Bruce Anderson

The Health and Safety Executive is now far more powerful than the House of Commons

The Health and Safety Executive is now far more powerful than the House of Commons

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Before the 1979 election, many senior Tories believed that Thatcherism was dangerous nonsense. If Margaret Thatcher did become Prime Minister, they assumed that she would either learn sense rapidly or have to be replaced by a sensible man. Otherwise, as Ian Gilmour later put it, her government would be heading straight for the rocks.

It seemed obvious to these wise figures that a Tory government could only succeed by working within the system it would inherit. Minor modifications apart, nothing could be done about the nationalised industries and the same was true of the trade unions. Keith Joseph had complained about the ratchet of socialism. Labour governments always pushed it on a few notches while Tory governments seemed incapable of reversing it. The senior Tory pessimists did not dissent from Sir Keith's judgment. But they did not think that much could be done. Some members of Mrs Thatcher's first Cabinet believed that a Tory government could achieve little more than the orderly management of decline.

Mrs Thatcher herself regarded such sentiments as treasonable. She had not come into politics to preside over decline. She knew that as long as the nationalised industries could take giant annual bites out of the GDP while trade union leaders were using their coerced members as battering rams, there could be no recovery. She did not only seek office. She wanted to use power. Fortunately for the country, Margaret Thatcher was not a sensible man.

Because of her successes, the world has moved on. It is as if the Tory debates of the late Seventies belonged to a different geological era. Yet it is worth recalling those arguments and moral urgencies; there are parallels with our present discontent. Once again, Tory Britain is menaced by a ratchet. As would be clearer if today's leadership could generate a quarter of the intellectual energy of late-Seventies Toryism, Tories are confronted by a fundamental strategic choice: acquiescence or a fightback. At stake is our ability to make our own laws and control our own lives.

It has often been asserted that traditional Tories ought to be grateful to Mr Blair, who is a closet Tory: look at income-tax rates. This is doubly in error. In the first place, Mr Blair's record on taxation is far worse than the headline rates would suggest. Apart from all the stealth taxes, there has been a huge shift of resources from the productive to the less productive sectors of the economy. Nearly 600,000 additional government employees, costing about £20 billion a year, have done little to improve the public services. But they will ensure that the UK's long-term growth rate is lower than it should have been. In a sluggish economy with a huge public sector, there will be constant upward pressure on taxes. Even Mr Blair's pledge to avoid increasing the rates may not be sustainable.

Second, the Tory party is not merely the Treasury at prayer; Toryism goes wider than tax rates. It rests on a respect for the past and its institutional heritage. Central to Blairism is a contempt for the past and a Kulturkampf against institutions or practices which embody it: the House of Lords, Oxbridge, hunting, the judiciary and indeed the English common law. The secular faith of Toryism is an understated love of country allied to the belief that as we British have not been unsuccessful in managing our affairs, we should as far as possible continue to do so. Blairism is based on a dislike of the history, a distrust of the people who made it, and a determination that they should no longer be able to do so. In future, they must be constrained by Europe.

These ambitions would seem to have received a check, in that Mr Blair has failed to join the single currency and will have enormous difficulties in signing up the UK to the Giscard constitution. But there remains a double threat.

Especially when the opposition is so weak, a government can always manipulate the political agenda. In the case of the euro referendum, it also appears that it could fiddle the voters' roll, by enfranchising any EU citizen who lives in the UK in order to assist in doing away with our currency. The Blairite threat to the pound has not been extinguished; it is only sleeping.

But even if the main thrust of New Labour's anti-British offensive is temporarily blocked, the flanking manoeuvres are almost as dangerous. They threaten both the rule of British law and the free market.

The English common law is one of the glories of our history. It is to our political system what Shakespeare is to our literature. Its greatest merit is flexibility. For centuries our judges have made laws by judgments in specific cases, which then become precedents. This gives our law an evolutionary character under the supervision of an independent judiciary whose powers, though extensive, are not absolute. At any moment, their version of the law can be corrected, by the highest court of all: the High Court of Parliament. If MPs do not like judge-made law, they can replace it by statute law.

This dialectic between common law and statute law has worked exceptionally well. It helped to ensure that Englishmen enjoyed individual rights under the rule of law long before other Europeans did. The culture of civic freedom which all this promoted was crucial to a relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Yet the dialectic could now be coming to an end. The European Convention on Human Rights enshrines new doctrines, at once vague and far-reaching, which will increasingly supersede common-law principles. Moreover, the corpus of law emanating from the ECHR is justiciable in a foreign court. It will not evolve in England.

The English have had human rights for hundreds of years. The latest Euro-cant about human rights is nothing to do with basic freedoms. Instead, it will enable European judges to impose their views on how society, the economy and indeed family and private life shall be conducted. Unless we act quickly, our legal and political systems will be drained of lifeblood.

The European judges have allies in Britain, in the new regulocracy. Not all Mr Blair's 600,000 extra civil servants are digging holes and then filling them in again. The Health and Safety Executive, now far more powerful than the House of Commons, is only one of many bodies which can make rules that have the force of law, and whose interfering content threatens to undo the free-market reforms of the 1980s.

Human rights; health and safety: on the face of it, admirable concepts. In practice, however, they mean interference and regulation. The ECHR and the regulocracy are as much of a threat now as the nationalised industries and the trade unions were in 1979. But will the current Tory leadership have Margaret Thatcher's courage? Is it prepared to recognise the enemies of national life, and to plan their defeat?