I don’t think I’ve ever felt so depressed, and frankly scared, about the state of UK politics as I do right now… and that’s coming from someone who’s always found it pretty depressing ever since I started taking an interest in it about 20 years ago.
It’s clear that a lot of people are very angry with the political classes right now, and many of them vented that anger by voting to leave the EU. Although I’m not going to pretend I think that was a smart move, I do think they have legitimate reasons to be angry. A recent study shows that the UK is almost the only developed country other than Greece that’s seen ordinary people’s incomes fall in real terms over the past decade. Inequality continues to increase, with the people at the top (in some cases the same ones who were most responsible for the financial crash) getting even richer while the poorest areas are left to stagnate. Property prices have spiralled out of reach of the young, and insecure, badly paid jobs are becoming more and more the norm, making it impossible for them to plan their futures in the way their parents’ generation could. Health and education systems are being restructured so that their primary purpose is to generate profits for the companies that run them rather than providing a public service. Right wing politicians and media have been blaming immigrants and poor people for all this and, to top it all, there seemed little hope of anything changing because for years neither of the two main political parties (Tories or New Labour) had any inclination to do anything about it.
So yes. There’s a lot to be angry about, it’s true. Perhaps not surprisingly for a middle-class lefty, I blame Thatcher and Blair for much of the current mess. Thatcher because huge swathes of the country have never properly recovered from her destroying their livelihoods, and Blair because instead of doing anything much about this he decided to continue in much the same vein as the Tory governments before him. I also hold him responsible for teaching an entire generation that there’s no real point in voting because whichever party wins, you get policies that pander to the super-rich while the poor get shafted.
What scares me most is what’s going to happen when all those angry people start to realise that leaving the EU hasn’t solved their problems, and that if anything it’s just further empowered the right wingers who caused most of the problems in the first place. That anger isn’t just going to go away… they’re not just going to meekly shrug and say “OK, things got even worse then, fair enough”… but there’s no way the populist politicians and their cheerleaders in the press are going to let that anger turn on them, no matter how much they deserve it. I’m sure they’re already busily coming up with the next scapegoat, and that’s what worries me.
Will it be the EU’s fault for not giving us a decent deal when we left? Or maybe the fault of the immigrants that are still here despite Brexit? Maybe it’ll be the fault of lefty Remain voters (like me) for being unpatriotic traitors who won’t rally together for the good of the country (even though we voted against this madness)? Will it be the fault of the unemployed and disabled for bleeding the country dry? Or the public sector workers for being part of a bloated, lumbering bureaucracy that’s like a millstone around the neck of the sainted “wealth creators” in the private sector? Or even those pesky Scots for causing trouble and trying to de-stabilise the United Kingdom?
Most likely, it will be all of the above. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that no matter how bad things get, none of it will ever be the fault of UKIP, or the Tory party, or their voters, or their supporters in the media, or their rich donors.
I fear things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better. The Leave campaign, assisted by the tabloid press, have unleashed a force that no-one’s going to be able to control… they’ve stoked up people’s (rightful) anger and skillfully channeled it to exactly where they wanted it… but worse than that, they’ve encouraged anti-intellectualism to the point where I can’t see what, other than a disaster so massive that no-one in their right mind can possibly deny it, is ever going to stop this tide of anger now.
After all, how can you argue with someone who’s effectively rejected the entire concept of rational argument? It doesn’t matter how much evidence you can produce to support your viewpoint if your opponent is just going to dismiss all evidence as part of some elitist conspiracy against them and use it as an excuse to hold onto their opinion even more strongly and angrily than they were before. Of course, behaviour like this has always been pretty widespread, but the Leave campaign have now legitimised it on a huge scale.
I think the only thing that might defuse some of this anger would be if the politicians started addressing people’s real concerns, if they actually made some changes to re-balance the economy back towards benefiting ordinary people. Ultimately, offering to be tough on foreigners and criminals and the unemployed might be an appealing lightning rod for attracting some of that anger I was talking about, but it’s not going to actually satisfy anyone for long; what’s really needed is a fairer distribution of wealth, more secure employment, more affordable housing, etc., because those are the things that really make a difference to people’s lives. But the chances of that have never seemed more remote: look what happened when someone who seemed to genuinely believe in that won the Labour leadership last year. His party have thrown a huge hissy fit and been trying to force him out ever since, and the media have gone into overdrive trying to discredit him as an extremist, dangerous, out-dated, Marxist, terrorist sympathiser.
It worries me how many Labour members and supporters seem to think that if only they can get rid of Corbyn and install a nice, safe, media-friendly Blairite clone back into the leadership, everything will be just like it was back in 1997 again. It’s as if they haven’t learned anything at all from the Brexit vote, from Corbyn’s landslide win in the last leadership contest, from losing 40 of their 41 Scottish MPs last year. I’m not saying Corbyn is perfect; my feelings are that although his heart’s definitely in the right place, he possibly doesn’t have the temperament or the pragmatism required for leadership. But if Labour go to the other extreme and go back to being almost indistinguishable from the Tories again, that’s not going to do anything to solve the underlying problems that caused this current mess.
(Eagle-eyed readers will notice that despite living in Scotland, I barely mentioned the very different political situation north of the border. That’s because this post was getting long enough already… I might write more about Scotland specifically in a future post though).
To try to pre-empt some of the inevitable objections that people will have to the above…
“It’s people like you, calling Leave voters stupid and assuming you know what they think, that caused this result”.
I never said that all Leave voters were stupid, or that I know why they all voted the way they did. The EU isn’t perfect, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to object to it, and many people will have voted leave after considering those reasons. I just don’t happen to agree that those reasons outweigh the positives. However, it seems almost indisputable that a large number of people voted leave because they were furiously angry about feeling ignored by politicians for a long time, that many of them were disaffected Labour voters who on the face of it had little to gain and potentially a lot to lose from Brexit, and it seems reasonable to speculate about why this might have happened.
“Your side lost the referendum. Just get over it and shut up about it”.
What, like the Leave side would have done if Remain had won? Oh wait… Nigel Farage said before the referendum that he wouldn’t accept 52-48 as a large enough margin for a Remain victory, but now that it’s turned out to be a 52-48 victory for Leave, we’re all just supposed to quietly accept that and not even talk about one of the most momentous changes to our country in decades?
In any case, this isn’t just about the referendum… these problems have been brewing for a long time, the referendum just brought them to the surface.
“You just hate Blair because he was successful and got elected, and you lefties are much more at home in permanent opposition”.
Nope. I hate Blair because he squandered a great opportunity to undo some of the damage of the Thatcher years, because he removed any meaningful choice for voters in the UK, and most of all because he started an unnecessary and pointless war that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and destabilised the Middle East with disastrous consequences. The fact that he got elected doesn’t even figure in my hatred at all… I would have been over the moon if a Labour leader with genuine social democratic principles had got elected instead.
Anyway, by that logic I ought to hate Nicola Sturgeon even more, since she got elected, and she’s probably more popular in Scotland right now than Blair was in the UK even at his peak. But I don’t hate her at all, in fact I like her.
“Saying that Blair’s Labour party were no different to the Tories just shows how ignorant and biased you are”.
I never said there was no difference at all, and New Labour did do a few good things that the Tories probably never would have, like introducing the minimum wage, and devolving some power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it’s surely beyond dispute that Blair moved the Labour party much closer to the Tories than they’d ever been before. It was his government that introduced tuition fees; it was them that first introduced the Work Capability Assessments and benefit sanctions that are still causing so much misery for people who have to depend on benefits today; they funnelled huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to the private sector via scandalously wasteful PFI schemes (which in many cases didn’t even work properly). Whatever your opinion of those policies, they’re certainly not things anyone would have expected a Labour government to do prior to Blair. They are much more in traditional Tory territory.
“A fairer distribution of wealth isn’t possible in today’s globalised world. Any government that tried it would strangle growth and leave everyone worse off, so it’s not going to happen. That’s why neither main party will do it”.
I don’t accept that. As I said near the start, the only developed countries that have experienced such a large decline in real-terms wages since 2007 are the UK and Greece. Other comparable countries, like France and Germany and even the notoriously pro-corporate USA, all experienced significant wage growth over the same period, so it obviously isn’t impossible.