Monday, 1 June 2009

Where are the Ideas for Britain?

I’ve written before on this blog about a general lack of ambition in Europe, the noticeable absence of a strong desire from Europeans for themselves or their country to achieve success. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the reaction of the British public to the unfolding expenses scandal which may be hours away from causing the resignation of the Chancellor.

The British media has been telling us that the public is “enraged” by the unfolding scandal, which is precipitating a “revolution” that could topple not just the current leadership but the entire system of British government. But judging by the reaction I’ve seen from ordinary Brits, this seems a highly dubious claim. In fact all I’ve heard so far is a whole lot of whinging, but very little ideas about what should be done about the problem. We can laugh that, of course, this is the stereotypical British way of dealing with everything. But in the end it’s a real problem, especially right now.

A friend of mine who is a journalist covering Westminster made this observation: as he’s been doing the “man on the street” interviews that every reporter is required to do while a scandal like this is unfolding, the reactions of people are all the same. “They’re all a bunch or crooks aren’t they?” “They should string ‘em up from the rafters, the lot of ‘em!” “All of the MPs have been on the gravy train!” But when my friend asks a follow-up question on their opinion of the system itself – like whether they believe MPs should be given a raise instead of using expenses, whether the number of MPs should be cut, or whether the House of Lords should be abolished – people just stare back at him blankly. “Oh, I don’t have any opinion on that” they say. Well hang on, a second ago you were just calling for all MPs to be hung from the top of Big Ben, but who exactly would replace them in this great plan of yours, Average Joe?

I may be accustomed to apathy having grown up as part of America’s Generation X, but this strange combination of indignation and cynicism I find in the UK is truly bizarre to me. Everyone is completely disgusted with the UK parliament – across all party lines – but nobody has any ideas or ambition to change things. Throughout all of the media analysis I’ve seen, as commentators go on and on about how “furious” everyone is, I have yet to hear a real discussion about ideas for reform. And I have yet to see one member of the public who really seems “furious”. I know that this sort of understated composure is the British way, but it’s hard to see how anything is going to change when nobody seems to care all that much. I mean, where is this fury the media has been describing? Where are the protestors outside the houses of parliament? If the definition of “fury” in the UK translates to a couple of people in the audience of Question Time making some half-hearted boos, I think all this talk about a “revolution” is premature, if not downright fantasy.

This country just doesn’t seem to have any plan for its own future, which worries me. And it never ceases to amaze me that British people will complain about too much power being handed over to Brussels on matters that should be dealt with by national MPs in Westminster, and then in the next breath go on to talk about how inept and corrupt British MPs in Westminster are. So let me get this straight – you think your own government is corrupt and dysfunctional, so as a consequence you want them to be in charge of more things? But interrupt a Brit’s rant about the EU to ask them their opinion about reforming the British system of government and they don’t’ have much to say. They’re simply not interested.

It’s shocked me that this week, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections on Thursday, people here are still going on about MEPs abusing their system of expenses in Brussels. Are they really serious? The shocking level of excess from British parliament MPs uncovered over the past several weeks makes the limited about of Brussels MEP abuse in a transparent expenses system look like child’s play. And nevermind the fact that it was UKIP MEPs, who were elected on an anti-EU platform saying Brussels was full of crooks, who ended up being the ones abusing the system!

It goes to the heart of the problem this country faces. Britain is suffering from a drought of ideas, wandering in a period of post-imperial trauma where it hasn’t figured out its place in the world, and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to do so. While dithering over small, insignificant issues like MP salaries and expenses, nobody here is thinking about the big issues or engaging the public in a real honest conversation about Britain’s future.

And that, in the end, is the real crime being perpetrated by this country’s leaders against its people.


Adam P said...

Dave, I agree with much of what you said in the first two-thirds of the article; but I disagree with much of the last section.

Yes, there is a lot of genuine disgust at MPs abusing their very flexible allowance and expenses system (which they agreed and voted on) but few of the pragmatic public are that surprised, they just want the culprits to fall on their swords. They also suspect that much worse is happening in Europe but (contrary to your false belief that it is more transparent) don’t expect to ever find out about it, as receipts are not required. Have a look on Youtube for the MEPs doing their 7am Friday “sign in” for the day and immediately rushing home “scandal” (German documentary I think).

If you look at the recent polls on the subject you will see that most Brits don’t think there is much wrong with the UK constitutional system itself (there’s no great desire for PR etc). Brits do, however, want the pay, allowances and expenses issues sorted out; which presumable it will be.

You said: “This country (UK) just doesn’t seem to have any plan for its own future”. This I fully agree with! The UK seems to have a terrible reluctance to do long-term planning (unlike the French and Germans); partly this is a legacy of the Thatcherite “let the market decide” philosophy, rather than trust government planners – a philosophy largely adopted by Tony Blair. I suspect now that neo-liberal economics has taken quite a bashing there may be some new attention on longer-term planning. The current main plan for our future is (gulp!) massive public spending cuts and getting the country's finances in order – this is likely to take the form of “rolling back the state”. Cameron has (apparently) privately said he expects to be one of the least popular Prime Minister EVER within six months! The words “thrift”, “prudence” and “belt tightening” will become ever more common.

You mentioned a “post-imperial trauma”. I’m not exactly sure what you meant here – if you meant the old “Britain is in mourning for its empire” (I’m not sure if you did) I really don’t agree. President Barroso has described the EU as “a kind of an empire” and the Lisbon Treaty would give the EU all the trappings of pomp and apparent power – foreign policy, armed services, President etc. Yet, there isn’t much appetite for any of that in the UK – either from the British people, the media or the elite. Nor is there much appetite for the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures (see polls).

Where you say:

QUOTE: “While dithering over small, insignificant issues like MP salaries and expenses, nobody here is thinking about the big issues or engaging the public in a real honest conversation about Britain’s future.” UNQUOTE

I agree completely with the sentiment – we need to begin to talk publicly about the big issues. A lot of thinking IS happening, but alas it isn’t involving the public and its not really getting reported by the media. By the way, with the Conservatives likely to win the next national election it’s worth keeping an eye on Phillip Blond and his ‘Red Toryism’; a bit of a long shot but he could have one or two influential ideas.

Do keep in mind that the UK was getting much praise across Europe for its management of its Blairite / Thatcheite economy only two years ago and the British government was due to expand a lot of these notions into new areas; however, the recent economic collapse that has put the cat amongst the pigeons! We now realize that the boom was largely artificial, banking and finance is shrinking rapidly, the UK doesn’t seem to make anything anymore and all the jobs are heading offshore! Oh dear.

Adam P said...

I meant to post this link.

'Rise of the Red Tories':

Dave Keating said...

Thanks for the detailed feedback!

Ah yes my "post-imperial trauma" comment! It's a term I made up awhile ago. I certainly don't mean by it that British people long for the pomp and ceremony, or even the structure, of empire. It's more refering to the idea that the population of a country that has gone from being an enormously powerful world empire to a relatively irrelevant it player in a very short period of time will take time to adjust to their new reality. In my observations, many British people seem to have had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that they are no longer a world power. Whereas the rest of Europe (even the French) tend to acknowledge that they can't "go it alone" and be relevant in the 21st century, the British seem to be having a tough time coming to grips with that fact.

I do still think the EU system of remuneration, while definitly flawed, is still on the whole more transparent and more logical than the British system.

Adam P said...

Adjustment problems? Perhaps for a while, but still in 2009? Dean Acheson (former U.S. Secretary of State) said: "Britain has lost an Empire, but has not yet found a role”. Many of us at high school grew up with the quote, but even in the late 1980s I couldn’t believe it was still accurate. Acheson died about 1970, I think (I don’t know when he said it) but I never saw how it could apply beyond Suez (1956) when the U.S. made very clear who was top dog.

Perhaps what makes people think Britain is having trouble adjusting is the fact we haven’t leapt on the ‘European Project’ with much enthusiasm. I’ve noticed that Americans are often keener on the EU than the Brits, for some reason. But England (not so much Scotland, Wales and N Ireland) is essentially a conservative country, very pragmatic and comparatively individualistic – and the EU is anything but those things. The visionaries saw the EU – and some still see it – as a socialistic, communitarian, corporatist and bureaucratic project. Not enticing for many Brits. I’m an EU enthusiast myself, but there don’t seem to be many of us.

But, one of the reasons I liked your blog was the fact that you weren’t British – and a fresh eye is always appreciated. It could be you’re right!

Anthony Flynn said...

I get as frustrated as you do about the apathy of the voters. But I do believe that I understand the situation, up until this last few weeks, or should that be days ?
But now we are in a different ball game. With the Sovereignty of Westminster now parked in Brussels, the Parliament in London is nothing more than a nonsense. What actual power does it have ? This collapse of the Money Markets has shown the voters that the ECB. is more in control of our Economy than the Government, the Bank of England, or even the ridiculous FSA.
When push came to shove, Not one of them had the Authority to move without Brussels having a say.
I have made some suggestions. With todays technology and communications, there is no reason for any Employer or any Employee to pay Direct Taxation to Westminster. An alternative system can be put in place and a Public Service Funding arrangement, based on the English, Parish, Town and County Council can be used so that each County has complete control of its own Economy and its own Taxation. Again, here in Norfolk, we have a population of some 800.000 + people. And yet we have Eight MPs for the County. Only four would be more than enough. On a County basis, that would mean instead of the 646 MPs at Westminster, the English contingent would be just 172. Scotland, Wales and N/Ireland, would have to make the choise of joining, or starting over.
There is quite a lot more of this, but I think it time I brought this to a close.
Kind Regards, and thank you for your interest.
ATFlynn "Norfolk's Mutineer"