Although attributed to Milton Friedman, the assertion that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ had been around long before he took it for the title of an economics book in 1975. It has been used since by many who have never given monetarism a second’s thought.
Physicists say the universe is a closed system. No magic source can give it free energy or indeed calories. Mathematicians and computer technicians are as adamant that something cannot come from nothing. Everyone agrees the lunch bill must be paid. Everyone, that is, except British politicians and the voters who endorse them in their millions.
If it is true that a country gets the politicians it deserves, we must have descended into a state of catatonic stupidity to deserve Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Theresa May, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. It is as if a paranoid fantasy has become real. In The Day of the Triffids, alien plants blind the population. In Brave New World, the rulers sedate the citizenry with soma, a ‘euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant’ drug. In Brave New Britain, left and right, the supposedly clever and actually dumb, have been persuaded that they can end austerity without paying a penny. With alien invasions and mass drugging unavailable as explanations, we have no choice but to conclude that the British have blinded themselves. We have become our own monsters.
Boris Johnson’s remark that the British could have their cake and eat it too ought to have followed him to his grave. It would have made an excellent epitaph on his tombstone, as a warning against the vanity of false hopes. ‘Here lies Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He wanted to have his cake and eat it. Now all his cake is gone.’
Yet far from being mocked to within an inch of its life, Johnson and Gove’s Vote Leave campaign won on the promise that Britain could retain the benefits of being a member of the world’s richest trading union while leaving it. Having learned the British public will believe anything, they have moved on and announced that they could end austerity without raising taxes. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever Johnson said he ‘strongly believes’ a public sector pay rise can be done in a ‘responsible way’ and ‘without causing fiscal pressures’.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that the lunch bill for bringing public sector pay in line with the private sector will be £6.3 billion a year. But what do these so-called experts know? Johnson and Gove’s ‘strong belief’ trumps mere evidence. The public wants good public services and low taxes. Who are our leaders to say they cannot have both? Who is willing to be damned as an elitist for contradicting the will of ‘the people’?
Certainly not the leaders of the Labour Party. Corbyn – or ‘Jeremy’ as his childlike acolytes call him – wants to end austerity. He tells us so in every speech. He cares about the dilapidated public services, the disposed poor, the nurses and midwifes leaving the NHS in their thousands. Truly he does. He cares so much it almost hurts.
You might have thought that the Labour left had something approaching a plan. Scandinavia and France organise their affairs better than Britain in my view because they accept that welfare states must be paid for. Labour does not. Its attitude towards cake is just a variant on the Johnsonian free-lunch theme. Corbyn – forgive me, ‘Jeremy’ – tells his supporters that they can have someone else’s cake and eat it. They won’t have to pay. There will be no need for across the board tax rises on all earners. Labour would fund increased welfare and nationalisation just by increasing taxes on higher earners and corporations. I’m all for progressive taxation and stopping corporate tax avoidance. But no one believes that it could pay for a vast programme of nationalisation and welfare. There aren’t enough rich people. There isn’t some hidden corporate pot of gold just waiting for a socialist chancellor to find it.
No one believes it, I should have said, apart from Labour voters, who trust ‘Jeremy’ as gormlessly as Tories trust ‘Boris’.
I have saved the best for last. The soma-induced credulity that has deadened the mind of this once proud people is no more manifest than in the belief that we can pay ourselves more while leaving the single market. What began with Johnson and Gove claiming we could leave the EU without pain now afflicts the leaders of all parties.
I don’t mean to mock the young at Glastonbury, but did they have the faintest idea who they were cheering when they cheered Jeremy Corbyn? The far left has always hated the EU, seeing it as a capitalist club. Corbyn and McDonnell were explicit on this point during their decades in fringe politics. They haven’t changed now, as their decision to sack Labour MPs who voted to protect our economic interests shows.
Yet young and middle-aged Labour voters, who ought to know better, cling to the illusion that ‘Jeremy’s’ Brexit is somehow softer and gentler than May, Gove, Johnson or Farage’s Brexit. Still they believe that you can end austerity and reduce national income simultaneously.
In Brave New World, a few individuals struggle against mass drug dependence. In The Day of the Triffids, a handful escape the killer plants and make it to safety. In Britain today delusion is omnipresent. When reality breaks in, and the lunch bill finally arrives, I look forward to seeing the mother of all backlashes.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.