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Diary

James Bartholomew's diary: Give up the Today programme - you'll feel better

Plus: Scottish independence, not being a conservative, and the case for big basements

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

It’s amusing to see serious journalists and authors struggling to use Twitter under instruction from their newspapers and publishers. They realise they lose dignity by condensing their great thoughts into a mere 140 characters: it is inevitable, whoever you are. Imagine Jesus had been obliged by his Father to tweet. It just wouldn’t have been the same: ‘Might be a bit short of loaves and fishes on the mt today. Take a miracle to feed everyone!’ or ‘Great supper with the lads tonight — worried that tomoro might not go so well. #nastyfeeling’

This year the referendum on Scottish independence takes place at last. Oh, please, may the Scots vote yes! Pretty please! Come on Salmond! Everyone says what a brilliant politician you are. Do your stuff: charm, bamboozle and lie to get your countrymen to see things your way. You cannot imagine how thrilled we down south would be not to have a phalanx of socialists descending from the north after every election. And doubtless, after a somewhat painful time discovering that socialism is a disaster — let’s hope the Scots wake up to that a little faster than the Russians did — they will see sense and make a success of it. So, you see, we will all gain in the end.

It is a painful obligation for those of us interested in politics occasionally to listen to the Today programme — the BBC worldview at its most insistent. I keep on hoping that, one day, James Naughtie will steel himself and ask a question that comes from a free market perspective, but it will never happen, of course. But the worst of it is those cringe-making moments when the programme tries to make a joke. It’s like an elephant trying to lay an egg. For radio pleasure, I turn to Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 Live — the greatest broadcaster of our time. Quick and witty, he even lets interviewees say what they think. Some people don’t realise how good he is because he makes it look easy. The Fred Astaire of the airwaves.


My mother died five years ago. In the last few months, the mother of my ex-wife and the father of a close friend have also died. The generation above me has now almost completely gone. It feels like my own generation is being shuffled reluctantly towards the front line. Another person who died recently was the political philosopher Kenneth Minogue. He came to a dinner party last year and one of my mildly left-wing friends asked nervously if he was conservative. ‘No, I am not a conservative!’ he exclaimed with relish. ‘I am a reactionary!’ I join with him in finding the tag ‘conservative’  inappropriate as a description of my views. All around me are people whose idea of conservatism is to conserve whatever amount of state ownership and control has already been established and perhaps add a bit more.

I am, like most people, extremely badly educated. As a result, I had never even heard of the 19th-century writer Frédéric Bastiat until recent years. If there is one person to tell us about the expansion of the state it’s him. Finally I have actually read some of his work — the beginning of ‘The State’. The first three pages amount to the most outstanding essay I have ever read. It is a brilliant, ironic explanation of how it comes about that the state takes an ever-bigger part of our lives. Bastiat was a provincial who turned up in Paris, where high society was appalled by his incorrect dress, but then they discovered he was brilliant and cherished him. A sample quote: ‘The State is that great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.’

My own book The Welfare State We’re In is being republished next week and is in danger of becoming respectable. I learn it has been summarised with excerpts in the latest edition of Sociology — Themes and Perspectives, a tombstone-heavy sociology textbook selling by the hundreds of thousands to students year after year. Apparently I am ‘a radical neoliberal critic of the British welfare state’, which sounds exciting. The summary is good and fair but followed by attacks on the content. I am honoured they think the book is sufficiently influential to be worth roughing up.

I am going to build a basement this year. Yes, the basement-haters can get out their pins and stick them in little Bartholomew dolls. You want to deny us our fun. You have given up on the idea of property rights and freedom of the individual. Totalitarianism is all around us now. Everyone wants to tell everyone else what to do and what not to do. I see that in this space dear Sebastian Faulks was rude about basements. Nevertheless, when the vast snooker table is installed in it he is welcome to come round and have a game. I forgive you, Sebastian. We radical neoliberals are good like that.

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