Saturday, 18 June 2011

A new Common Wealth?

First, a little piece of history.  When the "National" Government was set up in 1931, bringing together a motley band of fellow-travellers under Tory tutelage (initially including many Liberals save for the Lloyd George family group) it ushered in a period of hegemony that lasted through the 1935 election, where those who had taken the allegedly-patriotic shilling survived with no (or limited) Tory opposition.  A General Election was supposed to be held in 1940, but was postponed for the little local difficulty of imminent invasion and consensus in the political class that the best way to topple an incompetent leadership was through internal coups d'etat rather than the ballot box.

At this stage, Labour, who had been in Opposition, along with a few vestigial Liberals, were brought into the Cabinet and there was a wartime truce between the parties, meaning that by-elections were not contested by government candidates other than the one that defended the vacancy.

Despite national survival being the sole requirement of the time, voters' memories had not suddenly been excised by the electoral truce.  The 1930s had been a period of declining real wages, mass unemployment and inept government policy (parallels?) and the Tories had been the prime movers - again basking in uncritical adulation from the media, fellow-travelling appeasers and an establishment that did not wish to be reminded of many of its members' propensity for supporting Fascism (step forward Lord Rothermere, sponsor of Mosley and proprietor of the "Daily Mail").  The decade of Keynes's General Theory was a decade of poverty in policy responses and the foundation for Labour's successes after 1945.

During the war, therefore, opposition to the Government was concentrated in fringe movements, whose potential was magnified by the potential for protest.  One such was Common Wealth, a libertarian left movement led by Sir Richard Acland, a former Liberal MP.  Its manifesto was well to the left of the social democratic tradition, looking for a range of reforms including land taxation and curbs on excessive wealth either inherited or "earned".  The electoral truce allowed it to take signficant shares of the vote, building on popular desires to see a reform of welfare provision, state education and decent housing - all of which had been shamefully neglected before the war.

In this period of neo-reactionary hegemony there is an increasing need for something similar - articulating the sheer rage around greed, incompetence and venality.  Labour won't provide this, as they remain in thrall to the myth that electability is solely defined by the appeal of policies to a small section of the middle classes, identified by focus groups and super-served by the spin doctors in an effort to swing marginal seats one way or the other.  All that the main parties are offering are versions of the same old tunes, failed in the 1930s, failed in the 1970s and 1980s and manifestly failing now.

A radical manifesto around removing ideological bias and applying sense and instrinct to policy is needed; if only to test how far people are prepared to accept that most of what they have been sold for the last thirty years is fear-inducing hokum.  The sky will not fall in if there's higher taxation, or nationalising productive activities - it didn't before and it won't now.  The idea that the marginal benefits of snoutage outweigh both the moral outrage and the impact on those who are victims of the culture is risible and shows the contempt in which our self-appointed political prelates hold the wider world - and even if you did lose some of Boris the Blunderer's Cityboy chums you could always find equally-skilled gamblers down at Ladbrokes.

We should be seeking a "Good Society" - where people feel that what they are putting in is for their benefit as well as providing social justice.  Hence the removal of universal benefits is a narrow, retrograde step, and the penalty that people who are provident face when seeking support from the state - the rank hypocrisy of forcing the removal of savings before qualifying for any benefit is an incentive to profligacy and social irresponsibility.  Welfare is not solely measured by take-home pay, and if the services provided communally are sufficiently good (as they are in many European countries) then people will feel safe, secure and motivated.  However, the dismal moanings of the low-tax, low-quality brigade (except when their particular kink is threatened) are always ululating at a level to drown out the libertarian left position.

Times don't change as much as we think, and the uncanny parallels between 2011 and 1931 get more obvious.  The response of conventional politics is limited; framing a manifesto for change will require Common Wealth's populism and a rediscovery of Keynes's fundamental economic truth.  If we don't get there, the next decade will be one of poverty, both real and imaginative.

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