Features Australia

Notes from the old dart

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

The headline in The Mail on Sunday conveys a sense of stepping back in time on arrival at Gatwick: ‘Ed Miliband admits: I am a socialist.’ On the eve of launching his ‘Beyond New Labour’ campaign at the party’s annual conference, the Opposition leader told the press: ‘Yeah, I am a socialist…and I’m not embarrassed about it.’ What next in this Seventies revival? Rubbish piled high on street corners, coal rationing and price controls? Yes, as it happens, at least when it comes to price controls. Two days later Miliband announces that as prime minister he would force power companies to freeze tariffs.

Ironically, this outbreak of economic Neanderthalism occurs as we were heading for St Bride’s in Fleet Street to remember the life of Ken Minogue, an intellectual mentor to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party. I confess that despite having devoured Ken’s last book, The Servile Mind, I did not make the Thatcher connection until John O’Sullivan raised it out at the service. I felt more comfortable with O’Sullivan’s alternative description of Minogue: ‘a sophisticated defender of common sense’.

Minogue’s cabin-boy-to-politics-professor life story is a testimony to the egalitarian spirit he embraced as New Zealander educated in Sydney. In 1962, barely a decade after working his way to London as a deckhand, Minogue’s first book was published. It is a work of political philosophy that stands the test of time better that almost anything else from that period. He compares liberals (we might call them progressive-minded liberals) to dragon-slaying knights who live to fight causes. Eventually, they found themselves ‘breathless in pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons — for the big dragons were now harder to come by.’


In his final lecture delivered in July, published in the latest New Criterion, Minogue takes a dim view of state-sponsored attempts to perfect society. The welfare instinct has created ‘a succession of vulnerable classes of people each with claims on the state for redress,’ he said. The conclusion to Minogue’s last contribution to public life should be framed and hung in every politician’s office. ‘It will hardly be news that expanding the power of states has seldom been anything but a risky option… this is a piece of nonsense that we can no longer afford.’

Back in Hampshire, my sister Stephanie takes issue with the unflattering description of our hometown in the prologue to my recent book The Lucky Culture. It was perfectly accurate, I insist; Hythe was indeed halfway between the docks and the oil refinery. Stephanie points out that I failed to mention that the glorious open spaces of the New Forest formed, to all intents and purposes, our backyard. I have to concede the point, and the glorious late autumn English weather only serves to drive it home. There are far worse places in which to grow up.

Over a Sunday night dinner with Frank and Ann Furedi in Kent, Rod Liddle entertains us with tales of British bureaucratic absurdity. My other half Rebecca and I try to return like with like, but fail miserably. In an Ashes series for political correctness, the Poms would win hands down. Electronic cigarettes, a seemingly harmless tobacco substitute, have been banned in British pubs, Liddle tells us, on the grounds that they ‘disturb’ other patrons. Perhaps Tony Abbott’s government could be persuaded to do away with the images of medical deformity on Australian cigarette packets for the same reason.

Italian political life is a perpetual source of disappointment for an economist like Tito Boeri, who joined Rebecca and me for an aperitif in Milan to swap notes. Boeri, professor of economics at Milan’s Bocconi university, sympathises with Italians who have lost faith in their compatriots, and now look to Brussels to take the lead in economic reform. Logically, the financial crisis should have spelt the beginning of the end for the pan-European project, but in Italy it seems if anything to have put Brussels even more at the centre of everyday life.

The flags are at half-mast and the Mediterranean is unusually choppy in the fishing port of Sciacca on the Sicilian south coast. Out to sea, beyond the horizon, the authorities have called off the search for several hundred missing passengers from a sunken boat of African asylum seekers heading for Europe’s Christmas Island; Italy’s southern outpost of Lampedusa. The headline in Giornale di Sicilia reads ‘Apocalisse Immigrati’ and the agonising over the tragic event takes up the first five pages. The framing of the debate is telling: what can Europe (not Italy) do to stop the tragedy reoccurring? Perhaps the time is right for the new Australian government to test the waters at the United Nations about revisiting the terms of the 1951 refugee convention. Italy, and possibly the rest of Europe, will no doubt be up for the debate.

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Nick Cater is author of The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class (HarperCollins)

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