The coalition's scorched earth economics is anti-democratic

In five years we’ve witnessed a massive change in society with little opposition. Cameron’s vision is incompatible with democracy. 

Geoffrey Heptonstall
30 April 2015

“Thatcher was naïve but sincere. This lot are a good deal more worldly-wise” Image: Flickr/ Chris Beckett

I once had an interesting conversation with a distinguished historian, now sadly departed. He spoke of the fascistic tendency of Thatcher. I thought that was going too far. It felt jejune, although I didn’t use that word of course. ‘No,’ he said, ‘think about it: the impatience of an authoritarian personality.’ He elaborated the point. And, yes, there was something in it.

Calling all Tories fascists is childish. There is a case for continuity and tradition. There is a place for scepticism. The case for a progressive politics is not so obvious it need not be argued. Sharpening your wits against an intelligent Conservative is a useful exercise. But the far right is another matter. The feeling was that a tendency had entered the mainstream of political life in Britain, an attitude that would survive its progenitors, and that would discard their restraining hand as it slouches towards Salem.

The drift rightward has placed the centre ground further from the previously agreed middle. The consensus is that a command economy is a failed model, intellectually out argued, morally indefensible and inadequate in practice. This is the place from where Labour begins its policy platform. Intervention in the free market is necessary because the market is not a perfect mechanism, even if it is the preferred option.

There are those who require assistance the market cannot give because it does not understand the problem. The disabled need help of course. And so do the able bodied in search of new opportunities. The market demands that they move to a better location. Common sense and compassion argue that such a movement may need help [with travel tickets and accommodation for example]. That is the Labour vision: social concern in a free market. That’s not much of an alternative. It’s more tribal than ideological. A bit of help here and there to the needy – a compassionate liberalism fading into the Neocon haze.

And the named Conservatives in 2015? They have been exceptionally impatient in the past five years. The desire to remove the deficit immediately, rather than in the natural course of long term economic events, is one instance of this unseemly desire to move economic and social life with a dangerous alacrity. The danger lies in the incompatibility between such single-minded desire and the diverse needs of a complex society.

This desire also manifests in the drive towards privatization that somehow justifies the selling of public assets to absolutely anyone prepared to pay a knockdown price for an invaluable resource. The justification that a commercial operation is efficient fails to consider the human cost of unreasonable working practices.

The impatience of the Cameron crew exceeds anything that has preceded it. The attempt to undertake massive and irreversible transformation in one parliament is beyond all the culture of debate and persuasion and moderation that is democracy. There has been no attempt to build consensus, nor to acknowledge the provisional nature of social experiment, nor to consider the impact on the social fabric of such a bloodletting. With the support of Liberal Democrats [sic] the Cameron/Osborne gang have driven through policies for which there is no mandate.

Obsession has been an underlying emotion. Obsession with impossible targets. An insistent wishful-thinking in place of observable realities. The Big Lie works if said loudly enough and for long enough. The lie is unbearable in its assumption that we’re all too stupid to understand what has been done hastily, clumsily but with the compliance of the bandwagon effect.

The authoritarian nature of the enterprise is in large measure implied in the impatience. The urge for people to do ‘the right thing’ is an actually a demand that everyone conform to an ethic of corporate commerce, a culture of philistine domesticity, a morality of individual gratification, a social model based on managerial technology rather than thoughts and dreams. The ideal is an ambitious Business graduate texting and tweeting when not emailing, mobile in hand on the train to a ‘meeting’, or ‘working from home’, reading a bestseller on a kindle at lunch, watching blockbuster movies in the evening. The soundtrack has a monotonous backbeat. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

What holds such a society together? Well, fear is one factor. If you don’t conform you lose your job. You won’t get benefits. You won’t get a job like that again. There is also a diminishing awareness of possible alternatives. This is how things are. I mean, like, isn’t it so obvious? Arrogance is another component: ‘We’ve got it right. Socialism failed because it went against the grain of human nature which is motivated by self-interest. Moral Philosophers may say otherwise. Biologists may say otherwise. But, that’s just long-haired hogwash. Believe me, I’ve seen life, and I can tell you….’ Yes, it’s the attitude of a burnt-out salesman late at night in a bar.

Impatient, authoritarian, obsessive, manipulative, arrogant and cynical: that’s the Cameron Crew. Thatcher was naïve but sincere. This lot are a good deal more worldly-wise. They know what they are doing. And what they are doing is a scorched earth policy. It will be impossible, if they continue, for any government to reconstruct a coherent, alternative progressive model. That is the hope of this government. Thatcher appealed to a view of society drenched in nostalgia for simplicities. Cameron appeals to modernity. He is held to be in touch. His society is the one and only future.

There are those who know better, but do not, perhaps dare not, say so. They have read thoroughly, and were examined on, the works that have shaped European culture over the centuries. The long march of democracy has taken many pathways. There have been false trails and unexpected obstacles. The debate sometimes has turned into conflict. But these were ideas worth fighting over. Today in the mainstream there are only versions of the bland that, with good reason, nobody really trusts. Social reconstruction will require widening the available forms of democracy, an opening up the channels of popular debate. Nobody in the Westminster political cabal is advocating such reconstruction. There is no real debate. So they’ve won even if they lose.

We have not seen such a conforming state of mind in centuries. Pitt had the very real and radical opposition of Charles James Fox and Georgiana Cavendish. We don’t see their equivalents in any position of prominence today. And behind those political activists were the active thinkers – Burke, Paine, and Wollstencraft engaged in serious questioning for and against. Their equivalents today are disregarded.

There isn’t the obvious violence and overt racism traditionally associated with Fascism. Black paramilitary uniforms are yesterday’s fashion. It isn’t the Third Reich, but it is Falangist. It ticks most of the boxes for a closed system, a one ideology state of intentional reaction. In the guise of common sense and decency, and with the acceptance of Those Who Know Better, we face not the actuality but a strong possibility. You can smell the sulphur.

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