Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Stray thoughts on the political situation in Britain

Almost any criticism levelled at New Labour is merited. The fact that there is still a question about whether or not the Tories would be better shows how deeply, deeply awful the the Tories would be.

The whole way politics are done in Britain is rubbish. It used to be quite cool, swapping two blokes called Harold around every few years. The parties were distinct, even if the leaders weren't, and - IMPORTANT BIT - both reflected very real traditions in British society. The Conservatives reflected a traditionalist bouirgeois world view, with a few aristocratic bits for fun, and Labour more prolish. Weirdly, a lot of criticism, particularly from the left, was that both parties were effectively just different teams of administrators, vying to convince the electorate their team would be best at implementing the same policies. But that's just the left for you.

The reason for this consensus was there generally was a lot held in common, in areas that would seem far to the left of the current political scene. Industrial relations are a good example of this - both Labour and Conservatives had Union troubles and both resolved them the same way. Inflation was held in check through negotiations with the unions about wages and through price controls. The upshot was that for all the perceived differences, you had people working together to achieve goals.

The state was one force in this set up, balanced by others - particularly the unions. This was because the state in Britain was always the instrament of conservative (small 'c') interests. With a monarch, an established church, an unelected second chamber with real power and a voting system that ensured non-radical consensus would win over sectarian extremism, reform was never going to be achieved through elected (as opposed to democratic) means. The British genius for most of the 20th century was that reform was achieved, through the collaboration of state power, capital power and labour power.

Now, of course, things are rather different. The union movement is dimished to the point it no longer represents labour (small 'l') on the national stage. Instead, it just protects or advances (a little) the interests of its members and sector - while the numbers dwindle further. The union movement is politically impotent.

British capital hasn't triumphed, however, because it has been subsumed by the monster of globalisation - there isn't any British industry left - apart from mad highlanders making moonshine - just (an ever decreasing amount of) industry in Britain. Capital is still potent, but no longer British. It has no inherent interest in maintaining the social consensus.

Then, as now, there is a broad similarity between the parties, but the similarity is not the same one as there was up until the end of the seventies. Both parties have an agreed consensus, but it is a neo-liberal, not a social-democratic, consensus. Whatever slight internal tendency there was to reform is extinct. Neither represents a distinct constiuency any longer, both are competing for the same votes and - this is the important bit - the same powerful interests. News International has far more ingfulence on policy of Labour and the Conservatives than the interests of their traditional tribal bases. Like the unions, they are impotent, and like the capitalists, they are effectively de-nationalised.

As a short ginger fellow remarked a propos of another problem, what is to be done?

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