Whenever I am in Amsterdam, I stay in a small, elegant and well-run hotel. The excellent and obliging staff are all Dutch.
Whenever I am in London, I stay at a small, elegant and well-run hotel. The excellent and obliging staff are all foreign—which is just as well, for if they were English the hotel would not be well-run for long. When the English try to run a good hotel, they combine pomposity with slovenliness.
Perhaps this would not be so serious a matter if the British economy were not a so-called service economy. It has been such ever since Margaret Thatcher solved our chronic industrial relations problem by the simple expedient of getting rid of industry. This certainly worked, and perhaps was inevitable in the circumstances, but it was necessary to find some other way of making our way in the world. This we have not done.
Incompetence and incapacity are everywhere. Despite ever-rising local taxes, town and city councils are either unable or unwilling to clear the streets of litter, with the result that Britain is by far the dirtiest country in Europe.
Although we spend four times as much on education per head as in 1950, the illiteracy rate has not gone down. I used to try to plumb the depths (or shallows) of youthful British ignorance by asking my patients a few simple questions. Fifty percent responded to the question "What is arithmetic?" by answering "What is arithmetic?" It is not that they were good at doing something that they could not name: When I asked one young man, not mentally deficient, to multiply three by four, he replied "We didn't get that far."
This is the result of 11 years of state-funded compulsory education, or rather attendance at school, at a cost of between $100,000 and $200,000. The government's response has been to raise the school-leaving age to 18, thus making total ignorance even more expensive.
This is at the bottom rung of society, but incompetence starts at the very top. It is doubtful whether any major country has had a more incompetent leader than Gordon Brown for many years. The product of a pleasure-hating Scottish Presbyterian tradition, he behaves as if taxation were a moral good in itself, regardless of the uses to which it is put; he is widely believed to have taken lessons in how to smile, though he has not been an apt pupil, for he now makes disconcertingly odd grimaces at inappropriate moments. He is the only leader known to me who combines dourness with frivolity.
Early in his disastrous career in government he sold the country's gold reserves at a derisory price, against all advice, driving the price lower by the manner in which he arranged the sale. A convenience-store owner couldn't, and almost certainly wouldn't, have done worse.
After 12 years of ceaseless Brownian motion, British public finances have gone from being comparatively healthy to being catastrophically bad. In order to expand vastly the public sector in which he is a true believer, Mr. Brown has raised taxes by stealth, undertaken government obligations that appear nowhere in the accounts and that will weigh on future generations, and eased credit to encourage asset inflation and give people the illusion of prosperity. For the duration of his time in government, Britain has been like a consumptive patient, with an excess of bogus well-being shortly before expiry. If the world is an opera stage, Britain has been playing Violetta or Mimi in the last act.
What, then, of the opposition? Surely it has managed to hit a few of the easy targets with which the government has so thoughtfully supplied it?
No words of mine can adequately convey the contempt in which the Conservatives are now, rightly, held by almost everyone. I do not recall meeting anyone who thinks that David Cameron, their leader, is anything other than a careerist in the mold of Tony Blair. The most that anyone allows himself to hope is that, beneath the thin veneer of opportunism, there beats a heart of oak.
But the auguries are not good: Not only was Mr. Cameron's only pre-political job in public relations, hardly a school for intellectual and moral probity, but he has subscribed to every fashionable policy nostrum from environmentalism to large, indeed profligate, government expenditure. Not truth, but the latest poll, has guided him—at a time when only truth will serve. However, he will be truly representative as prime minister. Like his country, he is quite without substance.
It is unthinkable that such distilled truth would be published or broadcast by the meretricious British news media .