Troubled Times In Scotland And Across Europe, As A Failed Politics Of Austerity Tightens Its Grip – Column 12.10.12
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 12.10.12
IT WAS A STRIKING picture, in this week’s news; the one of a group of young Greeks all dressed as SS officers, protesting against Angela Merkel’s visit to Greece, and calling her a Nazi. Angela Merkel is not a Nazi, of course; she is just a businesslike German head of government, doing her conventional best in difficult times.
Like many current world leaders, though, she is a fairly uncritical disciple of the cult of austerity that is now provoking increasing unrest across southern Europe; and that may indeed – in a tragic echo of the 1930’s – begin to push many despairing voters into the hands of far-right parties. Like the Thatcherites of the 1980’s, the advocates of austerity believe in “sound money” as the essential basis of a functioning society; and they believe that if human suffering and social injustice on a grand scale are necessary to restore the value of money, then that is a price worth paying. The history of the 20th century suggests that they are quite wrong; that it is actually better to scrap a failed financial system and restart from scratch – as the great Bretton Woods conference did, in the 1940’s – than to seek to preserve it in ways which inflict such pain and social stress.
Yet four years on from the financial crash of 2008, most of our leaders still seem deaf to the voice of history. In Britain, our economy is flatlining, while the government continues to slash the real incomes of benefit claimants and ordinary workers, and to depress domestic demand. In Scotland this week, business leaders begged for government to maintain its capital spending programmes in tough times; at the Tory conference in Birmingham, the main source of patriotic pride has been the memory of a triumphant London 2012 Olympics, funded with billions of public money.
Yet still, the failed ideology that sees public spending as a problem rumbles on, along with the pre-Victorian right-wing dream of a biddable workforce without rights. This week in Birmingham, Britain’s Chancellor Of The Exchequer actually proposed to that British workers should be invited to sign away their employment rights, fought for over two centuries of struggle by their parents and grandparents, in return for £2000 worth of shares.
And in an even more striking outburst of right-wing oddity, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson declared that only a tiny 12 per cent of Scots households make a “net contribution” to the economy, thereby exposing the sheer absurdity of an ideology which categorises all public-sector activity as unproductive and parasitic, and all private-sector activity – even the rank mismanagement of large banks – as productive and “wealth-creating”. The idea that state spending at around half of GDP represents a problem to be attacked, rather than a normal feature of most 21st century democracies, has become endemic in British politics, and throughout our public administration. Hence – for those who are wondering why it matters – the current intense row over Creative Scotland, a classic government agency, created in the Blair-Brown era, that is apparently unable to understand why it should not address its distinguished clients as if they were a bunch of delinquent benefit claimants who have made no effort to get off the dole.
The tragic paradox of our time, though, is that this failed economic orthodoxy still so dominates our public life that voters tend to accept it as inevitable. In the United States, the hard-working middle-class has now been voting regularly against its own interests for a generation, and may be about to do so again. And here in Scotland – well, when Johann Lamont mounted her attack on universal benefits a fortnight ago, I and many other commentators thought she had cooked her political goose.
Instead, though, whether she likes it or not, Ms Lamont seems to have made herself the de facto leader of a conservative-minded and generally unionist centre-right body of opinion in Scotland who have been largely voiceless since the Tories lurched towards Thatcherism a generation ago; and who are drawn to her not because she questioned certain specific universal benefits – as all responsible politicians must do – but because in doing so, she deliberately accepted the neoliberal rhetoric of unavoidable austerity, and used the dog-whistle right-wing phrase “something for nothing” to disparage universal public services.
All of which leaves Scotland’s SNP government, on the eve of its conference, in a far more difficult position than would have seemed possible, just a few weeks ago; and one that resonates across our whole unhappy continent, in this autumn of 2012. Scotland over the last five years has found itself with a government that – while not explicitly social-democratic itself – has found it useful to defend social-democratic values in Scotland, and therefore to do the right thing on a wide range of issues. It has, for example, preserved the Scottish NHS from the shameful unmandated pivatisation now taking hold in England, and it has refused to be bamboozled by specious arguments that a £9,000-a-year university fees system with huge upfront costs, and serious implications for fair access to higher education, is a radically cheaper option than the direct funding of universities.
Yet now, for its cheek in failing to conform to the orthodoxy of the age, the Scottish Government has been cornered and isolated; and it seems to me unlikely that the SNP has the well-marshalled battery of ideological argument that would be necessary, to fight its way out again. For a year or so, after their great election victory of 2011, the SNP looked like worthy champions of a new social democracy for the 21st century, fearless and full of flair. Now though – in the autumn of the Megrahi/Trump revelations, the golf trip to Chicago, the ill-advised tartan trews – the Scottish Government looks increasingly tarnished, both by its Blairite operating methods and by the compromises of power.
Here in Scotland as in Spain and Greece, in other words, the ideas that could give us a better future have increasingly become political orphans, advocated by flawed and marginalised politicians, or none at all; while the mainstream ever more loudly chants the punitive mantra of austerity, and gradually browbeats us all into following, wherever that false creed leads.