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Why doesn’t Britain have a Tea Party?

By Anthony O’Hear

The first one.

I HAVE BEEN SPENDING the summer in the USA, in the small town of Bowling Green, Ohio, and I have come to appreciate some of the virtues and bars of Main Street and small town America, combined, it must be said, with visits to art museums in Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Minneapolis and, above all, our local one of Toledo, all to a considerable degree privately collected and funded, and all boasting collections of European art which would grace any European capital.

I have also been keeping an eye on politics here in the USA and over there in Britain. The British scramble for power now over, the similarities between the big governments in Washington DC and London are, frankly, closer than the differences. Witness, for example the introduction of what is now known as Obamacare and the Cameron pledge to keep spending on the NHS up to pre-credit-crunch levels. Without going into detail, according to its critics Obamacare is going to put up taxes and introduce an element of compulsion – to say nothing of a huge bureaucracy to administer the thing – without producing a better health service overall. But what it will do (and may be intended to do) is pave the way for an eventual state take-over of health-care. If the NHS in Britain is a guide, the critics may well be right to be concerned. Where they are definitely right is that Obamacare is a striking example of big government over-riding local influence and personal choice.

But here there is a huge difference between Britain and the USA. For in the USA (unlike in Britain) there is a growing popular movement against Big Government, known quaintly, but appropriately, as the ‘Tea Party’, after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, whose leitmotif was ‘no taxation without representation’. The complaint of the currentTea Party is that in 2010, while there is representation of a sort in government, the representatives – from both parties – actually pay no attention to the wishes and needs and liberties of the ordinary voter.

In the current political climate in the USA, the Tea Party is likely to be influential. President Obama’s approval ratings have slumped dramatically since his election (far faster than Tony Blair’s did), and if current polls are to be believed, the Democrats are set to have a catastrophic result in the mid-term elections in the autumn. But all is not good news for the Republicans either. McCain fought, rather like Cameron, on a centrist platform against Obama in 2008, and lost dramatically. (Did Cameron win in 2010? Maybe someone will remind me.) And the policies of George W. Bush very much encouraged the growth of a big government, one of whose last acts was the so-called ‘Troubled Assets Relief Program’. TARP allowed the US government to bail out banks and financial institutions hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis with up to $350 billion; as late as December 19th 2008, it was extended by Bush to apply to any industry he personally deemed necessary to avert the financial crisis – in this case, the US motor industry to the tune of $17.4 billion! None of this left the Republicans with a leg to stand on when Obama went down the same track to a hitherto unimaginable degree.

The Tea Party is a loose coalition of individuals and groups opposed to big government. It is to a large extent based on cable television and radio talk shows, both arenas which give far more space than is available in Britain to hard-talking conservatives and free marketeers. On the CNBC ‘Squawk Box’ slot, in February 2009, a week after Congress had passed Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package and the day after the President had announced his ‘Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan’, CNBC’s Rick Santelli said this: ‘Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages, or would we like to buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road… who carry the water instead of drink the water?’ Inelegantly expressed, no doubt, and pretty well inexpressible in the British media (which by contrast would be full of stories about the heartache of losing one’s home), but one can see Santelli’s point. Even more thought-provoking is his further argument that’ you cannot buy your way into prosperity’ (with our money) – again a sentiment pretty well off limits in Britain, where nearly everyone in politics and the media seems in favour of one sort or another of a ‘recovery package’. But then liberty means responsibility and at times loss, and the state attempting to mask this fact – and to spend what is in effect our children’s money to get us out of it – makes neither moral nor intellectual sense.

Then there is the phenomenon known as Glenn Beck, a talk show host with a daily audience of 8,000,000 and a further 2,000,000 on his Fox News slot. Beck uses his programmes to promote such works as Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which topped the best seller charts as a result, and Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. (Hayek on Richard and Judy, A Patriot’s History of Britain anywhere?) In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense (one of many Beck productions currently on sale here in bookshops everywhere, even in Perrysburg, Ohio), we read that ‘with a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood’. Distasteful, no doubt, to the mandarin class, but just point to any major policy difference between the three major British political parties in the 2010 election, which might realistically have been expected to trim the scales of the Leviathan we feed with our taxes; and is it too crude to mention MPs’ expenses in this context (parasites)?

TAKING SANTELLI AND BECK as figureheads of the current Tea Party, it is easy to see the spiritual link between this one and the original. The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, formulated 18 years after the Boston party and in its wake, says this: ‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, or prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’ Some of the original drafters of the amendment wanted the word ‘explicitly’ inserted between ‘not’ and ‘delegated’, and perhaps they were wise. What has happened since 1791 has been, to put it mildly, a rather generous interpretation of powers implicitly delegated by the constitution to the federal government (and, therefore, also in effect to the President), with little resistance from the Supreme Court. The current Tea Party wants to change all this, and to return to a far more exact and literal interpretation of the Constitution.

At this point the populist rhetoric touches on a deep and important philosophical divide. The framers of the US Constitution were convinced that the principles which they made explicit in it and which underlay it were timeless truths about human nature, derived in their case from the writings of John Locke, and drawing on the older natural law tradition rooted in Christianity and the ancient Greeks. Central to these truths was a set of natural rights and liberties on which neither other individuals nor, more particularly, governments should trespass. Although the actual manner in which these rights and liberties were to be exemplified will be historically conditioned – and they could be exemplified in different ways – they, together with the consent of the governed, will form the basis of any legitimately constituted state. One thing which Jefferson in particular was conscious of was that a mere majority of voters was not enough to guarantee liberty: ‘173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one’. It wasn’t ‘elective despotism’, even if arrived at by impeccably democratic processes which the revolution had been fought for, but for the rights of man, safeguarded as far as possible through prudent constitutional and institutional structures. For the Founders, indeed, individual liberty was paramount, and democracy at best a means. Individual people had a right to themselves and their fates, and government was to be limited to allow for the full expression of this.

The Tea Party agrees with the Founders. The rights of man are timeless; the Constitution which safeguards and embodies them is not to be tampered with. The role of government is to protect liberty, even in the face of elective despotism. However, for most of the twentieth century and for all so far of the twenty –first, the Founders’ view has not been shared by most politicians or, in the main, by the Supreme Court. The mass of the American body politic and judiciary, in their actions at least, have decided that the Founders’ principles are not timeless at all, but simply yesterday’s solutions to yesterday’s problems. All human affairs are in flux and evolution; there are no timeless truths of morality, of politics or of anything else. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and FDR, all believed in a strong regulatory role for the state, that, for all kinds of reasons, worthy and less worthy, the state has a right to interfere in the free actions and transactions of individuals. As the twentieth century went on the state’s purpose was extended to encompass the redistribution of wealth according to the notions of ‘fairness’ of particular politicians, and to develop the community according to other preferred policy nostrums, including changing and mutable ideas on welfare and education (and now health and sexual morality).

ALL THIS HAS BEEN in the name of democracy and equality, and often in blatant conflict with the founding documents. In this the legislators and the courts were encouraged and supported by such iconic intellectual figures as John Dewey, Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly, to say nothing of most of the current academic establishment. In other words, in contrast to the Founders’ view of the state as the upholder of a framework in which free individuals and autonomous institutions could pursue their own goals and develop their own enterprises, the state itself has become what Michael Oakeshott has termed an ‘enterprise association’, with its own specific goals and aims, which it uses its coercive power to impose on everyone else – unfairly, of course, because the goals and aims imposed are always those of particular factions and interests, right or left, and no one is powerful enough to withstand the might of the state. One side-effect is that big players, whether capitalists or trade unions, now have an interest in capturing the bureaucracies and mechanisms of the state, which they spend huge amounts of money and effort in doing, while those bureaucracies themselves seek ever to aggrandize and expand their influence and domains.

What has come to be called progressivism in this context is the idea that the state and its institutions, Constitution and all, are or should be undergoing constant evolution – and this progressivism is common to both left and right in to-day’s mainstream politics. Glenn Beck sums it up thus: ‘Progressivism has less to do with the parties and more to do with individuals who seek to redefine, reshape, and rebuild America into a country where individual liberties and personal property mean nothing if they conflict with the plans and goals of the State’ – and we could, of course, add to what Beck says by pointing out that the goals of ‘the State’ are in fact the goals of those individuals and interest groups who have captured the state apparatus, including the largely self-serving bureaucracies spawned by all this legislation and planning. Against progressivism, Beck and his fellow Tea-Partiers want to remind the American public of the older, more venerable notion of the Constitution and of the timeless principles on which it rests.

Beck is, as I say, touching on a deep philosophical point, as to whether there are or are not timeless truths about human nature and human flourishing, and timeless moral principles. If there are, then, by that very fact the scope for state activity becomes constrained, and particularly if they take the form we find in Locke, which stresses individual rights and liberties (in which we surely all believe, at least deep down, and which is why most of us prefer democracy to tyranny, and don’t like being pushed around by officials and bureaucrats). In this, in the USA, the Tea Party may well make headway, given the robust sense of personal liberty which still obtains there (often for religious reasons), and particularly now, in the present state of political disillusion there, of which the rapid fall from popularity of the President is a striking symptom. The Tea Party, over the coming months and years, may well become a force which begins to wield influence within the Republican Party, and to which the Democrats will have to listen, at local level at least.

IN BRITAIN STATE ACTIVITY and taxation are considerably higher than they are in the USA (including barrow loads of regulators and ‘authorities’ of this, that and the other, and barrow-loads of otiose regulation and ‘advice’ often ostensibly for ‘consumer protection’ and our own ‘health and safety’). Then there is the fact of our membership the European Union, whence emanates a large part of our law and 120,000 directives and regulations currently in force; further, if we stopped paying what it costs us to belong to the EU, our lay-out on the credit crunch would be wiped out in a few years, while polls regularly show that half the population wants out. Yet this topic was not up for discussion within the three main political parties during the last election, and all have now shiftily contrived to refuse the British public a vote on the new European Constitution (now re-packaged as the Lisbon Treaty). And there is the widespread disillusion with the personal behaviour of literally hundreds on MPs in the expenses scandal, to which I have already referred. So why is there is no sign of a British Tea Party?

It is true that in Britain there is nothing like the US Constitution around which campaigners against progressivism and the over-mighty state can gather. But this in itself would not mean that liberty and timeless moral principles are not held in high esteem in Britain. Indeed as recently as World War Two a robust sense of the individual and of the importance of his or her self-reliance was very much part of the British psyche. But so, unfortunately, was a degree of deference and servility. Do we have reluctantly to conclude that in 2010, for all our personal chippiness, when it comes to what really matters, deference and servility are now uppermost (or is it just laziness)? Maybe we have to remind ourselves that it was against precisely that side of the British character – servility masquerading as laziness, or vice versa – that the Tea Party of 1773 was reacting, while staking its future on the other side, with Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and the rights of man…

Tea anyone?

Anthony O’Hear is an editor of the Fortnightly Review, the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and the author of Philosophy in the New Century, among other books. He is currently a Visiting Scholar of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.


A minor edit has been made to this article subsequent to publication. This sentence has been altered: “Then there is the fact of our membership the European Union, whence emanates a large part of our law and 120,000 directives and regulations currently in force; further, if we stopped paying what it costs us to belong to the EU, our lay-out on the credit crunch would be wiped out in a few years, while polls regularly show that half the population wants out.” [14 July 2010]

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