Thursday, 25 May 2017

Rule of 7

Does the sheer number of anniversaries being reported this year signify anything aside from the ever-declining staffing levels of newspapers? Looking back at 2007, 1997 and the before, there does seem to be a clustering of pivotal political and cultural events at the 7-years, though perhaps you could play the same parlour game with any other series.  So, here is my brief, partial and unashamedly teleological history of modern Britain in seven sevens. I haven’t bothered with links but Wikipedia is a major source.

In January 1957,  Harold Macmillan took over from Anthony Eden as Prime Minister. This was an aftershock of the disastrous atavistic adventurism of Suez in late 1956 – the moment when Britain could truly be said to have lost an empire but not yet found a role in the post-war world.  Macmillan, odd as it may seem 70 years later, was then a new breed of politician, avowedly modernist, relatively youthful, TV-friendly, telling the nation, "You've never had it so good!" As decolonisation accelerated, you could see the first cracks in the post-war edifice: the Wolfenden Report recommended partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in Liverpool a jazz club called The Cavern opened.

By 1967, Cavern veterans The Beatles were bigger than Jesus (as John Lennon had put it the previous year). Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a high watermark of the blend of experimentalism and faux-nostalgic whimsy that characterised English hippiedom (semi-ironic mourning for the lost certainties of the Edwardian era), while the arrest of the Rolling Stones after drugs raids became the subject of editorials in The Times. As Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins legalised homosexuality and abortion – two landmark acts of liberalism.  General de Gaulle blocked Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s bid to join the European Economic Community (though the unveiling of Concorde offered happier images of Anglo-French fraternity).

1977, the first of these years I can remember, looks unremittingly grim by contrast with the swinging sunshine of ten years earlier: industrial disputes, inflation, IRA bombs in London, pitched battles with the National Front in the streets. The corporatist consensus of the post-war years was fracturing. The Yorkshire Ripper was at large and the Jeremy Thorpe (elected as leader of the Liberal Party ten years earlier) was accused of conspiracy to murder his lover. Depending on your tastes, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, debut albums by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and the UK release of Star Wars were the only glimmers of light.

Harold Macmillan, the telegenic moderniser of 1957, was buried in January 1987, the year that Margaret Thatcher enjoyed her third election victory. With leftist bastions like the GLC and metropolitan councils abolished, the election heralded her imperial phase - ever more ambitious privatisation, and the dogmatic overreach of the poll tax. Stock markets, liberated by the previous year’s ‘big bang’ deregulation began to boom (with the temporary set-back of a ‘Black Monday’ crash in October), and the Lawson boom of the late eighties was underway.

Ten years later, in May 1997, Tony Blair arrived triumphant in Downing Street, his election putting a full stop to the limp coda of John Major’s government, and completing the transformation of the Labour Party that Neil Kinnock had struggled to achieve in the previous two elections. With Oasis’ leery revivalism still seeming fresh in the charts, Britain seems to be shrugging off the last bonds of imperial history: the UK relinquished Hong Kong, its last significant colony, and the IRA declared a ceasefire.

By 2007, the Iraq War had taken the shine of Tony Blair’s government, despite two further election victories.  The PM stood down in May, with Gordon Brown taking over for the remainder of the Parliament.  The financial exuberance of the previous two decades stuttered in September when Northern Rock sought emergency liquidity support from the Bank of England – the first shoe-drop of the financial crisis….

Sunday, 21 May 2017

You don't need a weatherman

At the end of 'manifesto week', it does seem as if a lacklustre election campaign has been overlaid on a significant shift in the centre of gravity of British political discourse. As John Prescott put it, what seems like an age ago, "the plates are shifting".

There's been a lot of debate, mainly from the originator of the term, about whether Theresa May is a 'Red Tory'. In an interview in today's Observer, Damian Green suggests something rather different. His old friend is not a great political theorist, he says, but a meteorologist, who can sense changes in the climate of public opinion and react to the modern world.

Many would argue that a leftward shift in public opinion is long overdue; the wonder is that it didn't happen earlier, given the crisis of financialised capitalism ten years ago, and the growing perception of inequality since then. We're through with shock, denial and anger, and are now ready for a new deal, which promises to tame and temper capitalism for the public good. Ten years may seem like a long time, but almost as many years passed between the crises of the late 1970s, and the emergence of purple period Thatcherism after the 1987 election.

And, of course, the shift in rhetoric and discourse may not signal an actual change in behaviour. Just as New Labour shrouded redistributive policies in veils of prudence, the Conservative government that most people expect to see elected in June may enact traditional Tory policies while paying lip service to kinder capitalism.

But the opinion polls published today give pause for thought. Labour still has a mountain to climb, but has narrowed the Conservatives lead from around 20 points to 13 or less. Labour has made much of the Conservative reforms of social care (a small shimmy in the right direction, imo), and perhaps this 'nasty party' framing is hitting home.

But I can't help wondering whether, in trying to colonise Labour territory, the Conservative manifesto hasn't scored a more significant own goal. In signalling a leftward shift, has the manifesto given voters permission to think what was once unthinkable, that free markets are not always the best guarantor of prosperity? And if you start thinking that way, you might even think a bit further: if you're going to clamp down on executive pay, why not think about setting ratios? If caps on fuel bills, then why not renationalisation? Just as Labour suffered, until John Major's goverment ran out of steam, from looking like a pale shadow of conservatism, why would people vote for a half-arsed version of the interventionist social democracy offered by Labour?