Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Professionals

‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’ Tony beamed that morning, even brighter than he had all the time before that the camera clicked.  His smile, so parodied along with those overly sincere hand movements, symbolised mid-nineties politics.  Against all the odds, against the ravages of the previous eighteen years, the systematic assault on our cities and society, there was hope in that smile.  For millions of people, myself included, from May 1997 we believed things could only get better.

We were right.

And we were wrong.

New Labour bought a new hope for politics to Britain.  In a time of economic boom, there was the opportunity to rebuild, to care not only about our immediate families’ prosperity but for the rest of the country’s wealth as well. 

And yet despite the unprecedented funding being washed into education, the NHS, the establishment of the minimum wage, reductions in child poverty and a significant improvement in the standards of living for most people, you can’t help but wonder:  With a majority that big, was it enough?  If the terror attacks of September 2001 hadn’t happened, if Blair hadn’t become distracted – and ultimately all his and Brown’s good work overshadowed by – costly and of dubious morality wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should they have done more? 

Maybe it’s because 1997 was my election, or rather the one in which I (almost) could vote in.  Four days too young, I watched the majority of my friends head off to the polling station and palatable change, for the first time in our lives, was in the air.  No wonder I’ve become increasingly disappointed, to the extent that, for years, I carried around an outline for a short story in my head about someone who assassinated Blair for letting him down.  I eventually discarded it as too teenage, too emotionally narrow.

Military misadventure took over from social reorganisation and then the financial catastrophe of 2008 swept into town distorting our view of what had gone before.  Sure, a ruling party which wins successive elections, while its once imperious majority ebbs away, will inevitably be seen to be hanging on too long, but we forget how dreadful our social infrastructure was in 1997.  We forget how drastically the country improved, but still, there’s that question: was it enough?  Though neither of them, or any of the other New Labour architects, would ever admit to it, I imagine them privately kicking themselves that the system reforms introduced didn’t go further.  If we’d been marched even further into a fair society, would we have so meekly allowed the Conservative government of the past five years to dismantle it?

Of course, too many changes too soon and we could have seen a different story in 2001.  I remember, being approached in the pub where I was working, in suburban Birmingham, by an elderly chap telling me I that I knew which way I had to vote, didn’t I?  To save the soul of the country?  Make no mistake, he wasn’t supporting the then incumbents of Downing Street. 

With the era of Blair and Brown, though, there seemed to emerge a new phenomena: the professional politician.  Examples of this species, such as Jack Straw – more of whom later - who was elected to his safe seat in Blackburn aged just thirty-three have always been around, but since the nineties parliament has been overrun by ex-spads, political heirs and party machine-smiths with a media profile.  And of course, those who never needed a job in the first place. 

When Cameron took the top job five years commentators said that he looked the part, that he appeared to be prime minister material.  Old Etonians, they’re all born to rule and they know it.  The House of Commons is awash with white upper-middle-class men with Oxbridge degrees and private schools, flush with confidence and an easy manner on the grand stage, but far removed from the daily worries of normal people.  Ian Duncan-Smith can see the spare bedroom tax as just way of reducing the benefits bill, because being married to a multi-millionaire he has no concept of tight finances.  Ed Miliband, for all his positive attributes, talks the right talk about a fair and equal society, but growing up in Primrose Hill, the child of professional academics, he doesn’t have any idea what it is to be  a manual labourer living in Mold, any more than I do.  Hopefully he at least recognises that.

In a week where we see long-term politicians, both former foreign secretaries no less, Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind get caught pimping themselves out for access to the halls of power one doubts any of them ever recognise their own failings. 

No, that’s unfair.  The self-interested snouts in the trough world view of Nigel Farage does us no favours.  It is better recognise that most MPs are hard-working and there for the right reasons.  There have always been foolish men whose time in power has gone to their head, their belief in entitlement shakes their common sense. 

Rifkind even had the audacity to claim he was self-employed, dismissing his £67-£80-odd thousand, depending on the source, salary as not sufficient.  Maybe.  He is, after all, MP for Kensington and he’d near more than that to afford a shoebox around there.  Of course this does ignore the fact of all those other non-executive directorships he holds, which are unlikely to be unpaid.

But neither Rifkind nor Straw are, despite their long service in the House, the sort of bland professional I’m talking about.  Both, at least, are identifiable characters and have some ideological beliefs (aside from their own wallets).  They are not delivered flat packed, assembled at party headquarters and inserted into some smart shoes and a grey suit before being deployed to the provinces.  Somehow, this is another way in which Farage has managed to pull the wool over people’s eyes.  The privately educated, former hedge fund manager is somehow presenting himself as a man of the people, as something different to the establishment he is so embedded in.  It seems that people are fooled that, because he likes a fag and a pint of bitter, he’s of working class stock.

If politics is, partly, the magic of making people think they agree with you, then this is the ultimate example of the art.  It’s nothing but people on the inside, trying to pretend they’re on the out.  It’s a confidence trick, that’s all.  It’s not real change.

In the second half of the twentieth century, you had miners inventing the NHS and working class kids from Brixton running first the economy and then the whole country.  In the 1970sthere were 150 teachers in the House of Commons.  Now, it’s like we’ve travelled back to the regency – as though the prime minister could as easily be from the house of Lords as not.  As though elections barely matter.  It’s just changing the badge on the same people.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with professional politicians.  You would expect those with whom you entrust the maintenance of, say, your car or your boiler to have the requisite experience.  Maintaining the country is a little more complex, but it seems to generate people who are professional election winners, which isn’t quite the same thing.  In a representative democracy we want people to act on our behalf, not just to offer the blandest least dangerous opinions, scampering towards the middle ground.  It’s starting to look crowded in the centre and it’s hard to discern a difference at times. 

Put it another way, I can’t seen Aneurin Bevan having to answer charges as to whether the adjustment made to his Father’s will around the inheritance of the central London property constituted illegal or legal tax avoidance.

But it’s okay, because Labour are deploying John Prescott to “bash heads together”.  Whether that is the heads of Labour party workers, ministers and prospective ministers or the voters themselves remains to be seen.  Prescott is old school Labour, one of the highest ranking politicians of the late nineties, early twenty-first century and as far from what we mean by professional politician as its possible to get and yet we mock his rough edges, we ridicule his speech patterns and that he doesn’t conform into the anonymous dark suit brigade.  The poor beggars can’t win, can they?

Part of the problem is that MPs aren’t alone in being greedy.  The whole HSBC scandal encapsulates one of the growing problems in this country, which the Conservatives seem perfectly happy with:   Greed, wealth and the acumination of more booty at the expense of others.   It creates the haves and the have nots.  It gives us the likes of Rifkind and Straw seeking their enhanced pensions, either through a desire to be one of those who have or through envy of them.  It’s perfectly natural, but the more Ed Miliband talks about creating a country which is fair, the more it feels as though his challenge will be to reconfigure people’s natural instincts for self-advancement and preservation.  I think he’s right; I just worry not enough other people do.

Even my wife and I argue about this, despite both being comfortably on the left hand side of the political spectrum.  I see the payment of tax as a social obligation and would be happy to pay more.  This is not to say that my wife is pro-tax avoidance, but that she has more sensible – and significantly less pious – views of things like whether having an ISA constitutes secretly wishing to privatise the NHS.

(To be honest, I just couldn’t be bothered to do the paperwork and this was a clutching at straws defence, but ssh, don’t tell her.)

I’m easily impressed by people’s stance on taxation.  JK Rowling – for all her literary faults – at least has the decency to stay in the UK and pay her taxes.  As she says, the state was there for her when she was at rock bottom, when she had absolutely nothing.  It’s only fair that she gives something back.

Blair’s 1997 new dawn did herald in a political day of socialism-lite.  An awful lot of good in their thirteen years in office, but that term was twice that of the post World War Two Labour government which created much of the social infrastructure which dragged our country into the modern world, there will always be the question of whether they could have, should have, done more.  We’re still having the same introspective arguments we have had for generations, squabbling over high or low taxation rather than finding a system that works, rather than accepting that to get a better future for all we have to be good citizens now.  We should have sorted all this out.  Instead we find ourselves missing the really important things, like the Ukraine is being torn apart by the sorts of expansionist aggressive military zeal not seen in Europe for more than half a century.  Russian bombers over the coast of Cornwall, for Christ’s sake.   Who knows what happens next, but our council tax rate isn’t going to make any difference.

And, of course, the problem with Blair’s dawn analogy is that night must also fall.  Darkness shrouded us five years ago, under the cover of which the Tories has systematically pulled apart systems which it took fifty years to develop, trying to finish the job started in the eighties.  The only question we need to ask ourselves is whether this is a summer’s night or a winter’s one?

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Things change

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago.   The days when I could produce a blog every few days are long gone, so I like to give myself more of a run in than I used to.

The weather’s turned spitefully cold again.  The mornings are still darkly bleak and the chill as I carry my bike down the garden, to the side gate, bites through my fingers.  I want to be deep in my sleep, in my bed, with my wife, but instead, like the rest of the world, I have to go to work.  In the evenings, the temptation is to crank the central heating up higher because we can afford to, but instead we layer on another jumper, maybe have a small wood fire and huddle in the lounge.  It’s cold, but, I remind myself, not that cold.

Five years ago, I lived without heating in a small studio flat, not half a mile from where we are now.  Five years and half a mile, but it is starting to feel like a memory of a film about someone else’s life.  How, I ask myself, as my fingers cramp over the keyboard from the cold, did I manage for so long in that flat, through two of the coldest winters seen in a century?

Five years ago, it was so cold inside that it was better to be outside, to be moving.  So one 2010 January Saturday, as the snow finally cleared, I took myself down to Kent and walked along the coast line where Saint Augustine landed with plans to convert the heathen English.  January just gone, we find ourselves, by coincidence, a little further along the sea, in Faversham.  Parts of it look familiar and déjà vu plays tricks on my memory.  Things change, things stay the same.

Five years ago, I was angry.  Five years ago, I felt like we were on a precipice where one wrong step spelled disaster.  A lot can happen in five years.

Five years ago I lived in my chilly flat, surrounded by books and music.  I was single, in a low-paid administration job and trying to write a novel about a broken hearted alcoholic rock and roll band in a near future dystopia.  A world where all my biggest fears had come to pass:  the United Kingdom was a deeply unequal country and everyone only cared about their own troubles.  As I walked along the Kent coast that afternoon, the election loomed on the horizon and I was struck by the idea for series of blogs which would form both a commentary on the electoral process, our responsibility within it and a history of the country.

Where we are, how we got here and, perhaps, directions for how to lose an electorate.

It was one of those perfect writing moments when everything hit the right notes (or at least that was how it felt to me).  It was easy to convince myself that the zeitgeist poured through every angry, anxious sentence that I hammered out, too late in the evenings.  I am not ashamed to say that I got quite an adrenaline rush of putting those together, whether or not anyone was really listening.

While choosing to vote Green myself, I was hopeful of Labour majority and was interested in how the surge in Liberal Democrat popularity would play out.  I have to confess, I didn’t envisage a Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition.  Certainly not one which would last a full term or one which would see the Lib-Dems so willingly sacrifice their principles, and future, for the briefest sip of power.  With the great global crash of 2008 so recent and the effects still rippling out through the world, stability, a Keynesian approach and a utilitarian consideration of society as a whole seemed to be the best course of action and there was no way I trusted the Conservatives to deliver anything other than ideological preservation of the elite.

And I was right.

But, five years is a long time and a lot of things can happen.

There’s a quote often attributed to Churchill that if a young man is not a socialist he has no heart, but if he is not a conservative at forty he has no brain.  There is a dispiriting logic to that.  At almost thirty-six my days as an idealist seem numbered. 

The past five years have been the best of my life.  The transformation has been quite remarkable.  I find myself writing this a different man:  Married, with a mortgage on a three bedroom house, in a well paid position of responsibility.  In many ways, one could argue that I ought to be grateful for the political environment of the past five years, as though it were responsible for my happiness.

 I am no longer angry, by which I mean I am no longer irrationally furious with everything around me.  My wife brings me a sense of inner calm that is hard to articulate, but is certainly good for my soul.  The state of our country, however, still frustrates me.  The past five years have, largely, played out as expected.  The dismantling of society has ploughed ahead, but I have been surprised by two things: the absence of protest and the rise of UKIP.  A significant proportion of the country have let themselves be persuaded blaming people is better than facing up to our own inadequacies and selfishness. 

Things change.  Things stay the same.

As HSBC are exposed for systematic, illegal tax evasion for their clients we seem to have learned nothing about the financial industry’s malpractice.  People’s fundamental greed still corrupts.  

For the briefest moment it almost seemed that we were going to get rid of Rupert Murdoch; that his stranglehold over so many people’s worldview was going to broken.  But, no.  Arrests of former employees continue and a scandal that seems to involve half the country’s celebrities, numerous grieving families, the Prime Minister and a police horse seems to swerve right past Murdoch himself, as he persists with his public persona of a confused old man seemingly surprised to find himself in control of a vast, international media web. 

At least the aftermath of the last election saw the British National Party scuttle back to their cave, whipped beyond the pale.  The party went into the election with its leader promoting his odious views on every available platform and the media at least willing to air his lies so they could be challenged rather than ignored.  It confidentially strutted towards polling day only to find itself scurrying away, battered, bruised and not tolerated since.  Polls showed strange things.  The same systems which suggested possible wins for the BNP suggested a performance from the Lib-Dems not seen since the First World War, all off the back of Nick Clegg’s impressive – and unheralded – performance in the televised debates.  In actuality the party ended up with a net loss of one seat, albeit a significant increase in the popular vote.  Polls, tch.  No matter what they suggest, the only thing that matters is the result the morning after.

When Clegg snuck into bed with Cameron for a post-election fling, it seemed as though it might be a genuine romance.  All that flirting in the Downing Street gardens.  We could hope that the Tory’s old school right wing brigade might be tempered by Liberal sensibility.  Alas, it hasn’t worked out as such.  This has just been a dirty shag.  An exploitive relationship with the Lib-Dems so short on self-worth they’ve seemed pleased to be exploited, at least people have noticed they’re there.

Less than a month later, still recovering from the churning coincidence laden meta-fictional craziness of my personal life during the run up to the election, I met a girl in a pub, in Marylebone.  Over a couple of drinks we dismayed at the Conservatives taking office, saving our greatest vitriol for George Osborne.  ‘I’d like to see more of this one,’ I thought.  And now I see her every day.

But, perhaps naively, I want those days to be good ones.  I want us to live in a fair, tolerant, conscientious society.  I have a recurring nightmare that May the 8th, the morning after a marathon televised news schedule, I’ll wearily rise and find myself living in a hell whereby Boris Johnson has staged a dying moment coup d’état to form a coalition with UKIP.  Johnson is PM with Farage as his deputy.  In such circumstances, I may find myself fleeing these shores: it’s a scenario far worse than the dystopia I was trying to write five years ago, and it’s not as far-fetched.

The past couple of mornings though, as I’ve laboured my bike out of the shed, off for another day’s work, the sun has been nudging its way over the horizon.  It’s still cold, but the light gives me a flicker of excitement at the summer coming.  Things change, but there are cycles.  Things return too.

My wife likes to mock me.  She says that when we first met, that I still thought of myself as some sort of punkish rebel against society.  As evidence for this, she cites my accommodation and employment status, my tendency to only be seen in a leather jacket or to sneer at other people’s lifestyles.  This attitude, she says, is no longer valid given the utterly conventional path my life has taken.  I have joined the masses I was trying so hard to annoy and maybe, I wonder, this has been one of the things which has robbed my voice of late.  Has my writing suffered not only due to a lack of time and a sense of contentment with the world, but because I know that I’ve betrayed my self-image?  The voice of a disaffected not-so-youth is no longer authentic.  I have nothing to rebel against, nothing to be angry about.

And then I look at what the last five years have done to our country.  I look at the rise of a political party which is subverting notions of Britishness, of community, of decency and turning them into something spiteful.  I look at the direction we’re heading in and wonder how quickly I can get off.   I see all this around me and the apathy with which we seem to be shuffling into a less fair world and there’s isn’t much else I can do except slick back my hair into a Brando quiff, straddle my (push)bike, dangle a metaphorical cigarette in my oh-so pretty mouth, and look moodily into the monochrome middle distance.

What can I be angry about?

Whad’ya got?