Friday, November 16, 2007
Britain's Bipolar Disorder
Here's an extract from a long essay of mine, on the parlous state of democracy in Britain, which appears in the anti-war magazine 'The American Conservative'.
In a classic episode of the 1970s comedy series Fawlty Towers,
hotelier Basil Fawlty has to hastily improvise a menu for his guests-as the only meat on the premises is duck.
Colonel Hall: Duck with Orange; duck with cherries; duck surprise.
Mrs. Hall: What's duck surprise?
Basil Fawlty: Er... that's duck without oranges or cherries.
Colonel Hall: I mean is this all there is - Duck?
Basil Fawlty: Yes... done of course in three extremely different
Colonel Hall: And what do you do if you don't like duck?
Basil Fawlty: Well, if you don't like duck... you're rather stuck.
Flash forward 30 years, and the choice on offer for the British electorate has become as limited as the one which faced Colonel and Mrs Hall at John Cleese's notorious hotel.
Britain's two main parties- the only two who, thanks to our first past the post electoral system, have a realistic chance of winning a general election, have converged to such an extent that their policies on the major issues of the day are virtually indistinguishable.
On the economy, both parties enthusiastically endorse the globalist neoliberal model, which is mistakenly described as “free market” but which in fact requires massive state support. Britain's privatised railways, for instance, receive four times more in taxpayers' subsidy than they did when they were publicly owned; it was for that very reason that the genuinely free-market Conservative transport minister Nicholas Ridley opposed privatisation in the 1980s.
The Conservative's Private Finance Initiative scheme, whereby the government pays private companies to build new hospitals and schools and then leases them from those companies under lengthy contracts, has been extended under Labour, even though once again, the taxpayer ends up paying far more in the long run.
Regarding the level of tax and spending there is not even the width of a cigarette paper between the parties. In the same way that the incoming Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown vowed to stick to the outgoing Conservative government's spending plans when coming to office in 1997, so Conservative Party spokesman George Osborne has promised to adhere to Gordon Brown’s plan of increasing public spending by 2 per cent in real terms over the next three years, if his party wins the next election. And although the Conservatives have recently announced that they will raise the threshold for the inheritance tax, there will be no overall reduction in the tax burden if the party comes to power.
Both parties rejoice in the fact that Britain is one of the most 'open' economies in the world. In the last ten years, a succession of industries and flagship companies have passed into foreign ownership. Even our airports are foreign owned, and the Stock Market probably won't be long in joining them either. While other European countries have maintained a level of national ownership in key sectors of their
economy, Britain, following neoliberal orthodoxy to the book, has allowed the family silver to be flogged to whoever comes along.
The parties are equally blasé about the spiralling wealth gap. 'New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich' said the party's ideologist Peter Mandelson in 1998, and after ten years of Labour government, the gap between Britain's rich and poor is at its highest level for more than 40 years.
On foreign policy, both parties continue to sing- with gusto- from the same pro-war, pro-intervention hymn sheet (words and music courtesy of the late Scoop Jackson). Thought Tony Blair was a hawk on Iraq? Then you should have met his opposite number Iain Duncan Smith, who had wanted Saddam toppled in the first Gulf war of 1991. IDS’ idea of 'opposing' Blair on Iraq was to criticise him for waiting too long to attack. Five years on, the Tories, like Labour, are still in the grip of warmongers.
The leadership campaign of David Cameron was masterminded by the neo-conservative trio of MPs Osborne, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey and while Cameron and his front bench team have criticised strategy in Iraq, the party still says the invasion was justified and is firmly opposed to British withdrawal. And Cameron, like Foreign Secretary David Miliband, refuses to rule out a pre-emptive strike on Iran.....
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with consensus politics, if the consensus genuinely represents the view of the majority. But as the Guardian's Seumas Milne has observed, what is described as the 'centre ground' today in fact reflects not the dominant views not of the people, but of the political, media and corporate establishment. What percentage of the public support a neo-conservative foreign policy? How many people believe that allowing 'market forces' to govern every aspect of our lives, represents the best way to order our society?
Today's cosy cross-party consensus in fact has very little public support. The increasing alienation with mainstream politics is reflected by the dramatic fall in voter turnout- at the last two general elections, only around 60% of the electorate bothered to vote: compare that to a high of 84% in 1951.
For the millions of Britain who are moderate social conservatives, who are sick and tired of our country being embroiled in military conflicts which are none of our business, and who would like to see the needs of people put above the profits of Goldman Sachs, the sad truth is that there is simply no one to vote for.
In the Britain of 2007, if you don't like duck, you really are stuck.
If you'd like to read more, the full essay is available online, through subscription, here,
If you’ve never read The American Conservative, then I heartily recommend taking out a subscription, it really is one of the most thought provoking political/current affairs magazine in the US. Leftists and progressives should not be put off by the magazine's title: The American Conservative as well as opposing neo-liberal dogma and modern turbo-capitalism has also been implacable in its opposition to the neo-conservative war agenda.