15 July 2015

The big problem with Mhairi Black’s maiden speech


Sorry to be a party pooper, when it seems that everyone is in raptures about the maiden speech made this week in the UK parliament by the SNP’s Mhairi Black. She is the youngest MP since “nineteen canteen”, as we say in Paisley, and her debut was rhetorically impressive. She paid tribute to the defeated Douglas Alexander and had some good jokes, including a line about her being the only 20 year-old that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing costs, because she is an MP.

But the risk with the spread of social media, and the way in which these maiden speeches go viral as though they are clips from Pop Idol, is that maximum points are awarded for gift of the gab fluency and “think of the children!” handwringing. This style particularly suits agitprop young left-wingers such as Black, who talks as though she believes that conservatives do not have principles and are bad people motivated by malice. Actually, they tend to just have different principles or inclinations from those on the left. Conservatives are often wary of the zeal of revolutionaries, because history suggests that many people tend to get hurt in the ensuing upheaval, and they reject the idea of attempts to socially engineer a remodelling of human nature, because, again as history suggests, this usually requires coercion which threatens freedom, saps innovation and kills prosperity.

The SNP pretend not to be revolutionaries, of course. But as constitutional obsessives, the Scottish Nationalists were quite happy to tear apart the UK based on oil price projections that turn out to be utter nonsense. By now, there would have been a multibillion pound shortfall in the budget of an independent Scotland. If Black and her colleagues think that the current round of austerity and welfare cuts is bad under Westminster, she would not have liked independence much. The people she worries about going to food banks would have been in an even worse position than now.

That, Nationalist left-wingers say, is not a difficulty. They would just make up the difference by taxing the wealthy north of the border, somewhat missing the point that anyone with wealth and access to a car would have driven south of the border immediately, depriving the Scottish exchequer of revenue. Presumably, the Nat left would then have advocated stealing assets and so on, and we’re right back to socialist coercion and the erosion of basic freedoms and property rights.

Ah, but they would “grow” their way out of it. How exactly? Nats are always pretty breezy about this. But if they had a massive shortfall in their budget, and they resorted to high taxation to fill it, who would be keen to invest in Scotland? Answers on a postcard please, or send me a letter at the end of the this article please.

So the problem with Mhairi Black, a gifted speaker, is that she is wrong. She is marinaded in the kind of socialist thinking that the serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson takes apart in his first piece for CapX today.

She even said in her speech that she is from “a traditional socialist Labour family” and attacked “neo-liberalism” and Thatcherism. Tony Benn – Tony Benn! – is one of her heroes, she said. That’s Tony Benn, the fanatic who almost destroyed the Labour party, which had to be rescued by Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, while Benn lived in a lovely large house in West London.

But Black’s Paisley, my home town, although I left years ago, can hardly be said to have suffered from a shortage of socialism since the Second World War. If anything, many of its problems stem from an excess of socialism and the curse of anti-market central planning.

There were improvements after 1945, from which my own family benefited, including the provision of better housing and medical care. But despite all the honourable intentions, there were major downsides that still plague the place and in parts of the population welfare dependency took hold. As my grandmother from Paisley said of the birth of the welfare state: “It’s great to begin with, but when everything is free eventually some folk start taking things they don’t need.”

The idealistic middle class progressive planners in Paisley also created vast estates, some of them bleak, distant from services in the town centre and the transport links to nearby Glasgow. They took tight control of education and created vast comprehensives (I went to one of them) that failed far too many children not lucky enough to have middle class advantages. Rather than creating a mix of institutions, socialist dogma and local education department planning dictated a dreary levelling down that reduced the social mobility in which Paisley had hitherto excelled at delivering.

Like similar towns in the north of England, Paisley was then hit in the chops by globalisation. The industries of Empire that had made the place – the cotton mills that enriched Alan Clark’s ancestors, and the proud engineering firms – were banjoed by the emergence of foreign rivals. Some of it survived in Paisley of course, but not enough and high unemployment was the result.

Even if Thatcherism accelerated the demise of some of those companies, the truth when you dig into the economic history is that complacent Scottish industry had been coasting for decades. In the early 20th century Scots with capital, as the nationalist historian Tom Devine has demonstrated, started to look for higher returns abroad in places such as Canada. The great Scottish hotels hosted roadshows as salesmen pitched up to sell investment opportunities in the New World.

Over mighty unions, poor management hooked on outdated notions of hierarchy, and anti-market governments, then combined to make investment in Scotland even less attractive. Plants and machinery became outdated and working practices too expensive. It was a recipe for economic decline and even collapse.

The Thatcher government’s response to this was not that of caricature. Despite her reservations about intervention, the Scottish Development Agency, established in the dying days of the Labour government, was put to work. Sir George Mathewson, who went on to play a starring role in the rise and fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland, ran the SDA, and there was an intense drive to attract foreign investment. In tandem with the private sector, the kitchen sink was thrown at trying to modernise the Scottish economy in a hurry. The new emphasis would be on oil, financial services, computers and shopping. Not all of it worked, but where does the Scottish left think all those jobs in retail and financial services, that eventually expanded employment and paid for those new houses that proliferate on the edge of the urban centres, came from? It all has its roots in Thatcher’s reforms.

There is much good news in Paisley today too. If the town centre is hollowed out, as Black says, it is not unique in that respect. In Paisley it is because the enormous middle class population which lives in the new owner occupied developments, drives round the one way system that skirts Paisley to shop in vast out of town developments or in Glasgow. The restaurants of Glasgow are packed and the place, for all its troubles, is a temple to conspicuous consumption.

Black is right in one crucial respect, of course. In places such as Paisley, alongside the expanding middle class, live many poor people who have been left behind in the rush. Failed by the school system, often victims of the implosion of traditional family structures and support networks, it is hardly surprising if they lack confidence and are scared of change or the demands of seeking work.

But how are they to get opportunities? Bennite big government won’t work. The answer is a start in the world of employment, which in the age of globalisation and open markets is delivered by attracting investment and establishing the conditions for wealth creation and small business growth.

That is what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron are trying to do with their reforms, really. I don’t agree with every aspect of the way in which they are going about it, but their broad analysis that places such as Paisley need entrepreneurialism and private sector investment to create more jobs and grow the middle class further is surely a better idea than yet more welfare and socialism.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX