Friday, 22 October 2010

Invidious views of people like Polly Toynbee perpetuate dependency

The politics of Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, and others who share similar views, are grounded on a pessimistic belief that it is the state and the state alone that can achieve social mobilisation and growth.

It is the worst sort of degrading paternalism (or, for Polly, maternalism?).  One that perpetuates welfare dependency in the poorest parts of Britain.

I am not a "hard love" welfare advocate.  I am not a shrink-the-state libertarian.  I believe in the renationalisation of public transport, and believe me that makes me something of a pariah in certain Tory dinner party circles.  The state has a massive role to play and I touch on that below.  But Toynbee's sort get that role very, very wrong.

In last night's Question Time on the BBC, held in Middlesbrough (more on that later), the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee portrayed in stark clarity how little faith her Fabian-social democrat clan have in the power of human agency.  They believe little beyond the almighty enabling power of the state.

Middlesbrough in 1832
General Sir Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, made a helpful and optimistic observation, with a refreshingly keen appreciation of history.

Middlesbrough, Sir Richard, told us, "was the fastest growing town in the last quarter of the 19th century and it grew on private capital."  Indeed, at the beginning of the 19th century it was a tiny hamlet of four farmhouses.  In 1829, the Quaker industrialist Joseph Pease of Darlington, headed a consortium of businessmen who moved into the area to build up a port for the north-east coal industry.

General Sir Richard Dannatt
In 1830, the Stockton & Darlington railway provided further stimulus for growth.  Sixteen years later, Prime Minister William Gladstone was describing Middlesbrough as "an infant Hercules" in "England's enterprise".  The town and its immediate environs in the north-east became a global centre for iron and steel.  The words "Made in Middlesbrough" are inscribed on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Fast forward to the present day and Middlesbrough features bottom of a league table of 324 areas in terms of ability to cope with public spending cuts.  No surprise that the BBC selected the town for its post-CSR Question Time broadcast.  Incidentally, the two other areas expected to be most badly hit by cuts are Plymouth and the Wirral; in Plymouth, two out of three seats are Conservative, whilst in the Wirral, one seat is Conservative and the other is a Labour held marginal (majority 531 over Conservatives).

Middlesbrough, however, is a staunch Labour town that has only returned one Tory MP since its creation in 1868 (Sir Samuel Alexander Sadler from 1900 to 1906).  I'm not prone to criticise the BBC for bias but this week's venue was undoubtedly chosen to ensure maximum hostility towards the Government.  The punch-bag tonight was Philip Hammond, Transport Secretary, who actually did very well, particularly in playing a straight bat to a comment (from an achingly smug bearded man) about the Despatches programme on tax avoidance.  John Denham, Labour's shadow business secretary, also performed pretty well with the limited means at is disposal - in other words, what passes for the Opposition's economic policy.

Such a picture of bleakness, negativity and, occasionally, ignorance (see comments on the Falklands and national debt post-WW2) was this audience.  Astonishingly, the BBC allowed the most aggressive questioners to speak twice.  On three separate occasions.  Apparently the public sector provides 50 per cent of employment in Middlesbrough but on this evidence I'd have assumed it was nearer 90 per cent.

Yet one ray of light managed to strike through the dark animosity on Teesside.  A local entrepreneur who started his business from scratch and now employs over 1,200 people.  Yes he is was a lone voice and yes, for any number of reasons, such as low aspirations, poor education standards (if not poor schools), higher than averarge unemployment, lack of access to bank credit etc, it is considerably harder for an entrepreneur like that to succeed in Middlesbrough than it is in Philip Hammond's constituency of Weybridge & Runnymede, for instance.

Macmillan Academy
The solution is not, as Polly Tonybee and her ilk would wish, more and more props from the state, particularly in terms of employment and growth.  The Government can set favourable conditions but at the end of the day it is up to people and communities to take up some responsibility.  This is what took place in the 19th century, and they managed it then without a universal welfare safety net, without massive state investment in schooling, without a wonderful National Health Service, and without a Teesside University.  When Joseph Pease and his associates took their capital to Middlesbrough, there was not even a railway link at the time.  Now Middlesbrough has an airport, an Institute of Modern Art holding the second largest collection of Picassos in the UK, and Macmillan Academy, which a few years ago was named the best state school in England.

Towns like Middlesbrough have so much to build on today.  The tools for growth are immeasurably better today than they were in the past.  And why?  Because of state investment in the building blocks of economic growth and community development such as infrastructure, education and healthcare.

Instead, Polly Toynbee wants to talk down to the people of Middlesbrough as though they cannot help themselves.  Only well-educated, well-intentioned, metropolitan intellectuals like her know what they need and that is more propping up by the state in terms of jobs and, basically, for something to do.

"Where is this growth going to come from in a place like Middlesbrough?" Polly asked.  Her eyes slanted ever further downwards at the temples, her head cocked sympathetically to one side, as though a mother to her innocent, naive 5-year-old child, who has just told Mummie that they want to be Prime Minister when they are older.  Bless them.

Ms Toynbee, I do not think that you are evil in believing what you do.  Your good intentions have unintended consequences.  Yet you say that what the Government is doing is "breaking Britain", when in reality it is the condescending thinking of people like you that has broken Britain, trapping areas in pockets of poverty and dependency on the state.

Polly Toynbee said last night, "there is a mystical belief that if you shrink the state something magic takes its place."  Well, the Government is not shrinking the state: as you well know, Polly, public expenditure in 2014-15 will be higher than it is now.  And yes, "something magic" can happen when you put trust in people instead of starting from the premise that they are incapable children.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think Polly Toynbee would use the word paternalism or maternalism, it would probably be parentalism or, ironically or not, guardianism.