Syed Kamall started his talk to Libertarian Home by saying that he knew quite a few of the people in the audience. But this was not to ingratiate himself with us. His point was that although he is familiar with and agrees with our ideas and has mingled quite a bit with us in the past, he is not now inclined to spend much of his time merely reading and talking about these ideas. His concern is to do something about them and with them. To “roll back the state”, yes, but not just by talking and reading about how that would be good and how the state is bad, but by showing that there is a real world alternative to state provision when it comes to tackling poverty. And he wants us to do likewise.
But before talking in more detail about that, Syed talked about himself. He spoke first about how his electoral record so far is: played five lost five, and that he only became one of London’s three MEPs because he came fourth and then one of the MEPs became an MP and stood down.
The way Syed told that little bit of anedotage got a couple of big laughs, and it was indeed good self-deprecating stuff. But it also drove home the larger point that Syed had been raised to believe in himself, to work hard, to persevere, and to pick himself up and carry on whenever he fell or stumbled. Syed’s dad, who had arrived in Britain as an immigrant in the 1950s, wanted Syed to go further in life than he had been able to. He said to young Syed things like:
“People that tell you that something can’t be done are showing their own limitations, not yours.”
These sorts of words, said Syed, do inspire. And he now says similar things to the young people he now talks to, in schools and clubs. “I’ve done it, so can you.” You can reach your full potential. Everyone can reach their full potential.
But politicians are not now helping. The left’s idea is:
“You pass legislation … and that’s supposed to solve problems. … Clearly, it hasn’t worked.”
But we libertarians now do little better:
“My criticism of libertarians and classical liberals is that actually what they do is, they just talk.
They say: let’s roll back the state. And that’s it…
“You’ve got to prove that there’s an alternative to the state. We don’t do enough of that. … If you live in some areas, and there are no civil society organisations or other organisations like that, then sometimes the state is all someone’s got. So if you talk about rolling back the state, what you’re doing is you’re saying: I don’t care about you. I don’t give a damn.”
The left needs to be reminded that there once was a pre-state, non-state, cooperative ideal for the provision of welfare. But on the right, the tendency is for Conservatives to suppose that all that is required to make top-down socialism work well is for Conservatives to be in charge of it. They too need to be show than there is a viable alternative to state provision as the way to tackle poverty.
“And the way to do it is to say, you yourself, in our local communities, are there problems that we can help solve? … You don’t really have to look that far.”
On the Roehampton Estate, they have a drug problem and a gang problem. But the drug dealers were very entrepreneurial.
“This guy, Andy, who runs Regenerate …took those entrepreneurial skills and they created a business called the Feel Good Bakery, where they now sell sandwiches. So they’ve gone from drugs dealers to sandwich dealers. … The T-shirt is inspirational. It says “From Dope Dealer to Hope Dealer”. I just think that’s an amazing story … I said to them, how can I help you? How can I use my job, having a title after it, three letters after my name, covering London, how can I help you?
“One of the things you realise in politics is that actually, you are at the centre of lots of networks. You meet lots of people. And so, what I can do, as a politician, is connect people.
“Regenerate doesn’t want money. They want potential customers to buy sandwiches. So what I’ve been doing for this business is I’ve been writing to potential customers, local councils, local businesses, and others, who might want to be customers …
“Another example is a project called CleanSheet, that helps ex-offenders. The problem is, when someone goes to prison, a lot of people immediately label them a bad person, without understanding why they went to prison. … they come out … they re-offend, go back to prison, come back out, re-offend. So, CleanSheet looks at breaking that cycle …
“Jane, who runs that project, said: Could you write to businesses, or talk to businesses that you talk to, and ask them whether they would meet with us. That’s all. We’ll make the case for why they should consider taking on a reformed offender. We can show good business results, why people are loyal because they’ve been given another chance in life, …
“So that’s all I did. I got together with a local MP, in Croydon, and he and I wrote a joint letter on headed paper. Every big business that I meet, I’ll ask them. I’ll say, there’s one of the projects I’m helping, any chance that you might meet this charity.”
The big financial institutions say no way. But manufacturers often have real problems training younger engineers, or retraining people from other disciplines. They have been much more receptive to the CleanSheet message.
Another project Syed mentioned was a jobs club in Croydon, which has put a hundred of its members into work. All they asked Syed to help them with was finding second-hand computers.
So how does Syed now respond to pleas for help from members of the public?
“The first stage now, is I will introduce people to a project that’s tackled a similar problem in their local area. …
“Second stage, let’s … give you the confidence to set up the organisation and to give you help and training.
“And the third stage is: let me introduce you to people who might be willing to fund it, so you get it on a self-sustaining basis, and then you solve the problem. …
“If we did that, right across the country. If classical liberals or libertarians started getting involved in their communities …
… My plea to you is put down your books, get out there, and solve the problem.”
Watch and listen to the whole thing. It lasts no more than twenty minutes and will provide libertarians with much food for thought. Personally, as I said in the Q&A afterwards, I think that there is a definite place in the libertarian movement for reading books and talking about them. Yes, words can be a substitute for action, but if done properly they can also inspire action.
But Syed surely speaks to and for many libertarians, for whom reading and talking is, to use a phrase that I regularly hear: not good enough! Many Libertarians believe that they can actually do things to roll back the state and roll forward humanity. And just as his father’s words inspired him, Syed’s talk will definitely inspire libertarians, of the sort who want to do things, to do better.