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Interview: Mark Steyn Surveys the Passing Parade

As you write in the Passing Parade, “If you want to know what Reaganite affability boils down to without political will or philosophy, look at Callaghan.” Could you talk a bit about Callaghan and pre-Thatcher England in general, and why we seem to repeating that cycle in the America of the 21st century?

MR. STEYN:  Yeah.  The fun part of that book, in a way, is putting these various obituaries in an order in which they tell a story.  And Reagan and Jim Callaghan were both two figures of roughly the same generation, the same political generation, and famous for their affability.  Reagan was a transformative president.  Callaghan, in some ways, if you just looked at his curriculum vitae, had the most impressive resume of any British politician of his generation.  He's held all of what they called the Great Offices of State in Britain.  He'd been Home Secretary, he'd been Chancellor of the Exchequer, he'd been Foreign Secretary.  And when he became Prime Minister, he realized, as he said to a friend of mine, that his job was just to manage decline.

And that, actually, is rather Obama-like in a way. What I find interesting about the Obama era is that to put it in computer cliché terms, the things that people on the right think are a bug, you get the feeling that with Obama, they're a feature.  So for example, when you complain that America seems irrelevant to world affairs and America is retreating from the world and we're heading into a post-American world, you feel that for Obama, that's not a problem; that's everything going to plan, that he basically believes, in some sense, he is committed to American geopolitical decline.  And he reads books on that.  He was famously photographed with Fareed Zakaria's book which posits that America is going to decline but it doesn't really matter because places like China and India will be rising.

And Jim Callaghan ‑‑ everybody in Britain in the '70s thought that decline was inevitable and that what the job of government was to do was to manage decline.  And that's Obama-like, too.

So for example, again, when the right complain that there are now sixty million people on food stamps, the left say well, what's the big deal about that?  That just shows how compassionate we are and how effective we're being at putting our compassion into action.  So they're actively promoting food stamps because they think that while the 60 million people on food stamps is a good start, it'd actually be a lot better if there were 80 million or 120 million people on food stamps.

The advantage we foreigners have over you native chappies, Ed, is that almost all the features of Obama's America we've seen before.  This is the land where we grew up, rising Brigadoon-like from the mists after all this time, where the government makes your automobiles or the government runs the healthcare business.  So that in Britain, by the mid-'70s, it was thought of as an entirely normal feature of life, that the government should make your automobile.

People can't really quite imagine what it was like.  You had to wait months to get a telephone line, if you did. You know now where everybody's walking around with cell phones? Actually, it's more difficult in America, but in London, you can get off the plane at Heathrow and walk into some store and be using a new cell phone in, about ninety seconds.

And nobody can believe that until until Mrs. Thatcher privatized the GPO, as it then was, that you had to wait months to get a telephone line put in your house.  You had to wait months for a new car.  They'd come up with these new makes of cars and you had to put your name on a waiting list.

Everyone knows about the waiting list for the hip replacement and all that, but it was waiting lists for telephones, waiting lists for cars, waiting for everything.  And the whole thing, eventually, on Callaghan's watch, came crashing down when the public sector workers went on strike and you had garbage piling up in the streets and the dead going unburied.

And he was famously at a G7 summit in the Caribbean and pictured tanning himself with Carter and Helmut Schmidt and Mitterrand and whoever the other guys were at that time.  And he responded to the accusation that he wasn't taking it seriously with a sort of insouciant phrase that Rupert Murdoch's son turned into the headline, "Crisis?  What Crisis?"

And at that point, not just Mr. Callaghan's ministry, but a whole thirty-year assumption of state power came crashing down and Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister, privatized the telephones, privatized the car industry, and set about transforming Britain.