Friday, February 22, 2008

House Points: The nationalisation of everyday life

This is my House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Back to the Future

Remember Life on Mars? Sam Tyler had an accident and woke up in 1973. ‘Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet.’

With the government rushing through a bill to nationalise Northern Rock, we have all been living on that planet this week. Turn on the television and you expect to see Z Cars, Crossroads or Nationwide. Turn on the radio and its Alvin Stardust or the Bay City Rollers. And for dinner? Let’s show our sophistication and enjoy a Vesta packet curry.

In our eagerness so crow “Vince Cable told you so,” we should not forget that many problems will remain with Northern Rock after it has been taken over by government. Vince himself has pointed out most of them.

No one knows how many bad loans the Rock has made, and it looks as though the safest of them have been hived off into a separate offshore company. It has been lending people more than the value of their houses, so some Northern Rock loans came with negative equity built in. And how will voters react when a government-owned bank starts laying off its staff and foreclosing mortgages?

Despite all this “back to the seventies” shtick, it’s not as if nationalisation ever really went away. Labour may have given up its belief that a centrally planned economy is more ethical and more efficient than the free market. But the socialists have not given up: they have simply transferred their interventionist ambitions to other fields. What we have seen is something close to the nationalisation of everyday life.

So we have seen government initiatives on a bewildering range of subjects. Everything from smoking and drinking to video games and children’s packed lunches. Individually there is something to be said for most of them, but taken en masse they tend to undermine our faith in our own autonomy, neighbourliness and parents’ authority over their children.

All of which, of course, makes the problems worse and necessitates more government intervention…

Let the government concentrate on running a medium-sized bank competently. Meanwhile the rest of us will get on with running own lives.

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