A Modest Proposal

The second column from PopCon's irrepressible Swift 


‘The man in Whitehall knows best’. So wrote an man called Douglas Jay in 1937. (Swift’s younger readers might need to know that Jay was a senior figure in the Labour party right from the thirties to the sixties.)

The full quote, never usually reproduced, runs as follows:

“In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves"[1]

At that time, he was le mot juste. The second world war had demonstrated, it seemed, that the best way to do things was to run them from the centre, with chaps (and they were nearly always chaps) doing the planning and thinking, with ideal economic and social outcomes being the result. Neither major party seriously disented from that proposition, right up to the advent of the Blessed Margaret, as Swift – (his exemplar was a clergyman, remember) prefers to call her.

And Thatcher herself was a rare orchid. Since Thatcherism grew, flourished, and then died, we have been through many governments and prime ministers. Many economic ups and downs. Many trivial and – occasionally - serious changes of policy . Yet the underlying political culture of the country has not changed.

The philosophy of Jay is now stronger then ever. Let’s call it Jayism, shall we?

The man (and now woman) in Whitehall – and the enormous array of quasi -state organisations (the Blob), ‘campaigning’ charities - which get all their money from government anyway - and a news service dominated by the BBC (another paid-up Blob-member) can all be assumed to know best. They are Jayists.

Note also the Jayist enumeration of education, nutrition, and health. On all three, the opinion across nearly all leading politicians of every party is that people cannot be trusted to make their own choices. Every attempt to argue that they can do so will be met (e.g. on smoking, gambling, food, and now the ludicrous  government policy on vaping) by the claim that the evils of corporate propaganda have somehow deprived people of their decision-making powers.

And Jayism is applied increasingly to every aspect of public life.

Hello to the European Union, and then to an exit only excrutiatingly conceded despite a comfortably successful popular vote. Jayism.

Goodbye to border control – or at least to anything effective rather than perrformative, because, actually, we don’t much care for judging people. Jayism.

Welcome to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) whose democratic mandate, when Swift last looked, was little more than zero. Jayism.

Hello Public Health England (subsequently abolished owing to its failure to actually do anything about public health, but it, like Hydra, has spawned multiple successor bodies). Jayism.

(While we’re about it, let’s pay a compliment to dear old Douglas Jay for identifying nutrition as an area where the state knows best. He’d have been amazed to see the current colossal bureaucracy and spending on that topic, but he was on the money, right enough.)

Welcome to the Arts Council, the Gambling Commission, and for all Swift knows, the next regulatory body on the quality of lavatory paper. Jayists, the lot of ‘em.

If you don’t want another public body, how about a piece of unnecessary legislation? The Equalities Act, perhaps the worst-named piece of legislation in British history.

Jayism is why Popoular Conservatism exists.

It’s not about forcing everyone down a single path – indeed the reverse. It is about imagining a country where the views of individual citizens are taken seriously in the way policy is made, and not the views of a tiny minority of the people – the Blobocracy.

Now, Swift is a cynic. The title of this blog is borrowed from his august predecessor’s most famous satirical work, which suggested that the famine in Ireland in 1729 might be alleviated by the consumption of local children. (It’s still amazingly funny, so look it up and read it).

But Popular Conservatism is genuinely a modest proposal – but one with revolutionary implications.

Let people run their own lives.

Let the government – doesn’t matter which – confine itself to the things it can be sure it can do better than individual choice.

If it has to be a government that does things, let it be OUR government (and not the ECHR, to quote a topical example).

Let’s trust the popular instinct because othwerwise we end up with a country that the Jayists run and we obey.

No thanks.



[1]Ironically, Jay was in later years a Eurosceptic, and was the first leading politican of either major party that Swift believes to have urged that UK membership of the EEC (as it then was) should be subject to a referendum. When the first version of the referendum happened, in 1975, he campaigned for a no vote. His views on the limits of popular sovereignty had clearly changed!.