Where we should stop taking lessons from the United States
I SPENT SOME TIME in the House of Commons library last week trying to track down a law going back centuries that I seem to recall has never been repealed. Apparently every male over 13 years old in Britain is still obliged to bear arms (ie. a crossbow) in public in order to defend the realm.
I was unable to track down that particular law: perhaps ft has simply fallen out of usage and unlike in the United States cannot be constitutionally enforced. But it is not just appeals to the constitutional right to carry guns that is so unsettling about the evidence of extreme right wing American groups behind the bombing of the government building in Oklahoma City.
Militia members, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, Aryan nations, are all long established racist and anti-semitic groups and are estimated to have more than half a million members throughout the United States. Their significance, in political terms, lies ihn their total opposition to government per se as a threat to their personal liberty.
A red traffic light in their book is a personal affront to individual rights. Carrying this view through to its conclusions they believe that arming the people is the way to defend against the tyranny of government. Government itself is declared the enemy.
The leader of one of these groups, the Patriots, Mark Koernke of Michigan, fiercely defends the so-called right to arms. He is reported as believing that paper money has barcodes built into it so that government agents with secret scanners can drive by your house to count how much you have. It is often remarked that what happens in America usually happens here some years later. It used to be about ten years, until the coincidence of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan narrowed it to five or less. There is a real danger that British commentary on what has emerged in Oklahoma City will treat it as uniquely American. Yet there is plenty of evidence that the extreme right are present here with their racist anti-semitic and violent agendas.
But as well as the parallels between the activities of these extreme groups there is a more fundamental parallel in developing attitudes to government.
Republicans talk of rolling back the state mirrors the rhetoric of Mrs Thatcher. It was Nicholas Ridley who as her Secretry of State for the Environment declared that he saw no future role for local government because by privatising all the functions all that would be needed would be an annual dinner of the appointed "burgers" of the local authority areas at which the tenders for the contract would be shared out. There would be no further role for locally elected councils. Despite the reduction of powers of local authorities and their budgetraising abilities local democracy has not yet been reduced to the state, though already in Wales there are more appointees to quangoes than there are locally elected councillors, and in the whole of England and Wales quangoes now take up 40% of public expenditure.
The Republicans in Washington are pressing to go much further than our quangoes. They intend to get rid of those federal departments that deal with welfare and health care benefits for the poor. They propose instead that federal government issues fixed sums as a contribution to future staterun schemes in order to "downsize" federal government.
A few years ago the Conservatives here introduced the social fund, which is a fixed kitty of money for special needs at local level. The budget is fixed each year and when it runs out there is no assistance regardless of need. In other words we are already moving in the direction of local "parish relief" under which the poor are the responsibility of the local area. Now that's a way to break down poverty and get the poor off the backs of central government and it ties in with proposals for regionally fixing pay.
The Clinton Administration at least promises to take the rise of the extreme right seriously, perhaps it is time for us to be spelling out why we positively need government and get on debating what it should do to protect