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The headlines echo the shock and drama of the last few days. The news dominates conversations around the world. But for historians there is a grand scale subtext. That sub text is about a growing rejection of the established political system, the established wisdom, the establishment view of the world and how it should be run. Those in control appear to be increasingly out on a limb, advising us on ever more obscure aspects of our lives and the backlash against them is now in full throttle, as we saw in America this week. In truth, it all started a long time ago.
There was a small but revealing episode in the fall of Margaret Thatcher late in 1990. In October, the Italians, who held the presidency of the (then) twelve-member European Community, held a conference in Rome and made a proposal for monetary union.
This came up by surprise though it had been agreed with the French and German leaders in advance: Margaret Thatcher was ‘ambushed’, unprepared for the technical arguments that would follow. Of course she did not want Britain to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, let alone the Euro to which it gave birth some years later: she saw both as calamitous. But ERM was supported by most of the Great and Good, as was the Euro later on. The Great and the Good held sway.
During the conference itself, to show her rejection of the ‘cloud cuckoo land’ preoccupations in Europe, Thatcher produced a packet of (as I remember) Dunhill International on which a warning had been stamped: ‘Smoking seriously harms you and others around you’; ‘Smoking causes impotence’ etc., the wording solemnly agreed for all of the Community languages. This was done in the name of market-equalization. She wondered how much bureaucratic time had been spent on this nonsense and probably did not believe the warnings: her husband, who died at 88, was a ferocious smoker and if there had been any truth in the passive-smoking warning, she herself would hardly have survived the honeymoon. What was the European Union (as it was to be) doing, bothering with things at this level?
There were a great many more examples: only straight cucumbers to be sold, bats in roofs not to be got rid of, and so much else to feed the tabloid press with anti-‘European’ stories every week. But there was a tidal wave of bureaucratic self-interest at work. It has grown and grown, with, as the latest wheeze, a proposal to package all cigarettes in the same style, so that people will not automatically make for the brand that they prefer, but will have to ask the seller which is which. Already in England newsagents are forbidden to have cigarette packets on open sale; and they are anyway very expensive, at over £10 for twenty Dunhill International. But a quarter of adults smoke – an obstinate figure, not dented by the restrictions.
We call it ‘the nanny state’ but it is a multi-national phenomenon. That is the subtext of recent events. That is what is being rejected. The World Health Organization – its latest junket on-going as I write, as The Conference of the Parties, including the EU, in Delhi this week – has no very obvious function, not already discharged by national health authorities, and it needs international health scares so as to have something to do. This time it’s about regulation of tobacco products.
Health and safety in all countries provide an unanswerably good weapon for career advancement, and regulation follows regulation. The prize at the moment has to go to Canada, where cigarette plain packaging has been one of the key public health initiatives of Justin Trudeau’s uber-correct government. The fact that the legalisation of marijuana – a similarly harmful substance when smoked – is also being pushed through by the trendy Liberals does not seem to strike anyone as a blatant double standard. One rule for the ‘hipsters’ with their medicinal spliff, another for the blue collar smoker.
An outstanding German thriller-writer, Ferdinand von Schirach, fantasizes, not without substance, that the taboo on smoking in restaurants will soon extend to wine: no customer to be sold more than a glass, alcohol-content regulated.
Yes, alcohol can be dangerous for health, but as George Orwell pointed out, there is a Don Quixote in us all, accompanied by a Sancho Panza. Letting off steam is part of the pattern. It is of course true that national governments have to take charge of national circumstances, but how out of touch have the established elite become? How cloud cuckoo have our leaders become?
Around 1900, appalled by the mess of the slums of the great cities, town-planners of good will came up with the idea of a Garden City: Dame Henrietta Barnes with Hampstead, Sir Ebenezer Howard with Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth, which managed to have a pub with no beer. Milton Keynes, the last of these gnome-utopias, has a considerable crime-rate and, from boredom, a drug problem. To this day, the Do Good nannies do not know what to do with this, though it is clearly far more important than tobacco or even alcohol. So they run away, and find yet sillier ways to spend their time looking after us.
The American people have voted against their nannies, who do not listen to them. They have voted against an established elite who spends its time doing good as they see it. The stifled voice of “common sense” has won, at least for now. What becomes of the new idealism, epitomized by the fictional hero of Don Quixote – Sancho Panza – a humanising force, with his noble but lower-class origins – remains to be seen.
Norman Stone is a Professor in the Department of History at Bilkent University. He was previously Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher. His publications include The Eastern Front 1914-1917 (1975), which won the Wolfson Prize for History.