Review of Saturn’s Children (1995), by Sean Gabb

Review of Saturn’s Children by Alan Duncan
Sean Gabb
(Published in July 1995 by the Society for Individual Freedom)

I am told that even when a person is dead, the hair and fingernails for a while continue growing.  This unpleasant image came strongly to mind as I read my way through Saturn’s Children by Alan Duncan MP and Dominic Hobson.  It is quite the most sensible book published this decade to which a Conservative MP has put his name.

Its subtitle – “How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue” – is a good summary of its contents.  During this century, the twin evils of welfarism at home and adventurism abroad have made the State from an incompetent servant to an absolute and often arbitrary master.  We used to be told how state control could turn nasty only in countries without a liberal tradition.  But we know from experience now that a liberal tradition is less a block on the road to serfdom than at best a set of speed restrictors.

Already, the heavy weight of taxes has abolished any true right to the fruits of our labour – which are better seen as a commission paid on how much we add to a collectivised national income.  The equally heavy weight of regulation has tended to abolish most other property rights, turning these into conditional loans to be varied or resumed almost at will.  The consequent loss of independence has exposed us to the whims of a politically correct bureaucracy, no different in principle from the past tyrants who imprisoned Galileo and burned Servetus and shot anyone who thought Mendel a better scientist than Lysenko.

And what benefits have we had from this new serfdom?  When Esau sold his birthright, he at least got his contracted mess of pottage.  When this country went statist, it simply got the most rapid fall from greatness on record.  The loss of Empire is nothing worth lamenting.  But given a consistently liberal policy since 1900, we might still be the most prosperous nation on earth – replacing Japan as the island equal of the continental trading blocs.  As it is, we are falling behind countries like Italy and Thailand.

We cannot even now say that any loss of freedom and prosperity has been compensated by gains in material equality.  We are fast learning what the Victorians took for granted – that poverty is as much a moral as an economic fact.  Not only has a welfare budget of £90 billion failed to prevent the emergence of an underclass as degraded and dangerous as anything to be found in Dickens – it has actually encouraged the process.  Headlice now coexist with satellite television, illiteracy with designer clothing.

After several hundred pages of describing how awful things have become, and are still becoming, the authors make their recommendations.  Despite the radical analysis, I expected nothing unusual here.  When a Tory MP on the “right” of the Party puts his name to a book, the rule is to let the real solutions emerge from the analysis but remain unspoken.  All that can be spoken is the usual “Thatcherite” agenda of spending cuts and deregulation – the sort of thing Lady Thatcher never actually did while in office, but which it is quite respectable to claim as a Party orthodoxy.  Interestingly, the authors break this rule.  They call, among much else, for the legalising of drugs and the privatising of state education.  Though not libertarians in the complete sense, they put forward a programme that, if implemented, would within 30 or 40 years repair all the harm done during the past hundred.

If implemented!  Here I come back to the hair and fingernails.  I began reading this book the day after John Major resigned as Party Leader.  I am writing this article the Sunday after the Cabinet reconstruction.  Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister!  Malcolm Rifkind as Foreign Secretary!  Michael Howard left at the Home Office to complete his abolition of the Common Law!  All this in a party that has lost two thirds of its membership since 1990, and has fewer Councillors than the Liberal Democrats!  I see no hope here of implementation.  Mr Duncan has co-written an excellent book.  But he is attached to the corpse of a Tory Party that stinks to high heaven.

Some of my friends are more optimistic.  “Wait for the next election” they tell me.  “Major and co. won’t last forever.  Once they are out of the way, our people will take over.  The Party will be reborn.”  But will it?  Never mind the body of ideas ready and waiting to slide onto the political agenda – look at the people whom we are expecting to give those ideas the necessary push.  The present wet ascendency within the Government may be a coalition of intellectual and spiritual dwarves;  but these tower above most of “our” people in the House of Commons.  Just look at them.

Look at Norman Lamont, the earliest of the potential challengers in the leadership election.  I have friends who actually respect this most discredited of politicians.  His Euroscepticism did not keep him from sitting in the Cabinet that approved the Maastricht Treaty – or from doing everything possible to keep the Pound in the Exchange Rate Mechanism.  We must all swallow the occasional toad, but Mr Lamont in office had an almost Gallic passion for them.  Except he was finally sacked, he would still be at the high table with his mouth wide open.

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Look at John Redwood, the real challenger.  Like Mr Lamont, he sat for years in a Cabinet that he now denounces for following policies hostile to the public interest.  To be fair, he is an open authoritarian; and had he become Prime Minister, there might have been even more police state laws than Mr Major is delivering.  If my friends swarmed round him, that is purely their desperate folly.  But take his promise to end corruption in high places.  This was an odd promise from a man who – though himself of spotless integrity, I have no doubt – ruled Wales as something like a mafia colony.

Look at Michael Portillo, the preferred challenger.  There is nothing wrong with being only half English and bilingual.  There is nothing wrong with denouncing foreigners as corrupt.  It is strange, though, to combine them.  It is no recommendation to do the second twice in the same month, and to excuse each occasion as “off the cuff”.  Nor, when pressed, is it any recommendation for a man of 40 to let his friends join in with remarks about the exuberance of youth.  Nor, perhaps more seriously, am I impressed by a man who could neither honestly challenge the Prime Minister in the leadership election nor honestly support him.  I disliked Mr Portillo on sight.  Even without evidence, I thought him a vain buffoon, less interested in ideas than in getting the right starch for his shirts.  Nothing I have learned since then gives me reason to think he is worth supporting for the Party leadership, now or in the future.

I could continue like this for page after page, weighing the leading figures on the Tory right.  But it is enough to say that I find them all wanting.  We cannot look to them for deliverance.  We might find people with more sense of what needs to be done, and with more ability to do it, by picking names at random off the House of Commons catering payroll.  Bearing which in mind, the book that I am sort of reviewing is best regarded not as a programme for action, but as a beautiful dream – rather like the proposals for reform made in France at various times before 1789, that had every excellence, lacking only the smallest chance of being enacted.

© 1995 – 2018, seangabb.

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