Oliver Letwin was on the Today programme this morning and it was pretty depressing. Leaving aside his manner, which I am afraid is getting notaby self-satisfied and pompous, he was talking of the necessity of not scrapping the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). He said that the CAP is important for maintaining the look of our countryside because farmers are paid to keep it looking beautiful.
There are two objection to this line:
First: The European Union is even more incompetent and wasteful in what it does than the British government. If this payment to farmers to keep the countryside attractive is to continue, it should be done on a national basis, not on a European Union basis. It is very disappointing to hear a Conservative Party shadow minister presupposing that the European Union should do something like this in preference to our national government.
Second: It is highly dubious that farmers do make such a big, positive contribution to the look of the countryside anyway. In New Zealand, I believe, where agricultural subsidies were removed, the natural result was that land of low productivity was allowed to go back to nature. First, that mean it became scrubland. But over time, woods began to grow of their own accord. Woods are actually very attractive and, it could be argued, have a certain 'soul' about them. People seem to respond at a surprisingly deep level to woods. Fields can be most attractive too. But modern farming has often caused the creation of vast fields which are not always so good-looking. These are subjective matters. But it is far from clear that there is a major public benefit in subsidizing farmers to keep things exactly as they are. I suggest that it is positively immoral to tax, poor elderly people living in towns to pay for 'beauty by farming' schemes.
That is the thing that Mr Letwin appears to have forgotten. Poor people pay a lot of tax. This makes it a great responsibility for politicians never to spend a single penny that cannot be powerfully justified. Such justification does not apply in this case.
I went to an event at the Institute of Economic Affairs last night at which several of the authors of a new book, Margaret Thatcher's Revolution, including Norman Tebbitt, spoke. Here are some of their remarks:
Dennis O'Keeffe: "much 'special needs' is about children who have not been taught to read".
David Marsland: Privatising the supply of healthcare (ie hospitals and doctors) is relatively easy. Privatising demand is more difficult. But a start could be made by using tax rebates to enable people to opt out of state-financed care.
James Stanfield: He went to a comprehensive school. He did GCSE in English Literature and did not do any Shakespeare at all. The year after he left, the headmaster was punched by a pupil as order faded. He reckons he got out 'just in time'. He wanted governments, if they are subsidising education, to subsidise the consumer, not the producer. He said he had been to Kenya and was appalled that the British government was exporting the failed British model of 'free and compulsory' education. He said, "British money is destroying education in Africa."
Norman Tebbitt talked of the huge transfer of assets that took place under Thatcher from the public sector to the private sector. He reeled off a list of companies privatised that was far longer than most of us can easily remember. On top of that was the sale of council homes. He said these things combined to make a big difference in social attitudes.
He admitted some failures.
He said, "we failed in the non-economic aspects of policy" and "I bitterly regret that we weren't bolder in our programme in 1987 - particularly in health reform and education reform".
On Europe, he suggested the policy now should be to describe a European Union of a kind that we would like and, if we cannot get it (or, presumably, something close, that we should leave the EU. He said that Thatcher tried to make the European Union into more of the kind of place she wanted with the Single Market. But this had not worked: "Have we got a single market? Have we hell!"
He was asked what was the biggest mistake of the Thatcher years. He had no doubt that it was joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Up until the ERM fiasco, the Conservatives were ahead in virtually every opinion poll on the question of which party would be better at running the economy. Ever since the ERM, the Conservatives have been behind on the same question.
In describing Margaret Thatcher's view of things, he said, "she believed fundamentally that people behave logically". He said approvingly that she was "predictable". You know what she would think on any issue. You did not have to ring up Number Ten and ask. When she and he were both making speeches on the same night, they did not need to exchange speeches to ensure they would not contradict each other. The line was clear and predictable. He pitied those who worked for Blair who would have no such certainty. [For example, does he believe in the state running things or private companies? One minute Railtrack is nationalised, the next he is contracting out hospital operations to private companies.]
The evening brought home how many radical things she did - things that are easily forgotten like removing exchange controls, pay limits and dividend controls. Tebbitt remarked, "we were thinking so many unthinkable thoughts we almost frightened ourselves".
Dennis O'Keeffe said that under the Thatcher administration he came to be proud of Britain. In looking to a future leader of the Tory party, he thought we would need one who could make us proud again.
In MRSA, as in so much else, government is not the answer. It is the problem or, to be more precise in this case, the obstacle getting in the way of solving the problem. This article from the Guardian tells heavily against government in general and the European Union in particular. (This, in itself, is something to be treasured.)
Researchers at the University of Manchester said European Union regulations were holding up clinical trials to test the effectiveness of three essential oils, usually used in aromatherapy, in tackling superbugs.
The team tested 40 essential oils on 10 of the most dangerous bacteria and fungi including MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and E coli. Two of the oils killed the bugs almost immediately, and a third was found to have a beneficial effect over a longer period of time.
Researchers now want to carry out trials on healthy volunteers who are carrying MRSA but are not infected by it. It is estimated that between 20% and 40% of people in the UK carry MRSA, mostly in their noses or on their skin, without any ill effects.
But nurse and aromatherapist Jacqui Stringer, clinical head of complementary therapies at the Christie hospital in Manchester, said the European clinical trials directive was slowing their progress. The directive was applied in the UK a year ago by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
"We are trying to do this in the right way so it is evidence-based and there is all this red tape preventing us," Ms Stringer told Hospital Doctor magazine.
"It seems crazy. The MHRA has put all this legislation in place and it is an absolute nightmare trying to start the trial. We are trying to hack through all the directives."
The full article is here.
Admirable ideas from John Redwood:
The Conservatives have also thrown their weight behind a campaign to maintain the availability of hundreds of vitamins and food supplements that are threatened by an EU directive.
A Conservative government would opt out of the directive, which comes into force on Aug 1. In the health service, 686 performance targets, which had distorted clinical priorities, would go.
Britain's opt-out from the EU's social chapter would be revived and Labour's plans for people wanting to sell their homes to pay for "seller's packs" would be scrapped.
Current rules to prevent money laundering by terrorists and drug dealers were too onerous on law-abiding citizens. When he went into his bank to deposit money, even though the staff knew him as their MP he still had to produce evidence of his identity. He said the system could be streamlined for everyday banking without compromising national security.
The full story is in the Daily Telegraph today.