Signs of Hope for Fresh Thinking in the U.S. and the U.K.
by Conrad Black (March 2016)
The greatest single political problem in the Western world is sclerosis of the imagination. In Congress, on the hustings, and in the media, the United States is reduced to two camps. One side is calling for swingeing strokes of a spending scythe on the government with the threat of a shutdown behind it, and the other side is offering more redistributive taxing and, through the quaint and incompletely recycled ex-communist Bernie Sanders, a trillion-dollar bribe in the forgiveness of all student loans. In the media, we have shrieking heads with very few people saying anything intelligible.
In Canada, there are cries of alarm over the deficit, though it is hardly a surprise and seems to top out at less than a third, as share of gross domestic product, than where the U.S. sat for seven years (1.5 per cent against five to seven per cent). The evasive squirming from the government seems to indicate a fiscal policy of clinging to its new mandate and waiting for a tide of macroeconomic growth to raise all the boats, even those that have been steered ineptly. In Britain, the Conservative and Labour parties are split over Europe and in a state of policy exhaustion, though the Cameron government and its chancellor, George Osborne, have taken full advantage of Britain being the place the frightened rich run to, from Russia, China, and all the fissiparous cultures of the Middle East, and even the higher taxed reaches of Europe: socialists, as well as migrants, begin at Calais.
There are signs of hope for fresh thinking in both the U.S. and the U.K. Donald Trump horrifies Canadians as a caricature of an Ugly American of the 1950s vintage: loud, boastful, boorish, ignorant, obscenely materialistic, and illiberal in every respect, as nauseating a personality as he is reassuring to us of our comparative civility, culture, and equability, our inoffensiveness and niceness, if not exactly our style. There is some reason for this judgment of Trump from what we have generally seen of him in public now for 30 years. In private, he is charming, solicitous, engaging, and companionable, never pompous, devoid of prejudice, abstemious, and a traditional and conscientious family man. He is a generous civic leader in New York, a quality builder, and a generous employer and philanthropist and friend. His company and ours had a joint venture in Chicago and he delivered on every clause, managed the redevelopment of our property there with great skill and it was a very satisfactory experience all round.
I scarcely recognize the self-obsessed blowhard I see on television, but the fact that he is doing so well in preferential elections in the nominating process must be taken not as a sign of the triumph of the belligerent, clumsy, bullying America the world knows and dislikes, but rather as indicative of the rage of scores of millions of Americans as they work themselves to the bone to stumble from pay cheque to pay cheque with maxed-out credit cards and loud rumours of recession. They are angry about rising crime rates, the many thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars that have been squandered in the Middle East to produce an appalling humanitarian crisis, the debasement of the currency and the reduction of their great country to the status of a laughing stock. These are legitimate grievances and for Trump to stare at audiences with an Ozymandian curled lip and say, as he did in winning the Nevada primary this week, “I love the poorly educated people,” to applause, and take nearly half the Hispanic vote despite being falsely reviled as a racist, only means that he knew how angry the people were and knew how to give voice to that anger, to be its evocator and its voice.
American politics is less predictable than that of most large countries, but at this point, he looks like the nominee. From March 15 on, most of the Republican primaries are winner-take-all states and much will depend on Florida and Ohio — if Trump beats Marco Rubio and John Kasich in their home states, he will win. Next (Super) Tuesday, Ted Cruz should take Texas but Trump almost everything else. Any of the Republicans still standing should crush Hillary Clinton, who will be carried to the goal-line even against Bernie Sanders, a fugitive from the Stalinist kibbutz movement of early Israel and still convalescing from septuagenarian socialist Vermont cabin fever. Clinton carries the baggage of the Obama administration and has scarcely uttered a sentence of unchallengeable truthfulness since she was first noticed in the crucifixion party that bustled Richard Nixon to his Golgotha more than 40 years ago.
If elected, Trump would have a clear mandate to clean up the scandalous quagmire of American political campaign financing that has reduced every candidate except him and Michael Bloomberg to Oliver Twist mendicants, with cupped hands and begging bowls, and has brokered most legislation among the special interests that finance the members of Congress. He would have a mandate to dispense with Obamacare, over which the president misled the public about keeping their own doctors and avoiding higher medical costs, an untruth more certainly deliberate and of more relevance to most American families than George W. Bush’s ultimately unfounded claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Trump would enter office with a mandate to define the U.S. national interest in the world realistically and in co-operation with allies and to enforce it. He would have a mandate to streamline and decentralize the federal government, bring in bipartisan entitlement reform that would make government affordable, and produce tax reform, which he has already defined as meaning no breaks for the billionaires (not the phony, if entertaining, grandstanding of Warren Buffett).
Trump knows how to run a large enterprise and how to make a deal. You don’t have to like, or even be able easily to endure, some of his histrionics to see his rise as the admirable wrath of a self-governing people reaching for a prospective leader untainted by the 15 to 20 years of bipartisan, inter-branch failure in the U.S. government. This has been a freakish affliction that struck at the hour of its greatest (and most bloodless) strategic triumph with the collapse of international communism and the disintegration of its only rival. This garish carnival could be for the best.
In Britain, the re-elected Conservative government imagined that it could produce a permanent agreement for Britain in Europe that did not really address any of the country’s concerns about stripping a governmental system that has evolved gradually over nine centuries and served the country well, to feed a Euro-congeries of bureaucracies and a Babylonian talking shop of a parliament with more interpreters than legislators. The whole tottering and pretentious, if well-intentioned, Euro-federal effort is guided by a caricaturist’s delight of self-important, robotic Belgians and Dutch, claiming the future of the great nationalities of Europe resides in their unfathomable warrens of official regulation. The defection of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and Britain’s most popular politician, from this stealthy effort of Cameron’s to dispose of British independence has created a dramatic schism. The traditional parties are sharply divided, the U.K. Independence Party will support the Outers, and the Scottish Nationalists and Northern Irish are anyone’s guess. It is an astonishing blunder by Cameron, who has squandered his serene majority, and allowed the humanoid hyper-regulators of Brussels to hustle him into a capitulation of British sovereignty.
I predict Boris will win, as he is promising a better and less binding deal. It will be the most dramatic parliamentary coup since Neville Chamberlain was forced out to make way for Winston Churchill in 1940. Cameron will go and it will be time to reconsider the Old Commonwealth: the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Singapore. We would agree to as much unity as everyone was comfortable with, and we would have a combined GDP of $9 trillion, 90 per cent of China’s and more than Germany and Japan put together, and would be a force in the world. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were at first an unlikely succession to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, but they won the Cold War, with allies, including Canada. Trump and Johnson seem unlikely successors to Reagan and Thatcher, but it could happen and it might work.
While these dramatic events are occurring in the countries that most influence Canada, we should be more concerned about the Ontario deficit than Ottawa’s; it of equal size in a jurisdiction with only 40 per cent of Canada’s GDP and which does not have any influence on the money supply. These are consequences of the McGuinty-Wynne economic miracle. As I have written here several times, all Ottawa needs to do is to raise the harmonized sales tax on elective transactions and reduce income taxes, especially on small businesses and family incomes — the economy will grow and the deficit will shrink, and Stephen Harper will not turn into a toad. And, one more time, the best infrastructure spending is in defence, which will have the added benefit of inducing someone in the world take us seriously for the first time in many years. Justin Trudeau could then, if he has the aptitude for it, build upon Mackenzie King’s commendable performance in the wartime alliance and Brian Mulroney’s distinguished contribution to the end of the Cold War.
Canada has not lurched, serially, into the arms of the Americans and the Europeans as Britain has, nor been so misgoverned that a Trump-like figure has emerged from the political depths to smite the decayed servitors. If the new government is imaginative, it can do well and be re-elected; if it isn’t, it won’t do well and will be defeated. The Liberals can’t win on a poor record with a tribal vote from Quebec as they did for decades. As usual in Canada, we conduct our affairs between the 30-yard lines, and get much of our political entertainment watching the Americans and British.
I cannot end this column without a word in support of my distinguished colleague, Terence Corcoran, who has been violently attacked over his piece on Postmedia and Torstar last Saturday by Bruce Livesey, the mudslinging leftist zealot recently fired by Global Television for, Global said, for failing to meet its journalistic standards of balance. Livesey is now writing for a little-known West Coast blog. In his recent piece, Livesey started by attacking me (though we are in part on the same side in the issue disputed) and says that Random House, his publisher and mine, has spent a lot of money defending my libel suit against him, “which has gone nowhere.” I had to wait for more important litigation to be resolved to get all the way down to Livesey’s tawdry malignancies, and if Random House has paid more than $5,000 on this account, it has been fleeced. But I can assure Livesey that his day of reckoning will come: a long and intense session under oath in penetrating cross-examination over his malicious falsehoods. He will be less chipper after that character-building experience.
First published in the National Post.
Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership and Rise To Greatness: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada's best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.
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