Andrew Wilson: Beware the hand of centralist state

Stalin even now has his admirers in Putin's Russia, but less so in his homeland of Georgia. Picture: AP
Stalin even now has his admirers in Putin's Russia, but less so in his homeland of Georgia. Picture: AP
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IN THE Georgian city of Gori, about an hour’s drive along concrete road from the capital ­Tbilisi, is a museum to Joseph Jughashvili, or Stalin to you and me.

Historians looking at the archives of the USSR when they were first opened after the 1991 collapse of communism noticed that he often sent detailed instructions to heads of numerous villages about small things, like fixing a water pump or a civic square. They were puzzled.

One explanation is found in the museum where a large map of Russia shows the routes Stalin took after he escaped from prison on several occasions. He made his way back as a fugitive to St Petersburg, often stopping in villages where he befriended the village heads in return for food and shelter.

The map shows that Stalin had seen more of Russia than any leader before or since, and why a Georgian, who could not even speak Russian properly, came to understand how Russian society thought and acted and therefore to lead it.

He was later to turn this micro-managing flair to state terror and murder on a monstrous scale. An ugly destruction of the individual and society was perpetrated in the name of the opposite. The state controlled life and it was lousy for everyone save the elite who lived high on a declining and starving hog. After three decades, this economic calamity produced a diet for the average “free” Soviet citizen that was the same as in his Gulag camps – equality delivered.

That reality echoes around post-communist Russia still. It is a living tragedy in a wondrous place. Stalin even now has his admirers in Putin’s Russia, but less so in his homeland of Georgia. On Friday, the municipality of Gori decreed that his statue could never return to the city square.

The Soviet disaster is at the extreme end of any political tale. At the other end of the spectrum, the weakness of the modern liberal capitalist state and its inability to protect the welfare of citizens and consumers has been in full view.

Whether it is the duping of the United States by Volkswagen, the gouging of borrower’s accounts in PPI scandals in the UK or the fixing of debt markets pricing by investment banks, the inadequately governed and checked power of huge companies has produced an ongoing crisis of trust.

The material question is, of course, what are we to do about it? All policy­makers would do well to open their minds to the reality that things as they are now are unsustainable. But the idea we can import decades-old theories from the failed extremities of right or left is bereft of sense.

We need to ask a very serious question of whether the centralised state is the best arbiter or deliverer of what we need done collectively. The destruction of human initiative and the spirit of self-improvement is every bit as damaging as the selfish abuses of individuals. Balance – as ever – needs to be found.

Politicians are in a tough spot on this. We know the public (that’s you and I) like to think that other people, “they”, are responsible for manifold woes and “ought to do something about it”. The true spirit of self-government would get on with our neighbours and friends and do something about it. The best communities in the country are doing just that. But too few do and too many wait for state answers that will never be heard.

Fifty per cent of Britons think their retirement is something the state ought to provide for. This is not unreasonable, given the belief that that is what national insurance was meant to be for, and of course a civilised collective safety net is needed. But national insurance is just a brand for a tax and anyone waiting for the state to deliver anything but the most basic existence just when they should be enjoying the fruits of a life of labour is going to be sadly disappointed. The triumvirate of debt, deficits and demographics have put paid to that for the time being.

Elsewhere, one failed Labour leadership candidate tweeted last week to the effect that as a particular service wasn’t working so well, it ought to be nationalised.

I have long thought there is a role for state intervention in industry, but mainly to correct where the national interest is damaged by market or transitional failure and only for the period it is necessary. Many of our industries have been needlessly wiped out, shipbuilding being the most obvious one that didn’t have to go that way.

But the idea that the creaking, centralised UK state should be running any industry today fills me with dread. Every collective penny we spend through tax should be tested against the question, “Would it be better spent educating our children?”

So we will be waiting a very long time if we think Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of unreconstructed centralised statist drive is the answer to any problem. But the feelings that led to his election need to be listened to and acted upon.

Our small corner of the world needs to promote individual and community self-improvement and broader collective endeavour with equal vigour if our society and economy are to progress. Our success will be built from the people up, not the top down. «