Repulsive And Wrong: Why Right-Wing “Blue Sky” Thinkers Are Out Of Time – Column 29.7.11
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 29.7.11
IT’S TUESDAY EVENING; and I am listening to a Radio 4 programme in which a bunch of journalists discuss what they would write, if they were producing the leaders for tomorrow’s papers. By modern media standards, these journalists are a mixed bunch, from a wide range of geographical and political backgrounds. They discuss Britain’s current poor economic performance; and several times both a man from Wales, and the journalist in the chair, draw attention to the fact – not disputed, by serious economists – that if you want to make tax cuts that will really boost your domestic economy, then the most reliable way to do it is to put more money into the pockets of lower income groups, who tend to spend it immediately, in the local economy.
Yet every time they say this, a pair of giggling right-wingers on the other side of the table dismiss these arguments as “sentimental”, and assert shrilly that the thing to do is to cut the 50% tax rate on the rich, so that they will hang around in London doing business. No one picks them up on it; but in truth, their characterisation as “sentimental” of a perfectly rational case for improving the purchasing-power of poorer people speaks volumes about the ideological climate in which Britain’s elites are now living. It’s not just that they have an almost religious belief in greater marketisation and reduced public spending as good things in themselves. It’s that in order to maintain their belief in policies that often involve inflicting pain on blameless people, they have had to create in their own minds a rigid dichotomy between what is right and compassionate, and what is realistic or practical; they have to believe that virtue is never practical, and that being nasty is always right and effective.
And once that false dichotomy is set up, there is no end to the craziness to which it can lead. It led, this week , to some truly disgraceful coverage of the Norwegian shooting, dripping with schadenfreude, and with the patronising assumption that the high levels of trust and cohesion in Norway’s successful social-democratic society were somehow a sign of “naivety”, now corrected by an inevitable blast of nasty “reality”.
And no sooner had Norway begun to fade from the headlines, than we were treated to some fresh thoughts from the sado-right, in the shape of the latest wisdom of one Steve Hilton, a “blue sky thinker” in the Prime Minister’s office who caused tremendous excitement when it was discovered that he had been responding to Britain’s recent weak economic performance by suggesting that we abolish maternity leave and all forms of consumer protection, and ignore all European legislation in areas like working time and conditions.
Now there is something to be said, in the depths of a recession, for being careful not to load businesses, particularly small businesses, with too much regulation. There is, though, little point in trying rationally to debate such issues with people who have come to associate effective policy-making with a systematic attack on compassion itself, and a visceral hostility to every form of social protection introduced in Britain since the high Victorian age.
In that sense, Steve Hilton’s assault on maternity rights is a locus classicus of this debate. It frames motherhood and maternity as purely a matter of individual choice. It flatly refuses to acknowledge society’s collective interest in giving women the chance to be both good mothers, and productive workers. It plays to the gallery of old social reactionaries at papers like the Daily Mail, who tend to dislike anything that empowers ordinary women. And it is based on a false account of the existing situation; for in fact, decent maternity rights in Britain, insofar as we have them, have not led to a decline in female employment – rather the reverse. Across a whole range of policies – from health and higher education to the assessment of disability – it’s possible to trace the same influence of these extreme market ideologues, proposing solutions that are unpopular, unpleasant, and supported by no evidence of actual benefits; but that aways have the advantage of hammering the poor and the middling, while freeing the rich to get even richer.
And the point about these people – of whom Mr. Hilton is only the most obvious current example – is that their continuing dominance of British public debate, through their friends in the media and elsewhere, is effectively disabling us from making rational progress out of our current impasse. Their solutions are ridiculous, and based on a hopelessly skewed analysis of the current economic situation; Britain’s problems arise, if anything, not from too large a state, but from excessive inequality, low and declining real wages, and the consequent existence of a large, unproductive and unmotivated underclass. And beyond that, their presence effectively stifles debate on real, practical reform of the public sector; since it reduces everyone who understands the role of public services in our society to a position of stubborn resistance to change proposed by those whose motives they plainly cannot trust.
Britain’s economic situation is bad and deteriorating, in other words; and we need to agree a plan for getting out of it. The truth is, though, that there is no chance of such agreement until politicians end their 35-year love-affair with the wild men of the ideological right, and accept that most people want to live in a generous state that cares for them. The good society demands a balance between security and freedom; the job of politics is to strike that balance. Those who are not interested in balance, but only in a headline-grabbing private crusade against the whole idea of state provision, are functionally useless in that discussion. Nor would they ever have gained such a powerful influence over public discourse in Britain, if their agenda did not so strongly serve the interests of those elites which have convinced themselves that the only “realistic” policy is to continue to protect their own wealth and privilege; regardless of the cost to the ordinary people of Britain, and – above all – to the most vulnerable among them.