed out his cigarette, gave a quick glance round their trysting-place to fix its banality in his mind, and walked to the door, leaving the fragments of his old life torn up amidst the debris of an airport breakfast[…]”

But Bond’s old life won’t leave him. As he and Tracy drive away from their wedding they are ambushed by Blofeld:

“When he came to, a man in the khaki uniform of the Autobahn Patrol was shaking him. The young face was stark with horror. ‘Was ist denn geschehen? Was ist denn geschehen?’

Bond turned towards Tracy. She was lying forward with her face buried in the ruins of the steering-wheel. Her pink handkerchief had come off and the bell of golden hair hung down and hid her face. Bond put his arm around her shoulders, across which the dark patches had begun to flower.

He pressed her against him. He looked up at the young man and smiled his reassurance.
‘It’s all right,’ he said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child. ‘It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry. You see -’ Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair – ‘you see, we’ve got all the time in the world’”

Bond’s romantic life is catastrophic. This is crucial for the character. In one of the rare moments when a Bond film has captured 007’s dark heart exactly Goldeneye’s Alec Trevelyan says:

“I might as well ask you if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed. Or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect[…]”

It is because James Bond is exactly as vulnerable as he is invincible that we keep coming back to him; a man whose heart and soul are scar tissue.

Fleming recognised the flawed nature of his creation. To him Bond, who “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”, wasn’t a hero “nor is he depicted as being very likeable or admirable. He is a Secret Service agent. He’s not a bad man, but he is ruthless and self-indulgent. He enjoys the fight – he also enjoys the prizes. In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins. Nowadays they have pond water”

And Bond recognised it too. Moonraker ends with Bond rendezvousing with Gala Brand with whom he has shared the adventure expecting to consummate their relationship. Instead she indicates her fiancée and says goodbye.

“And now what? wondered Bond. He shrugged his shoulders to shift the pain of failure-the pain of failure that is so much greater than the pleasure of success. The exit line. He must get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere. There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The secret agent. The man who was only a silhouette[…]”

This article first appeared at Middlebrow Magazine


Von Hayek was right

The Road to Serfdom is paved with good intentions

I’m a big fan of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. In it Hayek argued that there was a tendency for growth of government to feed on itself to the extent that individual freedom was snuffed out and we all become lackeys of the state. It’s a controversial argument. Folks on the left dislike it, indeed, they find it personally insulting, as they take it that you are insinuating that in each of them is a totalitarian Soviet Commissar dying to get out.

That, indeed, is an argument I (and, I believe, Hayek himself) would refrain from making. But every now and then you will be talking to someone who considers themselves a sincere, well meaning, left wing, liberal, social democrat, and you will end up having a conversation like this…

Him – I wonder if looking back it would have been better for the West if Afghanistan had managed to get some stability as a Soviet satellite

Me – Impossible to say. Would a government imposed by the USSR have outlasted the USSR even without a war?

Him – I dunno, but I think there’s a very strong argument that Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan etc are much better off for their years of Soviet rule than the ethnically and economically similar Afghanistan.

Me – I’d always secretly suspected it but now the truth is out; you’re a Tankie.

Him – Not really, I just prefer living under a Marxist-Leninist regime of the post Stalinist variety to living under Islamic fundamentalists. As I suspect would you (though that admission might have to be dragged out of your with red hot pincers…)

Me – I look at Cambodia and Ethiopia and I really am not so sure. To paraphrase Montesquie, there has never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Marx.

Him – I did say of the post-Stalinist variety – i.e. the USSR and its European satellities c 1956-1991. (note that the i.e. does not follow)

There’s actually a point that the more the post war Soviet Union influenced a 3rd world country the more relatively civilized it was (see Mongolia and Vietnam). It was where in places like Cambodia and Ethopia where the Societ writ didn’t really run that you got blood baths

Me – You mean like Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Him – Reprehensible but compared to say, Chile 1973, hardly a blood bath. (Who knew ‘bloodbath’ was a relative term?)

Me – Not the point though surely?

Him – We were talking about blood baths.

Me – But I dont see why your judgment on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia should be tempered by what happened in Chile five years later. You know, I was joking when I called you a Tankie, but now…

Him – Ok. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 , whilst wrong, did not lead to a significant number of deaths and hence cannot be characterised as a blood bath.

Me – Yes, but it does rather knock your characterisation of the Soviet dictatorship post 1956 (ie stripping out all the millions of inconvenient dead) as a misunderstood philanthropic organisation into a cocked hat.

72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed by the way, thats insignificant for you.

Him – Where do I say that exactly?

Me – “There’s actually a point that the more the post war Soviet Union influenced a 3rd world country the more relatively civilized it was (see Mongolia and Vietnam)” quoth the raven

Him – I still can’t see the words “misunderstood philanthropic organisation”.

Me – But you can see the words “There’s actually a point that the more the post war Soviet Union influenced a 3rd world country the more relatively civilized it was (see Mongolia and Vietnam)”

I also notice no comment on your dismissal of the deaths of 72 Czech’s and Slovak’s in 1968 as insignificant.

Him – I don’t know whether you really can’t see my point or are being deliberately obtuse.

Post WWII the USSR was a status quo power. The last thing it wanted was chaos and destruction in its satellites. It wanted stability. Hence the countries more directly under its influence tended to be more stable (perhaps a better word that civilized). How you get from that a moral approval for the Soviet system per se I can’t see.

On your last point, I am really not getting into this. You seem to be in one of your belligerent moods this morning. But if you recall were talking about Cambodia and Ethiopia. Whilst the death of anyone is a tragedy and hugely significant for them and their families, I am sure you will agree with me that Czechoslovakia 68 did not involve a blood bath on the Cambodian and Ethiopian scale.

This started out as a interesting discussion on the benefits or otherwise of the USSR in promoting modernisation in Central Asia, but you seem to want to turn it into a fight. Sorry I am not up for that.

Me -I’m in a belligerent mood? Says a man defending the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (not something my Trotskyite former comrades would do) and dismissing 72 deaths as not “a significant number of deaths”

Indeed it was an “interesting discussion on the benefits or otherwise of the USSR in promoting modernisation in Central Asia” but if you are going to make such barmpot assertions expect to get called on it.

Him – Don’t you think a casualty total of 72 for the invasion of a foreign country on the low side? And where exactly have I defended the invasion of Czechoslovakia? My first post on the subject said it was reprehensible.

Me – Yes, those wonderful Soviets, killing so few in the course of their invasion.

Him – Ok, we have descended to the level of the playground. That’s me finished.

“For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” – Matthew, 12:37

The battle of the euro – how much will Germany stomach?

Ever further union

Our European neighbours used to sneer at us Brits for our apparent obsession with World War Two. But the unfolding Eurozone crisis has shown that those same feelings have been always been present in continental Europeans, they just hid them behind a wall of rhetoric about shared futures and broad smiles at places like Maastricht. The question of wealth has shattered the façade.

Back during the wars that it’s now ok to mention again, the Germans used to worry about fighting on two fronts, quite rightly as it turned out. Now the struggle over the future of the euro is also settling down to a war on two fronts: the monetary and the fiscal. At the heart of the struggle is the question of whether, and if so, how German wealth can be transferred to heavily indebted PIIGS.

On the monetary front the Germans are trying to hold the line that the job of the European Central Bank is to fulfil its mandate of price stability.

On the other side of the hill are those – the PIIGS, most eurocrats (though few have the bottle to stick their head over the parapet), the Obama administration, and the British government – who think it should be focusing on employment or GDP growth. To accomplish this they want the ECB to print money which, the Germans believe, would be inflationary and scupper the ECB’s price stability mandate.

This is what lays behind the bond buying plan which the ECB announced recently.

When yields on Spanish or Italian bonds reach a given level the ECB will step in to buy these bonds with newly created euros in an attempt to drive these yields down. Crucially, the programme is, on paper at least, effectively unlimited. Under this programme the ECB can expand the monetary base of the eurozone as much as it likes as long as it is used to buy the sovereign debt of PIIG – something which isn’t in short supply.

The other front, the fiscal front, has also been far from all quiet lately. The German Constitutional Court recently ruledthat the European Stability Mechanism does not violate the country’s constitution. This gave the green light for a program which will see Germany liable to bail out stricken PIIGS directly. The German judges did leave one potential poison pill however; they ruled that any increase in German liabilities beyond €190 billion be subject to a vote in the Bundestag.

Both the ESM and unlimited bond buying represent ways by which German wealth can be moved to PIIGS. The ESM is a frontal assault while Mario Draghi’s bond buying is an oblique approach. Creating money does not create wealth, it only redistributes it. In this case debtors would benefit from having a devalued currency in which to pay back their creditors. In many cases the debtors are PIIGS and the creditors are German. Either way, the result is the same.

Last week the BBC broadcast a show about John Maynard Keynes. The host, Stephanie Flanders, attempted to draw parallels between the reparations imposed by the Allies upon Germany at Versailles at the end of World War One (which Keynes famously opposed) and the demands made by Germany now for fiscal restraint in PIIGS in return for their money.

This is a pretty inexact comparison. The war debts of the Allies were exogenous to the German economy; they were just dumped upon it in 1919. The debts of PIIGS, by contrast, were incurred by them quite consciously. Nothing the Germans did made the Greeks promise to pay pastry chefs and hairdressers to retire at 50 on 95 percent of their final salary.

A more exact comparison, in fact, in comparing the sudden requirement to pay exogenously incurred debt which Germany faced in 1919, is with Germany now. As at Versailles, Germans are being asked to foot the bill for the spending decisions of others.

Given the aggression of Wilhelmine Germany you could even argue that ‘reparations’ are less justified now. Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914 might have necessitated Britain’s war expenditures, but what German action could conceivably have necessitated the Irish tripling their welfare budget?

Germans seem to have some inkling of this. The court case against the ESM was brought after a petition was raised with 37,000 signatures. According to a recent poll, 49 percent of Germansnow see the EU as a hindrance.

Keynes wrote of Versailles that “If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.” This is not to say we are about to see a rerun of 1933 in Germany, but it is worth reflecting how long Germans will continue to abide by the economic and political arrangements of the euro and EU that exist to redistribute its wealth to others.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Richard Cobden’s achievements

Richard Cobden

“We are on the eve of great changes” Richard Cobden told Parliament in February 1846. He was correct. Britain stood poised to embark on a period of growth unparalleled in its history, which would, in a few short years, bring it wealth and power not seen since ancient Rome. A major reason for this was Britain’s path breaking adoption of free trade, and the man behind that as much as any other was Richard Cobden.

By the late 1830s it was apparent that the Whig government led by Earl Grey and then Viscount Melbourne had exhausted itself in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. This had given the vote to propertied males, enfranchising many of those made rich by the Industrial Revolution. The Radical faction within the Whig Party sought a new cause with which to restore the momentum which had carried the 1832 Act and settled on repeal of the Corn Laws.

The Corn Laws was a catch all name for the thicket of tariffs which had been erected to keep foreign wheat out of Britain. Justified on the deathless grounds of ‘food security’, these laws also had the handy effect of benefiting the landowning classes, many of whom sat in the Commons and Lords as Tories.

The Corn Laws, as with any tariff, had the effect of making the product in question and associated goods more expensive. The burden of this was borne disproportionately by the members of the emerging working class in burgeoning industrial centres such as Manchester and Leeds who spent a large percentage of their incomes on food. By extension, they raised labour costs. And blocking foreign producers from selling in Britain prevented them from earning the money to buy the output of the new industries.

Out of this shared interest between workers and bosses (and other factions such as dissenting churchmen) came the Anti-Corn Law League, established in Manchester in 1838. One of its founders and leading lights was Richard Cobden.

Cobden was born the son of a poor Sussex farmer in 1804 and started his own textile printing business in 1828. It quickly became a success and in 1832 Cobden moved to Manchester, the centre of the booming British textile industry.

Immersed in the city’s Radical politics Cobden quickly became active. He was instrumental in the shift from broad based reform agitation to a single issue focus which had led to the creation of the League, noting that “the English people cannot be made to take up more than one question at a time with enthusiasm”. Throughout the campaign Cobden would hold to the principle of single minded focus on full and immediate repeal of the Corn Laws.

He became a prolific writer, and in his work he revealed the broader purpose behind the activities of the League. In Cobden’s mind free trade and peace were linked, he wrote in 1842 that “Free Trade by perfecting the intercourse and securing the dependence of countries one upon another must inevitably snatch the power from the governments to plunge their people into wars”.

With the Corn Laws Cobden and the League faced a problem of concentrated interest. While the benefits of repeal were spread across society, the costs were concentrated. Each person in Britain might benefit by a few pounds a year from repeal (though that was no small sum to impoverished workers) but those relatively few people who would be adversely affected by repeal stood to lose far more. The landowners were incentivised to act more strenuously in fighting against repeal than individual consumers were in fighting for it.

Partly because of this the League was frustrated during its first two years. Copying the tactics of the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act and the contemporary Chartists, the League attempted a strategy of mass agitation with open meetings and lectures. These suffered from frequent attacks by Chartists who resented any reforming competition, after one meeting Cobden wrote: “The Chartist leaders attacked us on the platform at the head of their deluded followers. We were nearly the victims of physical force; I lost my hat, and all but had my head split open with the leg of a stool”. The failure of this strategy left the League short of money. Attempts to petition Parliament were heavily defeated and the League members were frequently tempted away into movements for wider reform.

In 1841 Cobden convinced the League to change strategy. He wrote to a fellow member “You will perhaps smile at my venturing thus summarily to set aside all your present formidable demonstrations as useless; but I found my conviction on the present construction of the House of Commons, which forbids us hoping for success. That House must be changed before we can get justice

From now on the League would seek to make Parliament its battleground, starting with a by election in Walsall in February 1841. The Tories allied with their Chartist arch enemies in an effort to defeat the League which still came a close second. Cobden’s strategy had been a success, the Morning Chronicle noting that “one consequence of the contest at Walsall is that the Corn Laws are, and must henceforth be, throughout England, a hustings question”. With a general election approaching the Whig leaders adopted a stronger free trade stance.

The election of summer 1841 saw the Whigs defeated by Robert Peel’s Conservatives, heirs to the Tories, and seemingly dashed hopes of Corn Law repeal for the foreseeable future. But the situation was brighter than it might have appeared. The election saw a number of League members returned to Parliament including Cobden, now widely recognised as the League’s leader, who was elected MP for Stockport. Also, by the end of the year, ‘operative’ associations attached to the League, mostly consisting of working class supporters, had organised to protect League meetings from the violence of the Chartists. But perhaps more importantly, in Peel, Britain now had as Prime Minister one of the most remarkable statesmen in her history.

With Britain in economic depression Peel deliberated before finally announcing his budget in February 1842. Despite his Tory lineage, Peel recognised that the Conservatives must learn to accommodate themselves to changing circumstances if the wilder, revolutionary wing of the Chartists was to be held at bay. Given the revolutions across Europe in 1848, this was no minor threat. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834, as close to a foundational act as the modern Conservative Party has, had been an act of reconciliation with the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

Peel’s fiscal proposals were in this tradition, proposing a drastic tariff reduction with revenues to be made up by a new income tax. The moves were warmly welcomed by liberals and, while it represented a significant vindication of the League’s arguments, it also brought danger. As Cobden predicted “The greatest evil that could befall us would be a bona fide concession – The middle classes are a compromising set”.

After some debate about strategy (during which Cobden squashed a move to declare a general strike by factory owners) the League stepped up its propaganda. Millions of leaflets, posters, handbills, and newspapers were distributed with the aim of reaching every voter in Britain, though that was only about 600,000 people at the time.

But despite all this activity the League found it needed an event, a shift in circumstances beyond its control, to provide proof of its arguments and swing opinion behind them. That came in 1845 when the potato crop failed. Particularly in Ireland, where much of the population depended on potatoes, this caused great suffering, culminating in a famine which killed an estimated one million people.

Cheap food was needed and quickly. Faced with this unfolding catastrophe, supporters of the Corn Laws were helpless. A further vital, final, factor was Peel’s reaction. Acting on humanitarian grounds and the perennial desire of Conservative Party leaders to pick fights with their backbenchers (in this case the land owning Tories) in order to prove they are ‘different’, Peel moved for full repeal in 1845. In May 1846 repeal was passed and the Anti-Corn Law League wound itself up.

The benefits for Britain were immense and immediate. The effects of famine receded and a wider program of free trade enacted. Between 1815 and 1842 Britain’s exports edged up from £47,250,000 to £50,000,000. By 1870 they had rocketed to £200,000,000.

How had Richard Cobden and the League managed to defeat the special interests in favour of keeping the Corn Laws?

First, and most importantly, they were right. Free trade became the orthodoxy to such an extent that we can forget that while the League was working its ideas were one strand of a lively discourse. There was a long tradition of bad economics arguing for protection and Friedrich List was giving these old doctrines a new outing even as the League was campaigning.

Second, their strategy of exclusive focus on Corn Law repeal was a success. Cobden refused to be, and refused to let the League become, distracted by any other reform or campaign. This ensured that while the Chartists got nothing from a long list of demands the League actually got more than its comparatively modest aims with Britain quickly embracing free trade generally.

Third, they were tactically flexible. There were three fronts to their activities. First, were the mass meetings. These were of limited success largely owing to the competition, both ideological and physical, of the rival Chartists. The second front was education. Here the League had more success, sending literally tons of propaganda out every week. They pitched to all sections of society, sending lurid drawings of emaciated families to lowbrow readers and helping found The Economist for the highbrow. Third, and most effective, was the Parliamentary front. It was arguably the fact that the League engaged here while the Chartists didn’t that guaranteed the success of the League relative to the Chartists.

The fourth factor was, as Harold Macmillan put it, events, or, more broadly, circumstance. Without Peel’s transformation of the Tory Party into the Conservative Party and its concomitant embrace of free trade, the League would have had to wait until at least 1848 and the possible election of the Whigs who, under Lord John Russell, had finally adopted full repeal as a policy. And without the famine in Ireland it is doubtful whether either party could have carried repeal in as full a form as eventually happened.

To a large extent however, this event is not so exogenous. It could be, and was, painted as the predicted outcome of the bad policies of the Corn Laws.

As a result, when circumstances combined in 1845-1846 in the advents of Peel and the potato blight, thanks to Cobden and the League the arguments for free trade were widely enough known to be accepted as a viable possibility. The lesson is to have rigorous, well tested arguments. Pick a definite, achievable aim then work hard to spread and publicise your views until they become the ‘white noise’ of the debate. Then position yourself to take advantage of changing circumstances and move quickly when circumstances change.

When Richard Cobden died in 1865 the French foreign minister wrote that he was “in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man”.

At the end of three successful years The Cobden Centre can continue to draw on its namesakes rich example as it looks forward to furthering his goals of peace and prosperity.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

Bernanke stuck in a bunker

…QE4, QE5, QE6…

At a celebration of Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday in 2002, Ben Bernanke, then a newly appointed member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said “You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again”

Bernanke thought Milton had been right about the Great Depression. Until the early 1960s the common interpretation of the Depression was the Keynesian one, such as that put forward by Peter Temin, where a switch in “animal spirits” had caused aggregate demand to collapse. Then, in 1963, Friedman and his colleague Anna Schwartz produced a radical new interpretation in A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 to 1960.

In this mammoth, exhaustively researched book, Friedman and Schwartz argued that far from money being “neutral”, as was thought at the time, fluctuations in the money supply were closely linked to fluctuations in output. So, if you wanted to stabilise output you had to stabilise the money supply. Monetarism was born.

But the book’s centrepiece – so much so that it was released separately as a book in itself – was that covering the onset of the Depression, “The Great Contraction”. Here, Friedman and Schwartz claimed that a common or garden down turn (brought on by the tightening of monetary policy from 1928 which, they said, had triggered the Wall Street Crash) was turned into a Depression by the Federal Reserve allowing the money supply to shrink by a third between 1929 and 1933.

This, it was argued, had increased the real debt burden of businesses and individuals. As the money supply fell so did prices, this was deflation. Anyone who had debt to service had to service debts of fixed nominal amounts which had grown in real terms as the deflation set in, with money which had shrunk in value at the same time.

Though Friedman subsequently became linked with the fight against inflation he was also concerned about deflation. Friedman argued that a money supply which neither shrank nor grew too fast was needed to bring about the monetary stability which he saw a necessary precondition for economic stability.

So while, in the 1970s, Friedman advocated slowing the increase in the money supply to tame inflation, in the early stages of the Depression, he and Schwartz argued, the Federal Reserve should have fought deflation by expanding the money supply.

That the Federal Reserve didn’t do this was, to Friedman, the cause of the Depression. It was the supposed truth of this insight that Bernanke was acknowledging in 2002.

Ben Bernanke spent his academic career studying the Depression from a Friedmanite perspective, producing a dull but worthy book on the subject. When he took over from Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve in February 2006 the Great Moderation was still in full swing but when the downturn came in 2008 it would have been hard to find a more qualified man to have at the helm. It was a case of cometh the man cometh the hour.

In September 2008 Lehman Brothers collapsed, banks everywhere looked vulnerable and began hoarding cash. The US broad money supply collapsed. Bernanke acted quickly to apply the lessons of the Depression he had learned from Friedman. As one reviewer of his book put it, “He is practicing today what he preached in his book: Flood the system with money to avoid a depression.”

The Fed Funds rate, which had already been reduced from 5.25 percent in early 2007 to 2 percent when Lehman tanked, was cut further to a range between 0 percent and 0.25 percent by the end of 2008 where it remains today. Still, the money supply contracted.

In November 2008 Bernanke launched QE1. Changes in the Fed Funds rate are facilitated by the buying and selling of short term dated securities to alter short term interest rates. Quantitative Easing works the same way except via the purchase of long term dated securities so as to bring down longer term interest rates.

QE1 was an unprecedented attempt to infuse tottering banks with liquidity and shore up the money supply. By the time it came to an end in March 2010 the Federal Reserve had bought $1.75 trillion of mortgage-backed securities.

But still the money supply kept falling so in November 2010 Bernanke initiated QE2 which involved the purchase of $600 billion of Treasury securities. By the time QE2 docked in June 2011 the money supply had stopped shrinking. Indeed, it had returned to fairly brisk growth. Bernanke had made the moves straight out of Friedman’s playbook and staved off deflation.

But, apart from the Federal debt, the money supply was all that was experiencing brisk growth. GDP was slowing and unemployment remained stuck over 8 percent. Bernanke, with a theory of fighting inflation, was now coming under pressure to boost growth and employment.

He took over a year to arrive at his decision but last week Bernanke rolled the dice on QE3, an open ended commitment to spend 40 billion newly created dollars a month on mortgage backed assets until, well, until something turns up.

If you are going to do a job you need the appropriate tools. QE and the mass monetary intervention executed so far by Bernanke were designed to stop the money supply contracting. Eventually it did. But the money supply is not now contracting, it is growing. QE is totally inappropriate now even on Monetarist grounds.

In desperation, with the economy stagnating and fiscal policy at its capacity, Bernanke, to the great relief of the Obama administration, is deploying a policy tool conceived and designed to achieve stability of the money stock, to boost the real variables of output and employment. Increasingly Bernanke resembles a golfer with one club. He’s stuck in a bunker and all he has is a driver.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Thatcher Derangement Syndrome # 2

Wrong again

Owen Jones, the Just William of left wing journalism who famously came a cropper on Andrew Neil’s show, has piped up in the Independent to comment on the deranged hatred some on the left have for Margaret Thatcher.

“As far as (the right) are concerned,” Jones writes, “it is nothing more than spite from a hate-filled left, still furious at being comprehensively defeated” Au contraire, says Jones, there are perfectly understandable reasons for hating Thatcher.

“A reasonable right-winger would accept that her 11-year rule opened up the greatest divisions Britain has experienced in modern times” Jones says. I’m not so sure. Read about the 1970s, about Northern Ireland, about trade unionists in the winter of 1978/1979 stopping ambulances entering hospitals, and then try and say, with a straight face, that Britain pre Thatcher was a land of social unity.

In a similar vein Jones goes on to say that “Thatcher is reviled by some not just because she crushed the left, the Labour movement and the post-war social democratic settlement” In actual fact the left crushed itself with its embrace of ever more radical forms of socialism (it wasn’t Margaret Thatcher who described Labour’s 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history“), the labour movement splintered as changes in working patterns which Thatcher had nothing to do with kicked in (as even the Marxists recognised) and the “post-war social democratic settlement” collapsed amid inflation, debt, and unemployment because we could no longer afford it.

Jones speculates rather pointlessly that “Perhaps if a Labour government had reduced the prosperous middle-classes of the Home Counties to mass unemployment and poverty, and stockbrokers desperate to save their livelihoods had been chased by police on horseback through the City of London, they would understand the bitterness” Perhaps. But it wasn’t the Home Counties which were being propped up with unsustainable and ever growing subsidies of taxpayers cash.

“Thatcher hate is not kneejerk anti-Toryism” Jones concludes,  “after all, there will be no champagne corks popping when John Major dies, and there was no bunting on display to celebrate the deaths of Ted Heath, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan or Anthony Eden”

Eh? Is Jones sure about that? Let’s not forget that Nye Bevan, one of the most overrated figures in British political history, said in 1948 that “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social  seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party.  So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin”

Bevan didn’t say that about a Conservative Party containing right wing ideologues like Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, or Keith Joseph. He said it about a Conservative Party which contained such Keynesian, welfare state loving, consensus supporting politicians as Harold Macmillan, R A Butler, and Alec Douglas-Home.

Thatcher would have been hated just for being a Conservative but she would have been tolerated if she had done as her opponents wished and  governed Britain in the 1980s in the same way as it was governed in the 1940s. She didn’t, partly out of conviction and partly because it wasn’t possible.

By 1979 Britain was unraveling and, thanks to her predecessors choice of short term fixes, Thatcher had no choice but to act radically. In all the years I’ve been asking people who claim to hate Thatcher what they would have done instead, I’ve still not had a serious answer. Jones tells us that “When Thatcher came to deliver a speech at Sheffield’s Cutlers’ Hall in 1983, my eldest brother was among those throwing eggs” Of course he was. When you haven’t got an alternative that’s about all you can do.

Thatcher did the job that none of her predecessors had had the balls to do and it was a job made much harder by their political cowardice. But a necessary job job isn’t made less necessary by its unpleasantness.

If Thatcher had kicked the can a little further down the road like Wilson or Heath she’d have been hated but tolerated. She didn’t. She did the right thing and she won. That is what turns the hatred into insanity.

Black Wednesday

Lamont and advisor run up the white flag

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been jotting down some notes about the 1990s. As today is the twentieth anniversary of Black Wednesday, I thought I’d share what I’ve written about that…

In 1990 the British economy entered a recession caused by the raising of interest rates from 7.38% in May 1988 to 14.88% in October 1989. Thatcher’s government did this in an attempt to dampen the inflation they had unleashed with a pre election spending boom between 1985 and 1988 though they claimed it was that it was to prepare Britain for entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

I remember all this quite well. The area I lived in was full of people with mortgages, people who had embraced the Conservative ethos of the property owning democracy in the 1980s. And now, in the name of European integration, they were being crucified on a cross of ERM by the same Conservative Party. ‘Repossession’ became a dreaded spectre, figures reported on the evening news. In 1989 there 15,800 repossessions, in 1991 there were 75,500 and I remember kids I was at school with losing their homes. As a Northerner down south my dad became something of a local oracle in how to deal with tough times and I remember a couple my mum knew through her babysitting group coming round for tea, digestives, and advice in how to deal with a mortgage they could no longer afford.

John Major possessed impressive reserves of self belief so he might not have been as stunned as everyone else by (his election victory in April 1992). Even so, these reserves were quickly depleted. Within six months of the election the Conservative Party had thrown away its trump card of sound economic management (the playing of which always involved a fair bit of bluff) and handed Labour a poll lead which it wouldn’t lose except briefly for another fifteen years.

The Exchange Rate Mechanism had been forced upon an unwilling but weakened Thatcher a month before she left office by Major, as Chancellor, the rest of the cabinet, and the civil service. It committed Britain to keeping the value of sterling pegged to the value of the deutschemark. When German spending on reunification threatened to stoke inflation the Bundesbank raised interest rates and, thus, the value of the DM. Britain had no choice but to follow.

Two approaches were pursued, both of them disastrous. First, more than £3 billion of Britain’s foreign currency reserves were spent on buying sterling in an effort to push its value up. All that did was make George Soros even richer. This just left interest rates.

Matters came to a head on September 16th 1992. That morning, with the cash for further currency manipulation gone, the government announced a rise in interest rates from 10% to 12%. Still the value of sterling fell. In the afternoon the government was forced to announce a further rise in interest rates to 15%. Even this failed to stop sterling’s slide. In the evening an exhausted looking Chancellor, Norman Lamont, emerged from Number 11 Downing Street with a young policy advisor named David Cameron at his side to announce defeat. Britain would leave the ERM and devalue.

Britain’s failed attempt to stay in had been nothing more than an expensive way to cause more pain for already suffering British businesses and mortgage holders. It became known as Black Wednesday, unless you were a Eurosceptic, in which case it was White Wednesday.

The Major government never recovered. The day after Black Wednesday Major phoned The Sun’s editor Kelvin MacKenzie and begged him to go easy on the government. “John”, MacKenzie is said to have replied, “I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head”

But after Black Wednesday something remarkable happened. With the government’s credibility on monetary policy utterly ruined the Bank of England was put in charge with the goal of using interest rates to control inflation. Worrying about the value of sterling vis a vis other currencies was in the past. And it seemed to work. The economy recovered and embarked on its longest ever boom. Unemployment fell from nearly 3 million in early 1993 to 1.7 million in early 1997. The economy, it seemed, ran better without politicians ‘managing’ it.

Thatcher Derangement Syndrome

Back in 2003 Charles Krauthammer coined the term ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome‘ to describe “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush” Since then BDS has spawned new strains such as the particularly virulent ‘Palin Derangement Syndrome‘ But the progenitor of them all, the ebola to BDS’s common cold, is TDS; Thatcher Derangement Syndrome.

One of the side effects of TDS it to make it victims, some of them otherwise normal people, come out with feverish ramblings. We saw an outbreak of this last week at the TUC conference and I’ve commented recently on the continued presence of this malady in my home town, Sheffield.

But what of the paranoia so key to BDS? Well, yesterday we saw it in TDS.

The report into 1989’s Hillsborough disaster where 96 Liverpool football fans died found that the lurid stories circulating about the day were, as many had always suspected, made up. Furthermore, and more seriously, it found that the Police had covered up their role in the disaster and attempted to smear the Liverpool fans.

Back in 1989 The Sun printed these false stories under the now infamous headline ‘The Truth’. The report yesterday found that The Sun based its story on information from Police officers and a then Conservative MP for Sheffield, Irvine Patnick, all of which were untrue.

So, soon, the following graphic was circulating.


There’s David Duckenfield, the chief superintendent in charge of policing at Hillsborough on the day, and there’s Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun at the time. And there’s…Margaret Thatcher?

You read that right. Apparently Margaret Thatcher should “face trial for (her) part in the Hillsborough cover-up” There’s just one problem. No one has given any indication that she was involved in the cover up to any degree.

Indeed, papers dribbling out after the event show that Thatcher was told that a senior member of the Merseyside Police had said that “he was deeply ashamed to say that it was drunken Liverpool fans who had caused this disaster, just as they had caused the deaths at Heysel” So she was being told the same pack of lies as everyone else.

When the Taylor Report into Hillsborough came out, we learned yesterday, Thatcher was concerned that it placed blame only on the Police and not on the fans also. We now know this was wrong, but given what Thatcher had been told at that time her attitude is quite reasonable. And she did, after all, “welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations”

Jack Straw popped up on the radio this morning to blame Thatcher for creating a “culture of impunity” in the Police. That’s what you do these days. If you are convinced someone did something nasty but there is no evidence of it then you accuse them of ‘creating a culture’, it’s an evidenceless crime.

Besides, this culture was around long before Maggie Thatcher, just ask the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, Stefan Kiszko, or anyone who dealt with the Metropolitan Police in the 1960s and 1970s. This is another symptom of TDS; seeing a trend which was well under way before Thatcher took office, like the collapse of heavy industry or increasing consumer credit, and blaming her for it.

So what is Thatcher, quite blameless of any cover up relating to Hillsborough, doing on that mocked up front page? Beats me. There’s certainly no sense to it but that’s why TDS is a ‘Derangement’ syndrome. But considering this surrounds events that left 96 innocent people dead, it’s a particularly unpleasant outbreak.

Cheering? For Gordon Brown?

Boo who?

Paralympians work hard for years to overcome incredible obstacles. The Paralympic Games is their moment of glory, the payoff for their amazing effort. So it was sad when three Paralympians had their moment spoiled last week when a boorish crowd decided that booing George Osborne was more important than honouring the athletes.

But what elevated this sad, selfish incident into the realms of the bizarre was that Osborne’s predecessor, one Gordon Brown, was cheered by another Paralympic crowd the very same day.

I have written the following or variations of it so often over the past couple of years that it’s depressing that it needs saying again. But the behaviour of the Paralympic crowds indicates that it does. We must hope that if truth doesn’t blast away ignorance like dynamite it may erode it like water, one drop at a time.

When Labour took office with Gordon Brown as Chancellor in 1997 they inherited the most benign set of economic circumstances since before World War One. When they left office in 2010 they bequeathed the worst set of economic circumstances since World War Two.

In 1997 Labour had committed themselves to Conservative spending plans, so ruined was their reputation for economic management. A budget deficit which had fallen from £51 billion in 1993 to £29 billion in 1996 continued to fall and surpluses were recorded in each of the years from 1998 to 2001. Government debt fell from 42 percent of GDP in 1996/1997 to 30 percent of GDP in 2001/2002. And all this happened as unemployment fell from 3 million in 1993 to 1.5 million in 2001.

So far, so good for Brown, even if he had been following Conservative policies. But when re-election was secured in 2001 hubris set in and Brown began going round telling anyone who would listen that we’d seen an end to “Tory boom and bust”. Worse, he actually seemed to believe this and embarked on a historic spending spree.

Between 2001 and 2007 government spending increased by 54 percent in real terms. The economy was booming, tax receipts rose by 40 percent, but this was still not enough to cover Labour’s mammoth spending binge.

In every year from 2001 until 2008, before the first banker was bailed out, the Labour government spent more than it received, applying fiscal stimulus to an already growing economy. In these years of economic growth Gordon Brown added over £200 billion to British government debt which increased from 30 percent of GDP to 35 percent on the eve of the crisis.

If this doesn’t sound like much consider that, if Brown had maintained the downward trend of his ‘conservative’ years, government debt would actually have been below 20 percent of GDP when the crash came.

It came in 2008 with the biggest bust since the 1930s despite what Brown had been telling us all those years. Faced with collapsing tax revenues and feeling the need to engage in some (highly dubious) stimulus spending with an election due, the deficit rocketed from £35 billion in 2007 to a peacetime record £153 billion in 2009.

This unprecedented binge of borrowing and spending generated growth of 1 percent of GDP. It wasn’t enough to save Brown from richly deserved defeat in May 2010.

This was the coalition government’s inheritance courtesy of the Labour Party. British government debt was increasing at the rate of £420 million per day, or £5,000 per second, on its way to a projected figure of almost 80 percent of GDP, a figure not seen for fifty years as Britain paid off the costs of World War Two.

The coalition does not, in fact, propose to bring this debt down. Instead it is simply reducing the deficit, the amount by which the debt increases each year. In fact, by the end of this parliament the national debt will actually be 60 percent higher than when the coalition took office.

Despite what you may have heard, there is no austerity. Since taking office the coalition has cut spending by just 1 percent in real terms. True, we have seen cuts to departmental budgets and we will see more. But this is not because government spending is falling but because government is having to reallocate more and more money to debt repayments as our debt rises.

During the boom years of 2001 to 2008 British government debt payments rose from £21 billion a year to £31 billion as Brown piled up debt. Since the crash they have shot up to £48 billion a year, more than on defence or law and order. By 2015 this is projected to have reached £70 billion a year. And this, remember, is with record low interest rates on British government debt. Imagine what would happen if those interest rates rose.

To meet these rising costs spending is being switched away from nurses, teachers, and welfare recipients, and towards holders of British government gilts.

Increasing interest payments are the inevitable, unavoidable consequence of increasing debt and so, equally obviously, are cuts in spending elsewhere. So if people want to boo someone about ‘cuts’ they should boo the guy who ran up the debts. And while they’re at it, boo the people who voted for him.

It has now become de rigueur to roll one’s eyes, maybe groan a little, and profess boredom when told that Labour and Gordon Brown are to blame for our current dire mess. But it’s true. And it doesn’t become less true because someone is bored of hearing it.

A joke was quickly going around about the Osborne incident;

Q) Why did 80,000 people boo George Osborne?

A) Because that’s the capacity of the Olympic Stadium.

It would have been more accurate to say

A) Because they are utterly ignorant of public finance.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The polarization of politics: Let’s mingle more

My captain, my captain

As a Trekkie I was keen to watch Patrick Stewart, late of the Starship Enterprise, boldly going on the BBC’s Hardtalk. Stewart is a man I greatly admire not only for pulling off the impossible and filling Captain Kirk’s seat, but for an acting career that spans Sejanus in I, Claudius and a hypersexed version of himself in Extras.

So it was disappointing to actually see Stewart in action. I knew he was a Labour supporter; he’s a Yorkshireman and luvvie after all. But he went further. He said he actually feels “uncomfortable” around Conservatives. This was yet another manifestation of a depressing trend. People are increasingly unable to tolerate anyone whose politics aren’t just like theirs.

The trend is further developed in the United States than in Britain. In the US the tone of political debate is frequently poisonous. From the right you have ‘conservatives’ accusing ‘liberals’ of wanting to destroy America. From the left you get ‘liberals’ accusing ‘conservatives’ of wanting to grind everyone else into poverty. To each their opponents are not merely wrong, not simply possessed of a different philosophy, but are actually evil. Neither side recognises any common ground at all with the other.

We have not been free of this in Britain. In 1945 Winston Churchill warned that if Labour won the election Clement Atlee would usher in a British “Gestapo” and opposition to Margaret Thatcher frequently scaled quite epic heights of demented lunacy. It still does.

But this was the exception in Britain, perhaps because figures like Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, John Major, or Tony Blair drew most of their flack from their supposed supporters. Enoch Powell could disagree utterly with both Tony Benn and Michael Foot yet maintain warmer personal relations with either than Foot and Benn could manage with each other.

This has been changing. As the coalition undertakes to slow the growth in government debt so that it only doubles in five years, some on the Left have reacted as though civilization is about to end. Worse, they attribute it, as in America, not merely to error or possession of a different philosophy, but to evil itself.

Polly Toynbee, a trail blazer for the New Nastiness in British political discourse, described the popular proposal to cap Housing Benefit to a still pretty generous £400 a week for a four-bedroom property and £250 a week for a two-bedroom home as the Tories’ “final solution for the poor”, seeing in the cuddly Grant Shapps the echo of Heydrich and Himmler.

I am quite sure that someone of a left wing persuasion reading this will respond that the Right does plenty of it too. No doubt the Daily Mail and Peter Hitchens will be mentioned. And they may well be right. I concede the distinct possibility that both sides are as bad as each other but I shan’t find any comfort in it.

The rhetoric of someone like Toynbee and her counterparts on the Right is harmful. If, for example, you are a Guardian reader who accepts Toynbee’s view of the world then, by extension, you must consider people like me, as an occasional supporter of the Conservative Party, a crypto-Nazi.

If this sounds as ridiculous as it ought to then stick Toynbee in the bin. If, however, you do accept her world view that the coalition is evil and acting out of spite then you can understand why someone like Patrick Stewart would feel uncomfortable around Conservatives, even ones like me who wear plastic pointed ears from time to time. We’re Nazis, after all.

This matters. Democracies work because every few years, at election time, the losing party hands power to the winning party on the understanding that, at the next election, power will be handed back to them if they are successful. This is only possible because the parties consider themselves part of the same polity. If they don’t, if they see no common ground, then the basis for electoral democracy breaks down. In many places around the world elections are accompanied by fraud or violence precisely because this common polity doesn’t exist.

This also gives some clue as to where this bitterness comes from. Governments are now, increasingly, mechanisms by which wealth is transferred around society. Unlike wealth creation, which can generate wealth which didn’t previously exist and make everyone better off, wealth transfer is always a zero sum game; one party can only benefit to the extent that some else loses. Wealth creation creates winners. Wealth transfer creates losers as well.

And, as governments grow, so does their role as wealth transferors, increasing the number of both winners and losers in the zero sum game of government. Bitterness grows alongside.

I have a great many friends who would describe themselves as being of a left wing persuasion so I can see what people like Stewart are missing out on. Because I know lefties personally and not solely from the pages of the Mail I know that they don’t all want to put me in a Gulag run by Harriet Harman. And I hope that, from knowing me, they realise that not all ‘right wingers’ want to feast on the carcasses of the poor. Each of us thinks the other is wrong; neither thinks the other is evil.

What is under threat in Britain, and almost dead in America, is this sense of commonality, of being part of a shared polity with people we disagree with, but who are, for the most part, just as sincere and well-motivated as we are. And we won’t keep it if, like Patrick Stewart, we seal ourselves off from those we disagree with.

We need to mingle more, not less. Unless you think Picard was a better captain than Kirk, then I really will never talk to you again.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator