I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. Trump’s win is the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.
The British Library has a brief pop-up exhibition running at the moment marking the 40th anniversary of the explosion of punk in the UK in 1976, and wandering around it made me realise how much punk was an expression of the political and economic crisis of the 1970s.
I was listening to the radio in 1975, and there was some expert blabbing on about how if things go on as they are there’ll be 800,000 people unemployed by 1979, while another guy was saying if that happened there’d be chaos, there’s be actual — anarchy in the streets. *That* was the root of punk.
In fact, unemployment reached a million by July 1977, at the height of the punk moment.
Obviously, there was something cultural going on as well. The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren, had been running his King’s Road clothers shop with Vivienne Westwood for several years before the oil shock. Popular music was becoming both bloated and sclerotic. The Ramones’ first record also upped the speed of the music, as Tony James of the proto-punk band London SS recalls in in an interview in the exhibition. But it’s hard to believe that the music would have broken through, or perhaps broken out, without the crisis.
I’ve been wondering about the relationship between insiders and outsiders ever since I was at university and then at the BBC, and have concluded (a) that it’s the combination of background and ambition that makes the difference, and (b) the outsider who wants to be an insider is the most dangerous of all combinations, for that way corruption lies.
I’ve assigned these groupings to British politicians because they are sufficiently in the public domain to be able to apply judgments.
I had a piece a couple of months ago in Market Leader on why political parties represented a particular sort of brand, and what that meant for their freedom of movement. I can’t attach the article here (Market Leader is paywalled), but with the election in full swing it seems worth sharing a couple of extracts.
The Market Leader article was partly a rewrite of my post here in the autumn on the long-term decline of the Conservative party, but I had more space, so could extend the analysis to the Labour Party, and also deepen the thinking.
One of my New Year Resolutions is to try to do some different things on the next wave – to try to mix up the content a bit. And oddly, the death of the former Conservative Home Secretary Leon Brittan gives me exactly this opportunity. I’ll remember him this way, through a poem by Pat Condell that I read in 1985 and came to mind the moment I heard the news that Brittan had died.
We’re backing Brittan
by Pat Condell
more prisons! restrain! incarcerate!
protect us from people who don’t pay their rates
from vagabonds, vagrants, dogs who foul the pavement
& anyone scrounging on the welfare state
from prostitutes, shoplifters, single parents
people who leave food on the side of their plate
who squeeze the toothpaste in the middle
steal from clotheslines & beg on the street
protect us from anyone who answers back
when stopped on suspicion of being black
save us from drug users, self-abusers
anyone who spits or shows their tits
drunks who shout and throw themselves about
Greenham women, pickets, yobs and louts
& anyone who doesn’t like the future we face
a place for everyone & everyone in their place
The poem was published in Hard Lines 2, a Faber anthology of “new prose and poetry” chosen by Ian Dury, Pete Townshend, Alan Bleasdale and Fanny Dubes, in a brief moment when poetry was about to become the new rock and roll. There are no biographies of contributors in the book, but I’m as sure as I can be that the author is this Pat Condell.
When the book was published, Brittan was Home Secretary, and came across badly; he looked like the face of the nasty party. Condell’s poem captures exactly the tone of 1980s Conservatism, with its vindictiveness, its mean spirit and grim social illiberalism.
As it happens, the obituaries suggest that he was a little more liberal than he let on. Or not: he was Home Secretary during the miners’ strike, and encouraged the militaristic policing strategy that was used throughout the strike.
And his judgment was poor. He argued for a change in the law so that the killers of police men and women could be executed, in the wave of hysteria that followed the death of Yvonne Fletcher, but lost the Commons’ vote heavily. And he bullied the BBC – although he was doing Margaret’s bidding here – into banning the Real Lives documentary about Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and Gregory Campbell of the DUP, and was astonished when journalists struck for a day in protest (including me, working at ITN. As a colleague told a Spanish news crew filming the picket line at the Wells Street building. “There is no news today so there is news tomorrow.”)
The 1980s was the age when “politics as performance” was invented – political discourse shifted from policy to representation – and Brittan’s performance as Home Secretary, captured viscerally in Condell’s poem, can be read as a prototype of today’s (vindictive, mean-spirited) Conservative Party. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place. No wonder David Cameron was so generous with his tribute.
The image of Leon Brittan at the top of the post is from the Foresign and Commonwealth Office via Wikipedia. and is published here under an Open Government Licence.
Whatever happened to the Conservative party? Not this week, but over the last twenty years? Geoffrey Wheatcroft asked this question in the Guardian this week, and it is a good one. Actually, he asked it a bit more forcefully than that:
Has what was the most successful political party in modern European history succumbed to some strange death wish, determined to tear itself to pieces and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?
By “successful,” he means that between 1886 and 1997 – 111 years – the Conservatives were in power in the UK for 79 of them, either alone or occasionally in coalition. Now, though, said Wheatcroft, it looked “like a fractious rabble”.
Britain’s high speed train project, HS2, is something of an enigma wrapped in a mystery. The projected costs are spiralling, currently at £50bln and counting; the line antagonises voters in every constituency it is planned to run through, and could cost the government seats in the next election; and pretty much every credible transport expert says that if you’re going to spend that much money on rail infrastructure you’re better linking regions together rather than creating a faster funnel into London. And yet the project stays afloat, buoyed up, it seems, by the claims of its supporters. (more…)
Mrs Thatcher’s only been in Hell for 30 minutes, and already she’s closed three of the furnaces and another three are on strike.
It wasn’t on Twitter, or on a political blog, but on the listserv of some football fans – fans, as it happens, of a club in a former mining area in the north of England. As Hugo Young said in his posthumously published piece on her (he died in 2003) in Tuesday’s Guardian, “Thatcher was a naturally, perhaps incurably, divisive figure.”
For my part, I think you need only one chart to understand her influence on Britain, which shows the step-change in inequality during her time in power. I’ve published this here before, when I blogged on the 30th anniversary of her first election victory:
One of the most alarming articles I’ve read this month was by the Cambridge-based economist Ha-Joon Chang. He’s the author of 23 Things You Didn’t Know About Capitalism, and has a sharp eye for how markets and economies work in practice. Anyway, he noted that despite a substantial devaluation of the pound since the financial crisis, both service exports and manufacturing exports had also fallen. This isn’t how devaluation is supposed to work.
I find that I’ve written a lot over the last couple of years about ownership – and by extension, about land and property. Not enough, it turns out, as I read the news this week that the activists who had occupied an education and environment centre in the Forest of Dean, to try to prevent Gloucestershire Council from selling it off, have been evicted. Legally, of course, it is the Council’s to sell. The argument of this post is that it shouldn’t be.
Here’s my starting proposition: (a) public bodies should not be allowed to sell off capital assets.
(b) we need a new class of property – a stewardship category – which enables property to be held in the public good in perpetuity.