JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 10.5.08
THIS IS TALE OF TWO news stories; and I think it offers a slightly frightening insight into the political place where we find ourselves, in this early summer of 2008. On one hand, there is the story of Italy’s new equality minister, Mara Carfagna, appointed by the jokey right-wing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi after his sweeping victory in last month’s Italian elections. Miss Carfagna is a former Miss Italy contestant, and a model who has posed topless on many occasions; and as a member of the most right-wing government Italy has seen since the 1930’s – a gimcrack alliance of corrupt tycoons, open racists, blatant misogynists, unrepentant Mussolini-worshippers, and reactionary northern nationalists – she says that she is strongly in favout of “family values”, and is proud that none of her pictures were “erotic”. But alas, I am afraid I know quite a few men, and perhaps some women, who would not feel that way about the image of her gleaming, near-naked bottom helpfully published yesterday in the Daily Record; amid a welter of coverage far more extensive than any ever given in Britain to a serious European equality minister.
And then there is the other story, which concerns a report on the exploitation of vulnerable workers published earlier this week by the British Trades Union Congress. According to this report, more than two million people in Britain are now trapped in a cycle of low pay, poor working conditions, and severe exploitation by employers who will not concede even the most basic rights to sick leave or holiday, and who do not, if they can avoid it, even pay the minimum wage; all the members of the Commission of Inquiry – which included business representatives as well as trade unionists – expressed shock at the levels of misery, exploitation and casual law-breaking they discovered.
But did you read much in the press, or see much on the television news, about the TUC Report? Alas, barely anything; for this is dull and depressing stuff, is it not, far less fun than Miss Carfagna’s bottom, or even Boris Johnson’s hair. As it happens, the present Labour government – at least until its disastrous error over the 10p tax rate – had done many things to help Britain’s lowest-paid workers, from the introduction of the minimum wage to the setting-up of a vigorous new regulatory body for agricultural gangmasters, which this week began revoking licences in earnest. But as many commentators are beginning to observe, real policies affecting real people no longer have much to do with a party’s political fortunes. What matters is not right or left, fascist or socialist, coherent or confused. What matters now is whether you are old and tired, or new and sexy; whether you are a bit of a bore, or the Next Big Thing.
There is, in other words, a decisive shift towards politics with style and atmosphere, but without real content or programme; and to say that this is a worrying development, given the gravity of the global situation we face, is an obvious understatement. At UK level, it’s now impossible to see or hear an interview with any senior politician which is not disrupted by the interviewer sweeping aside vital matters of policy, affecting millions of lives, in order to discuss what in the current Westminster framework “really matters” – that is, the extent to which the subject under discussion contributes to the ritual humiliation of Gordon Brown’s government, and its replacement with a newer, better model led by David Cameron. Yet in terms of policy, or even of principle, there really is no sign that David Cameron’s Conservatives have any coherent position at all; far less one that seriously differentiates them from the present government.
And here in Scotland – well, at the moment, we all seem a shade dazzled by our new SNP Government, so much wittier and smarter than the last lot. But lift the lid and rattle the contents around, and it soon becomes clear that we, too – like the voters of London – are doing little more than expressing our disgust with the old order by messing around with identities, and buying a bit of a pig in a poke. Of course, we are blessed with a progressive nationalist party which has nothing in common with Berlusconi’s post-fascist patriots, and which does not indulge in Boris’s public-school sniggering at cultural difference. But in terms of policy, the odd thing about the SNP, in its current mood, is how much it resembles the New Labour project of a decade ago, with its sunny conviction that a march towards social justice and sustainable economics can somehow be combined with a relentless kow-towing to big business and big money.
What we are seeing, in other words, is how politics without a serious analysis of global power, and a serious intention to challenge and redistribute it, rapidly declines into a dangerous mixture of vacuous wishful thinking, and dumbed-down identity politics. At worst, this road leads straight towards new forms of fascism, always dismissed as a joke before people realise just how serious it is; and even at best, it brings democracy increasingly into disrepute. When politics is working well, it represents a powerful, explicit negotiation between the privileged and the dispossessed, designed to rebalance power in society without radical disruption or violence. But when even those politicians who have done most for the dispossessed are afraid to speak openly for them, that negotiation is effectively over. The real battle for power moves to other, more brutal arenas, putting millions of lives at risk. And in the meantime, we might as well read about Mara Carfagna’s bottom; while we wait for the oil to run out, or for the axe to fall.
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