Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Populism, David Cameron, and the gulf oil spill

The election campaign is in its last heated days here in London, and it really is inescapable. I’m just here for a few days staying with my partner, and it seems like it’s been all anyone can talk about. Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, even made a bizarre special appearance at a Vauxhall gay club Saturday night. Hey, gotta get those votes wherever you can! But I found it amusing that the next morning she was up early to attend mass at a black church in South London.

I’m on the Eurostar back to Brussels at the moment and feeling pretty bummed to be leaving right before the big day. I have a feeling the real excitement is going to begin Friday when the parties have to somehow hash out how they form a government from a hung parliament.

If I had to sum up the mood of my London friends in one word it would be anxious. They all come from various political stripes, but interestingly most everyone I know is planning to vote Lib Dem. Whatever their political ideology they have one thing in common – David Cameron makes them very nervous. They fear the former PR-turned-politician is all window-dressing with little real policy ideas, and in reality it will be the “nasty Tories” of the 1990’s that will be taking power. Having not lived through this period in Britain I can’t entirely relate, but some of them feel very strongly about this fear. But an opinion piece in the Independent this weekend compared the situation with the campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. He also promised "compassionate conservartism" but in the eyes of many he turned out to be just a populist front man for a Neo Conservative cabal with a very specific agenda. That agenda included going to war with Iraq.

What my friends seem to fear most is Cameron's populism – the fact that he appears to make policy on the hoof based on how well things are polling. This sort of government-by-focus group is a rather unnerving prospect for many here, particularly when Cameron seemed so shaky on policy details during the policy debates. In response to widespread fear of immigration he throws out a proposal for a migrant cap, despite the fact that this is impossible when 80% of immigration is from the EU. He promises to opt out of free movement for any new EU member states, but in reality the only new countries that could possibly join during his tenure are Croatia and Iceland, with a total combined population of less than 5 million.

This is a man who promised a national referendum on a complicated procedural treaty. This is a man who has made a headline policy out of giving people a tax break if they get married, which experts have pointed out will amount to about three pounds. This is a man who has said services now performed by government should instead be performed by charities, just out of the kindness of people’s hearts. From the inheritance tax to the euro to his family values plan for the “big society”, Cameron’s policies are hand-picked to please the public but many have little relevance to the real world when examined closely.

Oil populism

As I’ve watched the oil rig disaster in the US unfold over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about this populist form of policymaking. As I watch the news coverage showing those fingers of thick brown oil making their way toward the Louisiana coastline, threatening to destroy whole eco-systems as well as the gulf shrimping industry, I keep thinking back to those baying crowds at the 2008 Republican National Convention - chanting in unison,
Drill Baby Drill! Drill Baby Drill!
It became the mantra of John McCain’s presidential campaign – a rallying cry launched not by him but by his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin. Despite the fact that the former Alaska governor lived through the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, she is a vocal (and I mean vocal!) proponent of oil drilling. Offshore, onshore, in wildlife refuges, maybe even on the moon – she’s all for it. In fact she’s not just for it, she was demanding it during the campaign. It became an effective political tool, as the majority of Americans approve of offshore drilling (this proportion has risen as fuel has become more expensive in recent years) and there is a perception that tree-hugging Democrats oppose it.

The mob's “drill baby drill” chant was eventually adopted by Republican Party leadership, and even though John McCain had been against drilling in protected areas almost his whole career, the momentum behind the drilling push during the campaign caused him to relent to the chanting of the masses.

The “drill baby drill” chants didn’t just influence McCain. Soon after coming into office, Barack Obama actually lifted the moratorium on offshore drilling off the Northeast coast of America. At the time it was seen as a politically astute move, a way of appealing to independent voters by appearing bi-partisan. The fact that it angered liberals so much was seen as a good move for him politically, because it was a sure vote-winner with Middle America and liberals would likely be willing him to cut him some slack. Of course, though the ending of this moratorium was her pet issue during the campaign, Sarah Palin has never even acknowledged that Obama did exactly what she was calling for.

Flash forward to May 2010. An offshore oil rig, precisely the same deep-sea type that Palin was calling for and Obama has now allowed, has a catastrophic explosion and sinks. Because the well is so deep underwater, no one can stop the resulting leak. It's now pouring oil into the ocean day after day, with no sign of stopping. What’s worse, the oil company and the government are out of ideas on how to stop it. And unlike Exxon-Valdez, the amount of oil that can spurt out of this thing is not a finite amount. It will just keep coming until they can figure out a way to stop it. The only idea that seems to be left to stop this leak is for BP to dig another well to staunch it, which will take 90 days. In the mean time, Louisiana braces for the oil coming its way, which will almost surely do irrevocable damage to the fishing industry. For a state that only five years ago suffered so horribly from Katrina, this will be devastating.

Now the media, and the public, is starting to ask questions about this deep-sea oil drilling everyone was so excited about two years ago. Is it safe? How can the government have authorised these deep-sea wells if the technology to stop a potential leak hasn’t been tested? Though the oil companies have developed technology to drill that deep, they don’t seem to have developed the technology to stop a leak that occurs that deep.

Surely anticipating a massive political backlash against offshore drilling once the ramifications of this thing become clear, the Obama administration has already indicated it is going to reconsider its plans to open the Northeast coast to offshore drilling. Even Republican governor of California Arnold Schwartzenager, who as recently as last year was in favour of drilling off California’s coast, came out this week against it. He said in light of the catastrophe off Louisiana, he will never allow this type of drilling to take place off California’s coast. Politicians from the Northeast states have made similar pronouncements. And the public cheers. Hooray!

But what if this disaster hadn’t happened? This incident will likely have the effect of changing public opinion almost overnight. If you had asked them a few weeks ago, most Americans would have said they are in favour of offshore oil drilling. “Drill baby drill” they would have chanted enthusiastically. But now as they watch their fish get covered with oil and their beaches drown in a mass of black sludge, they’re changing their minds. And naturally, the politicians move with them. A fickle bunch, these mobs.

Of course, all of this information about safety concerns has been available for years. Even as the GOP was chanting about drilling as if it was their favourite sports team, even as the Obama administration was signing over the Northeast coast to oil companies eager to try out new untested methods of drilling, experts were warning that the safety technology had not yet caught up with the drilling technology. But the politicians weren’t listening to the experts, they were listening to the baying crowd. And that baying crowd probably had no idea that the technology they were cheering for was dangerously untested and could cause this much damage. And this is when the “will of the people” becomes very dangerous indeed.

With this in mind, I can understand why so many people are concerned about Cameron’s populist tendencies. Whatever the crowds are calling for, he’s for it – even when it seems to run contrary to the advice of experts. What will Britain look like under the stewardship of such an accomplished PR man?

I surely don’t know, but I suppose that will depend on whatever the baying crowd happens to be calling for. Hopefully it will be something nice. National free ice cream day, perhaps? Let’s just hope the experts aren’t warning about poisonous ice cream behind the scenes.


Grahnlaw said...

Only by breaking the old duopoly of alternating elective dictatorships has the UK a chance to start thinking about a modern Constitution, a fair electoral system and more balanced outcomes for the subjects (called citizens elsewhere).

Anyone for change?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. This blog is actually making me consider changing my vote. I am so sick of Labour and I want a change, but maybe David Cameron is just telling us what we want to hear. But now I don't know who I will vote for...the Lib Dems are to pro-Europe for me.

Frank the plumber said...

This is BS, offshore oil drilling is still very safe, this si a freak ovccurence. There is no reason for the US to slow down deep-sea oil drilling, we should increase it. Things like this will always happen once in a while, there's no reason for everybody to freak out about it. Oil is a natural fluid anyway, it doesn't hurt water, which is also a natural fluid.

Doc said...

"Oil is a natural fluid anyway, it doesn't hurt water, which is also a natural fluid."

Cheers Einstein. Natural fluids...huh. Blood is another natural fluid, right? I tell you what: for as long as this spill lasts, let's feed the same proportion of raw petroleum into the femoral artery of your right leg. Yeah. Just go ahead and show us all how natural fluids of all kinds everywhere get along just fine...