Thursday 21 May 2015

What would Rowland Hill have done now?

I’ve no idea which way Rowland Hill, the great founder and originator of modern postal services, used to cast his vote. But since he was a friend and close associate of John Stuart Mill, I’m inclined to believe he was a Liberal.

So bear with me for a moment while I rehearse the well-known story of the penny post. Because, in the 1830s, before Hill conjured up the Post Office, the postal service worked like this.

If you were an aristocrat, you could send what post you liked by’franking’ it, which would guarantee its delivery. Everyone else had to pay to receive letters depending on how far they had come. Hill is supposed to have been nudged towards rethinking the post by watching a girl forced to refuse a letter from her fiancé because she couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Now, here’s the question I wanted to ask, and it is part of the debate on so-called ‘Liberal centrism’ I am kind of conducting – in the spirit of open debate and mutual respect – with Stephen Tall. What would Hill have done, if he had been a centrist, Liberal or otherwise?

I don’t know enough about Rowland Hill to know what intellectual process he actually went through to reach the conclusions he did, so let’s assume that was the situation with the post now (and who knows, it may be soon).

A good centrist would have had to look at the various positions around at the time.

The Conservatives would want to keep the situation as it is. Labour would want to defend the position when the state used to pay for the post to everyone, but then would do nothing about it in government.

Whitehall would suggest some tiny reforms – a version of Ofcom, perhaps, which would make sure that the charges stayed ‘reasonable’ and ‘evidence-based’.

The IEA and the Policy Exchange would no doubt look to the American think-tanks and propose a ‘market-based’ system which would allow competing mail systems to charge a sliding scale, with discounts for heavy users of the mail, extra charges for people who wanted their letters faster, and rising incrementally in the cold weather or for impoverished receivers.

Did Hill draw a line between all of those to find the right centrist compromise? As we know, he didn’t. He proposed a new postal service altogether, paid for by the senders not the receivers, at a flat rate that did not disadvantage people who lived further from the centre.

He did this partly for the sake of ordinary people to give them access t the main communication system, and partly also for the sake of entrepreneurs.

It was emphatically the right decision, and made a whole new level of small business possible. It made long-distance relationships possible and basic communication affordable.

Of course, his proposals were roundly condemned in the House of Lords as “devoid of facts”. Facts, as we know from reading Hard Times, was Victorian for ‘evidence-based’.

Conclusion: Liberal solutions, solutions which set people free, are not compromises with the status quo. They are more often radical ones.

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