Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Nationalisation and the left-right divide

Unclear why this rather simple-minded post from Ian Dale should have sparked such a ding-dong because it merely repeats what is a fairly common theme amongst the 'libertarian' right: the BNP support nationalisation - nationalisation is a 'socialist' idea, ergo the BNP are socialists.

Sharp as a water-melon this guy. I don't really want to get into the trading of insults because the Flying Rodent does it rather better. But it does provide yet another interesting example of how modern Conservatives and other assorted 'libertarians' of the right seem to be so impressively ignorant of economic history.

Various commentators on the left have rightly taken issue with the nonsensical idea that a party can be positioned on the political spectrum solely on account of their attitude towards state ownership. However, I can't see anyone who has made the obvious point from economic history that could have circumvented a lot of this bullshit from the outset, which is this: nationalisation per se is not a leftwing or socialist idea.

Certainly a large swathe of the left has always and still does support varying degrees of state ownership but it is the end that this was supposed to serve that is the important point. It was, and still is to a lesser extent, as a means of wealth distribution. But anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of history understands that this was never - and it not now - the only reason a national government ever took anything into state ownership. Apart from anything else, the huge range of polities that have done this should be enough for the idea that nationalisation equals left-wing to be laughed out of court. Didn't just about every country in the world have a larger role for the government in the development of their railway networks? Nothing to do with them being more or less 'socialist' and everything to do with them following the lead from the world's first industrial nation.

Building rail networks was obviously essential for servicing the needs of developing capitalist economies. Then there's the examples of state ownership used as a rescue for capitalist economies. From Heath's nationalisation of Rolls Royce to Northern Rock today: Keynesian, probably - but socialist? Not very.

Conservative governments in this country supported nationalisation when they thought it expedient. They used to pride themselves on their pragmatism. They also used to do a whole lot of other stuff that Mr Dale et al have either conveniently forgotten about or didn't know in the first place. Wasn't it the Liberals that supported the abolition of tariffs whilst the Tories were opposed? It should go without saying that this isn't the only part of the Liberal tradition that the Conservatives have attempted to appropriate...

I appreciate there's genuine disagreement over the usage of traditional political concepts. It can be confusing so here's my rough and ready guide: see people who claim the traditional categories of left and right are redundant? They invariably belong to the right.

Update: DK has taken issue with this. I fear Mr Kitchen has misunderstood what I meant because he says, "To try to pretend that the state was responsible for building the British rail network is absolutely laughable." Indeed it would be - but I didn't. Tried to post a clarification under his post but the form wouldn't take for some reason - so here it is:
"To try to pretend that the state was responsbible for building the British rail network is absolutely laughable.

Indeed - but you've misunderstood me if you think I'm saying otherwise....

Didn't just about every country in the world have a larger role for the government in the development of their railway networks? Nothing to do with them being more or less 'socialist' and everything to do with them following the lead from the world's first industrial nation.

Was this unclear? Every other country other than Britain had a quite large role for the state in the construction of their railways networks - because they were following Britain's examples - but learning from our mistakes. Like the pointless duplication of track with different gauges, for example. And then there was the 'Railway Mania', leaving unfinished lines and some rather burned investors.

You missed the wider point too - which as that while just about every other industrialising country had something approaching to what we would describe as 'nationalisation', it doesn't make any sense to describe this as socialist or leftwing in intention."
I trust that's clearer?

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