It was a wintry evening in North Wales; I was speaking at a Rotary Dinner. The type of venue and audience profile with whom I have shared ideas and thoughts a thousand times over the years. I am pleased that what I have to say tends to stimulate a reaction, positive and negative. Many folk approach me afterwards with their view on where they agree or disagree with me. This particular November evening was no different.
At the beginning of my speech I made it clear I was flying no party political flag; I observed that I (still) am the only Minister the Country has ever had who never belonged to the Party of Government, that I sit in the House of Lords as a non-aligned Peer and that I have never (and hopefully will never) belonged to a political party. To win my vote you have to win the argument, not crack a party whip or rely on slavish “my Party, right or wrong” adherence.
I have voted for all three main political parties in my time, from Jeremy Thorpe to Thatcher, from the SDP through Major to Blair. I haven’t been able to vote since my ennoblement in 2007 because their Lordships don’t get a vote at General Elections. Whilst the Commons is dissolved during an Election Campaign the Peers are the enduring part of Parliament still in existence and Parliament must never be able to vote to keep itself in power. You will be comforted to know that we share our disenfranchisement with lunatics and prisoners!
On that chilly Friday evening a few weeks ago, I then explained why Business was so very important to the provision of quality public services in our Country and why every job in the UK, in the public or private sector, depended on successful, profit-generating businesses. When a business makes money, it can only do one of three things with it. It can reward the shareholders who took the risk by investing their capital into the venture, by way of dividend or capital gain on sale….and they’ll pay tax on it. Or it can keep it in the business as retained profit …….. and it’ll pay tax on it. Or it can pay its employees, overtime, commissions, bonuses an’ all…….and they’ll pay tax on it! That tax goes in part to pay the good, decent, hard-working people in the public sector without whom we would not have a functioning Society……the policemen, the nurses, the teachers, the doctors, the soldiers, the prison officers……..and they pay tax on it! But without the profit that Business makes there would be no jobs in the Country, no public service at all.
The important aspect of this wealth creation role for Business is that it fulfils its obligations, its opportunity, on a socially-inclusive basis. I explained to the good Welsh Rotarians that Business must train their people better, must be sensitive to the environment in which they operate and must also reach out, down, round and under to help those who can’t. Walking by on the other side is not an option for many reasons, specifically that including all of society is just the right thing to do, but primarily if we want to win over those who are cynical of Business, who don’t trust, who suspect every move, then social inclusion MUST be hitched up as an integral part the wealth-creation wagon.
I closed with an observation that none of this allowed politicians of all parties at all levels to ignore the dire need to reform our NHS and welfare state. We are a getting-older, living-longer, almost fully-employed Country. We cannot take delivery models established some seventy years ago and expect them, for ideological reasons, to fit a globally-competitive, consumerised, more socially mobile and aspirational population. What better time to reform when we are currently the most successful economy in the developed World? None of this, I added, absolved teachers from producing sixteen year-olds who can read, write and count so that they go out into a fiercely competitive economy with at least the first tools in the bag of success.
Afterwards, some people said how much they agreed with me, some said how they disagreed with parts of it. Absolutely par for the course and a good discussion could ensue with us all enjoying the freedom of speech that our grandfathers from across the land died on beaches to guarantee.
What I wasn’t ready for was the fifty years old-or-so chap (whom I was later informed served on a local Council) who shouted into his mobile phone within my earshot that I was a f***ing Tory c**t.
Factually incorrect of course, regardless of his disgusting words and appalling behaviour. I ignored it and moved on. In public life, if you let such stuff get to you then pack it in right now. If such behaviour puts you off your stride, which part of “water”, “duck’s” and “back” do you not understand?!
But, on the way home, it got me thinking.
We all read (almost daily) of the appalling comments and threats, the disgusting language and descriptions that the followers of Jeremy Corbyn are dishing out to anyone who deigns for a moment to proffer a contrary view, to anyone within their own party who might just hold a more moderate opinion to their’s. Interestingly their non-obscene insult of choice appears to be “Tory”. Anyone who is apparently not left of Lenin, who holds a vision of Government, Britain’s role in the World or the inter-relationship between Business and Society as being anything other than a model of which Mao would approve, is an “expletive-deleted Tory”. The disgusting use of Twitter to promote these views is a disgrace. Would they say it to the target’s face? Would they justify their comments in a proper, rational argument? Do they find the anonymity of the foul-mouthed, threatening mob their empowering source to the point that a one-party state (as opposed to a One-Party State) is their Utopia?
I am thankfully big enough, old enough and ugly enough to look after myself. My evening of discovery in The Land of someone’s Fathers did not turn nasty; indeed the vast majority that night were lovely, warm, generous hosts, as I expected and enjoyed. But it made me fearful of a nasty road our Country might be going down, where those of moderate political views do not speak out for fear of the disgusting mob reaction on Twitter and other so-called “social” (there’s a misnomer if ever there was one!) media.
“A kinder, more gentle type of politics” was what Mr Corbyn said he stood for. He asks these Corbynistas “to stop it”……er……..please. Ah! Of course, Jeremy, this all has nothing to do with you does it?! You react with some platitudinous exhortation and move on, with a hand-washing exercise that would put Pontius Pilate to shame.
A possibly-alcohol-fuelled foul-mouthed Welsh rant on a Friday night isn’t the point. It is the in vino veritas automatic association with party tribalism that concerns me. Therein lies a real road to nastiness. But I rely on the Freedoms in our Country. Yes, one of those is the Freedom of Speech that I guess this article has been about in all respects; but another is the five-yearly Freedom to vote, in secret, without fear or favour, and to make sure that the scum who denigrate, insult and threaten with their foul-mouthed rantings those of a more moderate or contrary persuasion never, ever, obtain the power they seek.