I don’t think myself party political, not really, so I’m surprised to discover that I’m feeling quite desolate about the election, frankly a bit shaken.
Many wouldn’t agree, but actually the Tories won’t destroy the NHS, they’ve made reasonable commitments which I think they’ll stick to. The aggression with which they will tackle the deficit is sub-optimal, but not that different to Labour’s plans. The human rights situation is admittedly disappointing, but you never get everything you wanted.
So why does it seem so grim to me? Because, I think, it’s so contradictory to my natural optimism about politics, and the way it makes me feel uncomfortable about my own country. I don’t how this compares with what others have said; I can’t bear to read the analysis yet.
First of all, I don’t think politicians are the sociopaths of the popular imagination. Watching Jim Murphy’s emotional concession speech ought to convince anyone that they do have a soul. We hear that Nick Clegg wept copiously when speaking to his team – and with good reason, his world, and that of his colleagues and friends had just been destroyed.
Politicians know it’s a cruel job when they stand, but it’s hard not to feel that the Lib Dems especially suffered an injustice, punished by a public who can’t or won’t understand how coalition works, determined to construe the Clegg as a cynical promise breaker, which of course the Labour supporters revelled in. I think it’s a terrible loss, in general they bring a philosophical bent to politics — not many join the Lib Dems out of power lust. Contrast Clegg’s resignation speech about the tradition of Liberalism across Europe with other leaders, who simply rallied their parties around the idea that they would do better next time.
So, sensitive soul that I am, just watching tired politicians give the speeches that must have run through many times in their nightmares makes me sad. And we only see the big names, when back benchers loose their seats they might not be offered their pick of cushy non-executive directorships. I imagine it’s a fairly brutal transition to anomie.
But they did volunteer for it. The real, grinding, gloom-laden realisation was about the nation, not a handful of individuals: things are not even going in the right direction. We’re going backwards. Not in the nitty-gritty of policy, that comes and goes, but in terms of the social settlement between the powerful and the vulnerable.
You might find it a shock that I didn’t realise this before, but I make a point of avoiding the lazy generalisation that everything’s going to the dogs. It wasn’t as good as it used to be. It’s cheap, and boring, to make yourself look wise through omni-pessimism. The world is getting richer, the gap between developed and developing countries is shrinking. Healthcare for the poorest improves constantly, several major disease are on the brink of oblivion.
I misconstrued this super-macro view of progress and just assumed that the UK was generally going with the flow, and with some reason. After all, the right didn’t win a decisive victory in 2010, when it seemed like it should have stormed into power. Brown was terrible and the economy was in tatters – they still failed.
Party politics seemed to be shifting to a more pluralistic modus operandi. I felt so optimistic when the News of the World shut, and I rejoiced when Miliband told Murdoch to shove it, and won praise for it too. The rampant anti-democratic force that is the Murdoch press seemed to be in a box, the tools that the powerful use to tilt the playing field in their favour seemed blunted.
We saw through the neo-liberal subterfuge after the crash. Fending off regulation by pretending you would move your bank’s head office to Hong Kong suddenly didn’t wash. We started to get angry with corporations doing the accountancy equivalent of a three cup shuffle, making their profits disappear while HMRC pretended to be a clueless punter. I started to imagine a country genuinely run in the interest of the many.
Then, suddenly, it’s full-strength Tory expropriation for the next 5 years, at least. I already have premonitions of a Johnson led Tory party riding the wave of full-fledged economic recovery into another term. Everyone voted exactly the way Murdoch told them to. Most of all, Cameron and Osborne are wielding a majority, and they are the very avatars of the old-school-Eton-Oxbridge-private-income-elite, protecting their own without a coalition to keep them in check.
I don’t think Murdoch and Cameron will meet Saudi oil Shakes and Monstanto execs in smoke filled rooms, transform in to lizards and hatch plots against the international proletariat.
I don’t think they coordinate at all, but the mood, the intellectual climate, starts to justify things that tend to make wealth flow up the food chain, apparently by coincidence. Regulate banker’s pay? Can’t do that, it’ll ruin international competitiveness. Reform Non Dom legislation? Ditto.
How long can we maintain the political will to regulate the insane financial products that caused the crash when the PM comes from a long line of bankers and the Tories are bankrolled by hedge funds?
News Corp want to buy Sky? Well, if they promise it will create jobs perhaps then democracy can go hang. We are in a GLOBAL RACE after all.
The “global race”, I now think, was Lynton Crosby’s master stroke. It’s the crux of both the conservative victory and a rationalisation of injustice.
Sure, some people voted Tory for selfish economic reasons, but so many people voted for them, and their policies really only benefited home-owning pensioners.
To account for the voters who seemed to vote against their own interests we have to think of voters as trying maximise the country’s collective prestige and power, not concerning themselves with their personal welfare. Doesn’t matter if you are on a minimum-wage zero-hour contract, if the country is overall getting richer then we (you) are winning the global race.
In Miliband’s interview with Paxman, Paxman claimed someone came up to him on the tube and told him that Miliband couldn’t govern because he wasn’t tough enough to deal with Putin. Paxman retells the anecdote because it captures something about Miliband, and the conservative strategy that triumphed over him. The questions the Conservatives wanted everyone to ask themselves was “who will make Britain feel virile again?”.
Voters look to rich, old-school, confident born-to-rule Cameron and see the very thing that they want the nation to be perceived as internationally: a natural winner in the fictive global race.
If the global race gets you to power, it also explains all the cruel policies your going to implement. We must compete!
And of course, a strong, powerful Britain will include Scotland. Loosing it would be sign of weakness, and voters were erroneously convinced that Conservatives will use their muscular pragmatism to weld the countries together. Never mind that Scotland and England are now completely at political odds and the breakup seems inevitable. Labour could hardly campaign by saying they should win so England didn’t upset the SNP too much – but that was the recipe to preserve the union.
I fervently hope the decimation of the left and the destruction of the Lib Dems will lead to some kind of breaking point which galvanises a genuinely progressive and effective political momentum. Especially since there is no other escape valve: no government with a majority is going to consider electoral reform, which I think is the only thing that could make me even a tiny but optimistic.
A place where we can take national pride from something other than how many percentage points we eke GDP up by in some ludicrous, meaningless race. Perhaps there’s a place for organisations other than parties trying to drive a shift in thinking of this kind; it doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that they’ve been very successful in doing.
I see Dougald Hine has many sensible reflections on how this can work, and perhaps the grass roots movements that have sprung up across Europe can teach us something. Here is the only positive note I can find: many Tory voters are ashamed of what they did, that’s why they can’t tell pollsters their intentions. That is not the basis of a durable political settlement. Meanwhile, I think there are large and growing number of people who want to use their skills not to earn more money but to do what they feel to be morally right, which could be incredibly powerful.
If I’m really honest though, the deepest wound is to my identity. I try to make the most positive contribution I can to society, and when I say society I’ve always thought of it as the nation. But then I discover that most people in my country, especially outside the cities, don’t share my values at all, or perhaps simply don’t have any firm political commitments. Lots of people live lives at odds with the prevailing political mood in their country, but it never occurred to me that I did.
Even though I don’t especially like the Labour party, if the country had voted for them in reasonable numbers I could understand where they were coming from. But when so many people willingly steer the country towards plutocracy against their own personal interests I wonder who they really are. I feel dislocated like some colonial explorer who spends decades abroad as an emblem of Britishness only to come home and discover he no longer recognises the country.
Only instead of the African interior, I’ve been in East London, or perhaps in the Twitter bubble. I know that in time I’ll get used to it, perhaps if I make an effort even reintegrate into my native country, but at the moment I think I prefer the leeches and hashtags and malaria and cold-brew coffee of equatorial Hackney.