Saturday, 28 January 2012

Beware the False Prophets

The world changed in 2011.  It was a year when people-power allied to new technologies overthrew elites, with Facebook revolutions heralding an Arab Spring and toppling aging or ailing dictatorships.  But it would be wrong for the Western Democracies to think they are detached from these events.  As Greece has so clearly shown, even relatively modern states are in peril, given enough economic instability, a furious electorate and weak political leadership.

The economists suggest that 2012 is going to be a tough year for Britain.  Financial ruin is probable, the collapse of the EU is possible, public sector strikes and the severest political discontent for a generation almost inevitable.  Shades of grey will no longer suffice in such a divisive age, so it seems likely that this year will see a return to the old politics of left versus right in the UK.

For the previous 30 years, governance has been dominated by bribing electorates with tax cuts, while the major parties have differed only in nuance.  New Labour under Blair and Brown abandoned the polarising rhetoric of class warfare and Old Labour values were deliberately forgotten.  When Cameron became leader, he dragged the Conservatives to the centre ground with his supposed modernisation of the ‘toxic’ Tory brand, and reassured voters he was the heir to Blair.  Nothing too contentious would be attempted, all policies would be tested in focus groups and a consensual blandness smothered Westminster.  This was the politics of boom and borrowing.

Well, there are no longer any presents to give to swing voters and the distribution of our dwindling resources demands radical and unpopular political choices.  The economic prospectus for the foreseeable future is one of falling incomes, with rising unemployment, and deep cuts, mainly falling on the poor and middle classes.  Rather than an age of austerity, it is more likely to be an age of resentment, with a future which looks far worse than the dire predictions of just a year ago.

There are no easy fixes for this government, an inherently fragile marriage of convenience between political opponents, and it now seems difficult to imagine that it can survive until the 2015 election.  They hoped the recovery would begin by 2014 and the public would reward the economic bravery of the Coalition.  This will clearly not now happen.

This raises some serious questions and challenges.  The Conservatives are being dragged by their unappealing rightwing and Labour is unable to develop a coherent answer to the economy.  The Lib-Dems once offered a useful safety valve to disaffected voters, being a centrist alternative to register protest.  With their perceived betrayal, disengagement has never been higher in Britain.

Economic crisis have historically been a catalyst for extreme right and leftwing parties. As politics becomes more polarised over the coming years, we need to remember that Britain is not uniquely immune to extremes and beware of political parties who offer simplistic solutions to our problems.  It is hard work and our liberal traditions which will deliver us to a better tomorrow.

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