Terminal UK

1 April 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I’m working on my delayed response to Iain Dale down in the mean streets of Britain. When I lift up my head there is a very strong sense of fin de regime. The start of what may be a persistent double-digit poll lead for the Tories is a mere signal, with an election perhaps two years away. It’s the whole damn political class: politicians desperate for derisory expenses in comparison with speculators (sorry, our financial services sector) whose hopes for more are nonetheless collapsing in vast losses aided and abetted by global cheapskates such as BA unable to train its staff with the disaster of T5 a lead story around the world, topped off by a slobbering domestic media whose coverage of Mrs Sarkozy was the definitive end of sang-froid.

Perhaps T5 is the symbol of it all. The story of New Labour - from the Dome to T5.

It is not “all bad news” as they always say with a slight note of desperation. Both are magnificent structures, capturing the imagination like the wheel of the London Eye, modern, popular spaces, icons of the globalisation of commercial democracy – and life is better having this than not. With the Eye there isn’t a problem. It is what it is, pure entertainment. The problem with the Dome was what went into it, or rather what didn’t. It was a failure of content. The brilliant engineering statement could only deliver meaning with the organisation of substance. For T5 the substance was staff able to work the machines, paid and trained to the same standards as the building.

Trying to update Churchill’s vision of the UK as the centre of three concentric circles, David Miliband lauded Britain as a “global hub” in a networked age. It was his first conceptualisation of the role it is his job to define as Foreign Secretary and was launched in the pages of the FT. "Britain must not retreat from the world," he said. The country has the opportunity to be a "global hub" economically and politically.

What else is T5 but Britain as a global hub? Now, they want to pack another runway into a totally unsuitable space to make it worse.

T5 is also a physical metaphor for the Iraq War: a brilliant feat of highly engineered conquest ruined by a failure to measure consequence and think through the unsexy, unspectacular realities of what happens afterwards. Tom Nairn once described Britain’s infatuation with the monarchy as “the glamour of backwardness”. Under the constant pressure of spin-doctors, media and PR agents its pull has now waned. Alas, we - or rather they, the political class as a whole orchestrated by its PR ringmasters - are still in thrall to glamour. Only now it is the glamour of forwardness, the spectacle of globalisation. Blair personified it. Mrs Sarkozy was a perfect emblem, a distraction from thinking about the actual French, the realities of Europe and the project of the EU, whose currency (unlike sterling) seems to have a real future. In short a fuite en avant - a headlong rush to an imagined future - both the glamour of backwardness and now the glamour of forwardness that has replaced it  are driven by the same desire, the British disease itself, the 'refusal of the present'.

The financial bubble too became a fuite en avant. For all the talk of prudence Gordon Brown bet the house on its model of globalisation. But isn't this also David Cameron's "narrative"?

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