There may be an election on but where have all the values gone?

There may be an election on but where have all the values gone?

by Eben Wilson
article from Tuesday 3, December, 2019

A COLLEAGUE TELLS ME she is struggling with this peculiar election campaign. Too many contrary influences, confused interests and conflicting incentives, she says.  But I demur; she is a political scientist looking for evidence that might reasonably point to an outcome, democracy’s enactment of the consent to be governed does not, in my view, offer that. 

The democratic mandate introduces randomness and spontaneity like any market; and like any market we can never have the knowledge of all voter preferences; indeed Hayek would tell us that most voters do not use much reason in their voting, relying instead on internalised tacit knowledge. 

This is a good thing; it brings creative spontaneity into politics.  The Trumps, Farages, Boris’s and Corbyns that emerge are important to democracies. They shake up dullards. It would be thoroughly boring if we were always voting for technocratic policy detail offered only by grey suits.  Wide boy politicians make us all think about our values. 

We are certainly getting that chance in this election, with additional spending pledges from the Tories’ few billions to Labour’s supposed £80 billion.  And it is in this disparity that I think we are finding modern politics is struggling. Vision and reality appear mismatched. 

The tactical issue here is institutional. The political parties’ news management machine trades with the information-filtering machine of the media in a war over “the facts”. Criticism rules and only serves to confuse voters. This intimate dance between parliamentarians and media leaves most voters cold. Anyone who has done election canvassing knows that voters enjoy an emotional attachment to their elected representatives based on shared values.  

As for the facts, we should not comfort ourselves that anyone knows what they are. Few can tell whether another two billion for the NHS will make any meaningful change to their chance of getting an operation in 16 weeks of less. A strategic institution rules here, the centrally planning state.  This lumbering leviathan can rarely be wrong; driven as it is by the risk aversion, and need for control over risks, of both politicians and the bureaucracy.  What Milton Friedman called “The Tyranny of the Status Quo” holds firm. 

An election in a centralised democracy introduces a contradiction; politicians offer a changed future, while the tools they propose to use to create change offer stasis.  That’s why so many voters are put off; claiming that nothing ever changes for them and no-one is listening. 

And yet, we do all get a chance to vote for values, whether “austerity” is damaging your community, or “regulation” is holding back your business can be viewed as putting the values of justice before the values of freedom.  Sadly, very few politicians feel comfortable arguing on grounds of social philosophy – even although in my view almost every voter has inner convictions and an intuition about what sort of world they would like to live in on these matters.  It’s the expression of those values that make the voter view so important in a democracy.  All the white noise about pensions, tax, infrastructure, NHS budgets and so is just that, sound and fury. Voters see through it and vote on their core values.  

In this, there are two core value arguments for Scots in this election; Brexit and the vision of the SNP.  They are of course linked.  The vote to leave the EU was an expression of distaste for the big state tendencies of the EU; against the centrally planned trajectory and against the tyranny of the status quo exercised by an undemocratic Brussels. Britain’s values said “No” to taking part in this course any longer.  The North of England in particular saw that the EU was not helping their perception of the values that would improve their lives. That was catalysed by a highly centralised Westminster establishment telling people in places like Stoke and Bradford how to run its local communities. 

Scotland of course has many devolved powers. What were Scotland’s values?  Well, we keep hearing that 2/3rds of Scotland voted to Remain, and the SNP has howled blue murder at being dragged away from its money tree in Brussels. It has wallowed in contradictions and false analysis, crossed its fingers over fishing and bowed to green pressures that hurt the businesses it purports to be keen to grow.  

 But one third of those living in Scotland voted to leave.  The SNP has not offered any succour in support of their values; instead using the disparity in voting as a weapon for independence.  And that independence once again offers an aspirational centrally planned state, with all of the administrative sclerosis that we know the SNP excel at in their executive duties. 

In that sense, Scots have been badly served; all values that drive voter decisions are presumed only to be valid if they support independence from the state for which we are voting.  That’s simply weird; and I think unionists can rightly condemn the Scottish Tories for not offering a set of values in support of a vibrant Scottish future in the Union.  Unfortunately, they too seem to be imbued with the idea of the centrally planned state, ignoring the failings of the process based governance of Scotland from Regent Road and Victoria Quay, with Holyrood in tow rather than leading. 

If we really want a free, independently-minded and self-supporting Scotland, the issue is not independence. It’s ridding ourselves of central planning, localising administration of collective services suited to a dispersed population, the dismantling of monopolies in state industry and workforce organisation and allowing talented individuals to make personal advance with a low tax burden.  If we could do that here, we could be taking our example to Westminster to teach them how to adopt the same liberties.  

 

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