As the polls narrow, Jenny Muir looks at the possibility of a de facto, case by case, progressive alliance emerging from next week’s election.
It is no surprise that the dominant General Election battles have been between the Conservatives and Labour in England and Wales; and between the SNP and the Tories in Scotland. The smaller parties have pretty much vanished from serious consideration, due to our perverse electoral system for Parliamentary elections. Although the polls are all over the place, the general trend has been a Labour surge at the expense of all parties other than the Tories. But that surge doesn’t bring Labour close enough to win a majority. With a few days to go, there’s all to play for.
The long campaign was initially dominated by attitudes towards Brexit, perhaps prompted by talk of the ultimately unfulfilled pacts and alliances amongst anti-Brexit parties as much as because it was Theresa May’s reason for calling the election. It’s not surprising that May is now trying to pull the debate back to Brexit and by implication away from discussion about public services, where she was losing big time. Not only that: they are backing off from the strong and stable leadership message, which backfired as much for its lack of subtlety as its inaccuracy, when the leader crumbled under pressure and was too arrogant to take part in the traditional BBC TV debate.
Jeremy Corbyn is having a good election, although I still doubt whether good enough to win. Manifesto commitments to improve spending on key services sound increasingly credible as he can (usually) answer the question ‘how are you going to pay for it’? It’s disappointing that Labour plans to keep Trident and nuclear power, increase airport capacity and won’t back a second Brexit referendum. But there’s much to welcome and people’s experiences of being let down by health, education, transport, housing or welfare benefits systems mean they are open to change.
And yet… the question of his leadership ability hasn’t gone away just because Theresa May has been discredited in this area. If he can’t lead his party effectively then how can he form a Cabinet capable of delivering the manifesto? However, Labour has some very strong candidates – not all of whom support Corbyn, of course – and an unexpected endorsement from The Guardian.
The current situation is that both Labour and Conservative are trying not to talk about leadership. If Labour can keep the focus on policy over the next few days then they will do better. If the agenda shifts back to the Brexit negotiations then the Tories will make bigger gains.
Both Labour and the SNP have ruled out a formal coalition in the event of a hung Parliament, however in this situation a minority Labour government would be part of a de facto progressive alliance, able to implement its policies only on a case by case basis. This would allow meaningful participation from parties across the UK in delivering and improving upon a Labour programme, including some parties from Northern Ireland. There would still be disagreements: for example Labour and the Tories may well align against others to keep Trident and to resist further electoral reform. The West Lothian question would gain more salience and, paradoxically, it would be in Labour’s interest to obstruct moves towards Scottish independence. What would happen with Brexit is anyone’s guess. But much could be achieved, and in particular the task of reconstructing the public sector could begin.
As the parties release their manifestos for the 2017 General Election (#GE17), Maurice queries the accuracy, and motivation, of some of the coverage of Labour’s tax plans.
The Daily Mail claims that 1.5m ‘middle class workers’ would have to pay an average £3,000 a year extra each under Labour’s proposed new tax plans – or rather, Labour’s tax ‘bombshell’ as they inevitably put it.
They say Labour “wants to raise an extra £4.5billion from workers earning £80,000 to fund Jeremy Corbyn’s spending spree”.
Really? Let’s take a look. Here’s a chart Tweeted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
It turns out the Daily Mail’s first claim is deceptive. The second is simply false – there’s no other way to put it. Let’s take them in reverse order.
Does Labour plan to raise billions “from workers earning £80,000”? No.
If you earn up to £80,000 you will not pay a single extra penny. Even if you earn exactly £80,000 you will pay an extra…zero. Nothing. £80k is the proposed new threshold. You don’t suddenly get hit with a big tax bill for your whole pay packet as soon as you earn that amount. You get taxed just as you always did on the first £80k of your earnings (though obviously for the vast majority of us, this just isn’t an issue), and then pay a bit more, in increments, on the top slice of your income. So no, Labour do not plan to raise extra £4.5billion from workers earning £80,000. Simply false.
Which brings us to the other claim – that ‘middle class’ families will have to pay an extra £3,000 a year each, on average. This is deeply, perhaps deliberately, misleading. In fact, something like 95 to 98 percent of the adult population of the UK will not have to pay an extra penny under the Labour plan. The Mail appears to have added up all the extra tax to be levied on the top slice of the earnings of the top 2 percent – including that on hyper-wealthy multimillionaires – then averaged it out.
It reminds me of the joke where Bill Gates walks into a bar with fifty ordinary workers in it, and one of them shouts “Hey, good news guys: everybody in the bar is now a billionaire on average”.
To use the crude average (mean) figure when there is a massive disparity across the incomes of the top two percent, with many at the lower end of the range and a very few people earning multiple millions, is as absurd as it is disingenuous. To do so when perhaps 98 percent of the population will not have to pay an extra penny, and when the average person’s wage is about a third of the new threshold, begins to look like more than carelessness.
Let’s look at how it really works. For every £1k over and above the £80k threshold, should you be lucky enough to earn that much, you will have to pay an extra…£50.00. So if the average person suddenly found their pay packet more than tripled, to the point where that they were earning £81k, the Labour ‘tax bombshell’ would be…fifty quid. A hundred quid for those earning an extra thousand on top of that, and so on. You’d have to earn quite a lot more than the £80k before you reached the Mail’s ‘average’.
Look at the IFS figures again and you will notice that you have to be earning fully £20,000 a year above the threshold – so £100k in total – before your additional tax bill even hits the £1,000 mark.
I guess if you think a family with three members all earning £100,000 each is a ‘middle class’ family then, yes, they will be hit with an extra £3k tax bill. Then again, out of their collective income of £300,000, I’m not sure that will be catastrophic.
In fact, according to the IFS, as an individual, you would have to be earning more than £123,000 to be billed for the extra £3k the Mail trumpets. That would put you in the top 1 percent of earners.
Yes, that’s right: fully 99 percent of the adult population of the UK would be charged less than the Mail’s ‘average’ for ‘middle class’ families.
That would probably include, I imagine, 99 percent of the Mail’s readers. So why is the paper pushing this line? Why issue such a stark warning when your readers are not going to be affected by the charge – and indeed may well benefit from the extra funding for the NHS and education system it releases? Does this not show a callous disregard, even a contempt for your own readership? Why try to deceive them into opposing tax-funded investment in public services? Sheer malice?
In the end, tax is how we contribute to a common pool of resources from which we all draw, sooner or later, across our lifetimes.
If the wealthy want to set themselves apart, over and above the common people, that’s one thing.
If a newspaper’s rich owners and editors set out to deceive their relatively low-paid readership into voting against their own interests and against the common good in order to avoid a tax hike for themselves, that’s quite another thing.
Maurice argues that the increasing tendency to separate out celebrities and CEOs from ‘ordinary members of the public’ not only entrenches inequality, but also has a detrimental effect on our democracy
Two stories, side by side in the Guardian of Saturday 13 May. They are on page 20, so you have to dig a bit. But they speak volumes about the direction we are going today, globally speaking.
One, ‘The cost of inequality: security guards outnumber police in half the world’ (here’s the longer, on line version) describes how the global market for private security is booming, so that there are more private security guards than police in the US, the UK, China, Canada and Australia, among other countries. The sector is growing at about 6 percent a year.
The second story, ‘Private airport terminal lets rich watch other travellers suffer’ (again, here’s the online version) reveals that there is a new terminal in Los Angeles International Airport exclusively for the rich, complete with a screen at the entrance showing the overcrowding and chaos in the other part of LAX – the part used by those who can’t afford the extra three or four thousand dollars per trip that would get them into one of the spacious luxury facilities. This new terminal is to be called ‘Private Suite’.
Taken together, these stories speak of a direction of travel. Those who can afford it are increasingly separating themselves off from everyone else. They are increasingly creating a parallel world in which to live, one in which they need not rely on public services, or even queue with other members of the public in private facilities such as airports.
‘Other members of the public’. Hold that thought.
These two stories – and there are plenty of other examples – indicate not just a change in travelling habits and security needs. They indicate a dangerous conceptual shift too. It is as if the wealthy are separatingthemselves from the public. They are creating a new, private world accessible only to those with sufficient purchasing power, separate from – indeed, to be protected from – members of the public. Ordinary members of the public are admitted only as security guards or hired servants.
The signal goes out: celebrities and CEOs have different needs from the rest of us. It would be awful to think of them having to stand in line with the ‘common three fifths’, in the old Ulster expression. If they do venture out in public, of course they must do so behind sunglasses and a discreet ring of bulky bodyguards. They must have separate facilities at airports, exclusive suites in hotels, discreet private clinics, tinted windows on their limousines. They, and their public, begin to expect it, begin to conceive of each other as belonging to two separate categories, such that different rules apply.
Gavin de Becker, who runs the Private Suite at LAX, rejects any suggestion that his venture symbolises inequality, pointing out, according to the Guardian’s report, that it costs taxpayers nothing, and generates income for the airport. “It’s all about the airport”, he is quoted as saying, before adding: “When you charter, you can buy your way out of the line”.
Out of the line. Out of the social norms whereby you and I stand before or behind one another in the queue depending not on which of us has the greater status or bank balance, but on which of us happened to show up first.
And contrary to Mr de Becker, this does come free of cost to taxpayers – or rather, that very notion betrays the core problem with this conceptual paradigm.
There are now two kinds of taxpayers. There are those who pay their taxes and rely on the common pool of resources the funds provide. And there are those who pay their taxes – sometimes large amounts, to be sure, in monetary terms – but do not need the public services thus funded because they have plenty of money left over to buy in better services from the private sector.
You get what you pay for, and if the wealthy can afford better services than the state can provide they will continue to pay for them – with or without an untroubled conscience. Perhaps some of those in the Private Suite at LAX, looking at the hubbub and frustration beamed in from the other terminal, feel bad about it. Perhaps they really do have to use a more private route for travelling because were they to try to walk through the public terminal they wouldn’t get anywhere for the paparazzi and selfie-hunters. According to Mr de Becker, though, only a tenth of those using his Private Suite are ‘celebrities’, the rest consisting of members of the corporate elite, who may think they need ‘privacy’ to get on with their business. Which is none of ours.
This divergence between the public and the other, private world (or, perhaps better, Private World), inevitably institutionalises inequality, of course; but it also erodes democracy. People come to accept a two-level society. They are told that there is no alternative, that calling for first class public services for all not only risks alienating the ‘wealth-creators’, upsetting the markets and so on, but that it is just a symptom of class-envy. These poor rich people, we are told, carry the lion’s share of the ‘tax burden’ (as it is inevitably described). And now we, ordinary members of the public, have the gall to criticise them for not paying enough? Well of course if you do that you are not an ‘ordinary member of the public’ at all; you are one of the ‘hard left’ (as it is inevitably described), or one of their dupes.
No: ‘ordinary members of the public’ – at least according to the Daily Mail, UKIP and now the Conservatives – are those hard-working-families who are fed up with their wages being undercut by immigrants (not by union-busting multi-nationals, mind you), and who think businesses would be freed up to give them better jobs if it weren’t for all the red tape imposed by foreigners in Brussels, or who think there isn’t the money to put into public services because ‘scroungers’ have bled the state dry, benefits were too ‘generous’, and so on.
Now it is true that the Labour Party spent too long being ‘relaxed about people getting filthy rich’ (whether or not they paid their taxes), and it’s true that many of the liberal elite have a lot to learn about working class people. But it is astonishing that a party (the Tories) that spent decades selling off everything the British people owned in common, trying to downgrade public services, and offering all the help it could to those intent on building an offshore, non-dom, hyper-wealthy, first class Private World can now (suddenly) present itself as the party of the patriotic working classes without being laughed off the stage. How have they got away with it?
Well, perhaps because far too many of us believed them when they said Private World was none of our business, not a public matter, not something that concerned us. It has a certain plausibility, after all. Which of us wants the state coming nosing into our private affairs? Who among us would not take the first class treatment available in Private World if we got the chance?
But there’s the rub. Only the top 1 percent get the chance. Only they have the money both to pay their taxes (albeit keeping them to a minimum) with enough left over to buy themselves out of the public sphere – or at least to try to.
Because the separation is, in a sense, an illusion. You may have built a fence and a big security gate, but you have done it within the public realm. You have been able to do it not because you have enough private security guards to defend it, but because successive governments have recognised your right to do so, have issued the appropriate permits, cleared the development with the local authorities, have policed the whole thing from start to finish. With public police.
Private World, let us be clear, is a derivative of the public realm; it is a ‘dependency’, to use the old colonial-era term. It could not take place outside the legal and institutional framework provided by the public realm, even if it presents itself as being outside.
The trick is to make people think it is the other way round – that the public realm comes about when ‘the State’ (that monster!) takes away chunks of my private property.
‘The State’ is presented in this way, though, is just as much an illusion as Private World. Indeed it is presented as some meddling external bureaucracy determined to interfere with the way I want to run my life and spend my own money precisely in order to force public and private apart.
Rather, ‘the State’, or for that matter, the economy, is not some external entity; it is just something that we do, collectively. If it is to be democratic, it is something we need to do in common – because in a democracy we are all commoners.
We need to stop thinking on the basis of separate realms, and start thinking about the dynamics of a single system that throws these two realms up as apparently separate. We need to look at the gearing, too much of which is currently pointed vertically, separating people out into ‘the public’ on the one hand, and the population of Private World on the other – that half-a-percent or so of the population consisting of celebrities and CEOs, who seem to inhabit a ‘higher sphere’.
In the end, though, they too are members of the public. Nothing more. But nothing less.
To mark #MayDay, Maurice Macartney considers the history and changing character of the celebration.
Today is May Day. Or International Labour Day. Or ‘Loyalty Day’ in the US.
Why the range of names? A quick visit to Wikipedia reveals that May Day was originally a Spring festival with its roots in pagan Europe, then became a secular celebration before becoming associated with Christianity. By the 18th Century, it was tied to devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition.
In 1889 the Second International dedicated 1 May to International Workers, in the wake of a Chicago rally, in support of an eight-hour working day, that began peacefully but ended in violence.
In 1955 Pope Pius XII revived the religious dimension, dedicating 1 May to ‘St Joseph the Worker’, husband of Mary and carpenter, apparently as an explicit counterpoint to the socialist celebrations.
In fact, though, the Pope was beaten to it by the US government, who in 1921 declared 1 May ‘Americanization Day’, again as an explicit riposte to International Workers Day. By the 1950s, Americanization Day had become Loyalty Day.
So it is hard to know what Mr Trump thought he was doing when, on Friday, he declared that 1 May is henceforth to be celebrated as ‘Loyalty Day’. It already had been, for decades. On this day, US citizens are expected to reaffirm their allegiance to the principles upon which America was built, including freedom, equality and justice. The two really new elements introduced by Mr Trump are a dedication to fighting terrorism and a commitment to “limited government”.
It is odd (or ought to be) that this blue-collar billionaire, the champion of the ‘forgotten’ working people of America, should jump in on this tug-of-war over the meaning of May Day and pull it towards loyalty and limited government. Surely he ought to be in there, shoulder to shoulder with the workers, celebrating the progressive legacy of the labour movement, as their representative in government?
But then, Mr Trump is not so much a champion of the worker as of those workers whose loyalty, whose allegiance he was able to command in his drive towards economic nationalism. Which means the crank economy conveniently shorn of any pretence of international commitments (such as environmental protections or labour rights).
Here in the UK, of course, today also marks the 20th anniversary of the first Blair government. Mr Blair has already resurfaced, claiming that his “brand” of politics (his word, and a very interesting choice it is too) would have the Tories “flat on their backs with their feet in the air” (one presumes he does not mean laughing in gleeful gratitude, but who knows).
Now to be fair it’s a long way from New Labour to Mr Trump, and Mr Blair is right to celebrate achievements such as the introduction of the minimum wage, investment in schools and hospitals, and even the Good Friday Agreement.
However, to ignore, as he continues to do, not one but two huge elephants in the room – Iraq and the subordination of democracy to the ‘needs of market’ – is to create just as ‘alternative’ a set of facts as anything dreamt up by Sean Spicer.
Let us be clear: progressives should continually seek to ‘modernise’, as Mr Blair urges. It’s just that his ‘brand’ of politics, and indeed modernisation, doesn’t do that. It is now old hat. It seeks to please the markets and placate the losers (those whose industries were shut down, for instance), for instance by raising the tax threshold and redistributing benefits.
But a crank with cushions is still a crank. It still pushes rewards to those at the top and presses down on those at the base of the economic pyramid – keeping workers’ power low and regulations ‘light’. This is inherently anti-democratic: vertically directed forces move more in the direction of plutocracy than democracy.
We need to build a truly new movement (and this has already begun), to spread power horizontally, so that the wealth, and thus power, that our society creates in common (and only in common) leads to widespread flourishing. We need to aim, too, for a regenerative form of economy aimed not at limitless growth, but at sustainable circulation within the planet’s capacity to replenish itself – we need to live within the ‘doughnut’.
For all the attempts to co-opt it and counter it, May Day remains International Workers’ Day, a day to celebrate what working people, in various combinations (from the Unions to the Chartists to the Friendly Societies to campaigners for the vote, for civil rights and much else) have achieved together: nothing short of the ongoing democratisation of our global society.
On the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, and taking the publication of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics as his cue, Maurice Macartney calls for a move towards global economic democracy
“The social responsibility of business”, said free-market evangelist Milton Friedman in 1970, “is to increase its profits”.
Profits first, profits above all, profits as a ‘social responsibility’, overriding any other possible responsibilities. There could scarcely be a clearer articulation of the gospel of the crank economy. Economists and politicians of a certain bent (though by no means all) embraced this as orthodoxy, and over the next few decades skewed the economy (and politics) towards the overriding goal of increasing corporate profits, often by disempowering those at the base of the economic pyramid. The system that cranked rewards for the profit-makers up and pushed ‘costs’ – such as workers’ wages, terms and conditions, pollution controls and so on – down, was defended not just in economic terms but also as an almost moral imperative. On the fourth anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, an industrial accident that took the lives of over 1,100 garment workers, it is perhaps worth rethinking the morality and even humanity of this globally dominant paradigm. The line from Friedman is quoted in a new book by Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, a work which undertakes just such a rethinking.
Beyond Crank Economics
In brief, her argument is that we have to move away from a linear model of the economy premised on endless exponential growth to one shaped rather like a doughnut. The hole in the middle represents a state of deprivation that leaves many people falling short of basic human necessities. The outer edge of the doughnut represents the limits to the natural world’s capacity to regenerate: go beyond this and you push the ecosystem into catastrophic collapse, across a range of measures such as fresh water depletion, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorous poisoning, and of course climate change.
“Between those two rings”, says Raworth, “is the Doughnut itself, the space in which we can meet the needs of all within the means of the planet”.
It may seem a quirky, even trivial image with which to combat the globally dominant paradigm, but as Raworth herself stresses, orthodox neoliberal economics itself relies on certain simple but potent images – from Kuznets curves to the ‘scissors’ of supply and demand, to the apparently ‘gently’ upward-sloping exponential curve that sets out the (impossible) vision of limitless GDP growth – to get their message across. And the message is that endless growth is good, regardless of the inequality or pollution that results from its pursuit. Growth, or so its adepts believe, will eventually (like jam tomorrow) cure the very ills it causes.
Since the economic crash of 2008, as Raworth notes, even many formerly devout believers have come to doubt this story. Indeed, she is able to cite a list of writers from a range of disciplines whose texts would amount to a foundation course in new economic (and political) thinking for the 21st Century (see below).
To get into the Doughnut, Raworth argues, we will have to get away from our fixation on the dominant way of measuring economic progress – growing GDP – and move towards both a “far more equitable distribution of humanity’s use of resources” and a much more “circular” economy.
Raworth’s vision for the economy to come is one in which the state, the commons, and the markets (yes, socially embedded, well-regulated markets still have a key role) operate in balance. To make the shift to such a system will require close attention to system dynamics, with its circulatory flows and feedback loops, rather than the linear, mechanical model; it will mean moving from an extract, use up and dump model towards a circular economy, which, like nature, does not produce ‘waste’ as a side-effect, but uses the outputs of one process as food for the next, by design, in a continuous flow from cradle to cradle. The economy to come will not be redistributive but distributive; it will not be extractive but regenerative; and we must begin to build a politics designed to bring that about.
In one key passage, Raworth notes that you will scarcely find the word ‘power’ in modern economics textbooks, except, perhaps, in an analysis of electricity sector reform. But power relations are everywhere, running through every aspect of human life. The orthodox economic model simply skirts the issue. For Raworth, one element in particular demands attention: “the power of the wealthy to reshape the economy’s rules in their favour”.
It is a crucial insight, and one shared by a growing range of thinkers and actors. Robert Reich, in his most recent book, speaks of “the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs”.
Bernie Sanders puts with characteristic vigour: “if billionaires are freed to give unlimited sums of money to candidates, it will mean in no uncertain terms that those candidates become nothing more than paid employees of their sponsors”.
Global Economic Democracy
If we are to make the transition away from the dominance of the crank economy, we have to realise that the phrase ‘money is power’ is not a metaphor. Politics and the economy are not separate spheres: they are both about the distribution of power. Separating politics and economy out is a political move, and one that is part of the problem. It has helped lead us to the crises we are living through. It is, at heart, anti-democratic.
In effect it says to the majority of the citizens ‘you are of equal political status – your vote counts for as much as the wealthy – but we are going to hand control of the economy to some (highly rewarded) experts who will run it as they think best. It is for your own good. And if inequality increases and the environment is degraded, if your factories are shut down and your farm-gate prices sink below the cost of production, well, sorry, but it’s not a political (democratic) matter: there is no alternative’.
But you don’t have to subscribe to the ideas of Karl Marx to know there are, and always have been alternatives, from Keynes through JK Galbraith to Steve Keen and others. The neoliberal turn that began in the 1970s and picked up pace with the end of the Cold War was always a political project, not just a helpless response to iron economic necessity. Even had it been necessary at one stage, the onset of catastrophic climate change, the global economic crash of 2008, as well as the all too literal crash of the Rana Plaza building on 24 April 2013, should have made it obvious that we urgently need a paradigm shift.
Raworth’s book is a valuable contribution to just such a shift. Appended below are a few other suggestions. But if there is to be a paradigm shift it won’t come about through reading alone. Indeed if Raworth’s book had nothing more to recommend it than the series of examples of innovators at work (though it very much does) it would be worth reading.
If the currently dominant model cranks power vertically to the top (by putting pressure down at the bottom), then the answer is to shift the gearing so that the transmission mechanisms start spreading the power horizontally. The answer, that is, will be democracy. Not the first-past-the-post, vote once every five years kind of democracy, but democracy that runs from the grassroots all the way to the top of the political tree (rather than vice-versa). We need to ensure that much more wealth and power begins to circulate around our local economies. At the same time, we have to rethink what our ‘local’ economy means.
If the shirts on our backs are stitched together by garment workers in Bangladesh, then they, too, are our neighbours. It is now well understood that we have a ‘carbon footprint’ that stretches well beyond our geographical location: it is equally the case that we have a social footprint that is not confined to our immediate vicinity.
But if our social and environmental footprint stretches out globally, then so too does our power.
We live in a global neighbourhood; our way of living affects our neighbours, and they affect us. It is the choices that we make, collectively, which shape the global economy. So we need not wait for a paradigm shift to be handed down from above: we can begin the transition here, now.
Find your nearest cooperatives and support them; join a trade union; save your money in a responsible bank; buy ethically sourced and certified goods; use public transport and demand investment in the network. Demand of your representatives in your local, regional, national and international political forums: stop turning the crank; start building economic democracy by injecting power horizontally, circulating through the grass roots of our local political economies and spreading into our wider, global neighbourhood.
Each action may seem small, almost trivial, rather like the image of the doughnut itself; but democratic movements – the Chartists, the anti-slavery campaign, the Civil Rights movement – always start with a few and then spread, sometimes in the teeth of fierce resistance.
That, after all, is what people-power is all about.
24 April 2017
Global Economic Democracy: a short starter pack
Klein, Naomi (2007), The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Allen Lane, London.
Klein, Naomi (2014), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Leonard, Annie (2010), The Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and our Health – and a Vision for Change, Free Press, New York.
Mason, Paul (2016), Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London, Penguin
Meadows, Donella, Meadows, Dennis, and Randers, Jorgen (2004) The Limits to Growth: the Thirty Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
Raworth, Kate (2017), Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, Random House Business
Sandel, Michael (2012), What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Penguin, London.
Sanders, Bernie (2016), Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, Profile Books, London.
Wilkinson, Richard, and Pickett, Kate (2010), The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, Penguin, London.
Jenny Muir considers the possibilities for pacts in the run up to yet another snap election.
In a previous Combination post I have written about developing a politics of progressive pragmatism, based around “broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box”. That’s because election time raises a crucial and very basic question about alliances – progressive or otherwise. Fighting elections is an important part of what political parties do. So why would you become a party activist, in many cases put in hours of voluntary work over the years, to then stand down your candidate and tell your supporters to vote for another party?
The answer is that you have your eye on a prize that transcends your normal election agenda. This is why pacts are rare. The best known in Northern Ireland is the Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1981 Westminster by-election won by Bobby Sands. Here, the objective was to elect a hunger striker to embarrass the British Government and win support for their cause. Sands died 26 days later. It was an effective tactic, although it is fair to question just how ‘voluntary’ were some of the candidate withdrawals.
So is Brexit a transcendent issue on this scale? Could parties agree who should be involved in an anti Brexit pact, agree a common policy approach, and then agree who stands where?
Who should be involved? Alliance have already ruled themselves out. Other anti Brexit parties include the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens. The position of the UUP appears to have retreated into getting the best for NI rather than any continuing active opposition. People Before Profit were pro Brexit. Current discussions seem only to have included SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens.
What does being anti Brexit actually mean? ‘Special Status’ for Northern Ireland? A second referendum? The best possible Article 50 deal? Staying in the Single Market? Whatever you’re having yourself?
How would an anti Brexit approach be put into practice? If a position could be agreed, the MP representing it would need to attend the House of Commons to speak and vote on it.
Which party stands where? Presumably a pact would target the eight seats currently held by the DUP (East Belfast, North Belfast, East Antrim, East Londonderry, Lagan Valley, North Antrim, Strangford and Upper Bann), and possibly the two UUP seats (South Antrim, and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) if there were a feeling that the UUP cannot be relied upon.
Regarding current the DUP seats: The only chance of unseating the DUP in East Belfast comes from Alliance. In North Belfast, North Antrim and Upper Bann SF could win but it would require no DUP/ UUP pact, and result in more abstentionist MPs. In East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford the strongest challengers are the UUP and Alliance. In East Londonderry, SF and the SDLP would need UUP votes to unseat the DUP. Regarding the current UUP seats, South Antrim is a fight between the UUP and the DUP; and FST is always close run between a unionist and SF; however again the pro Brexit MP would not be taking their seat.
In short, the most effective challenger in most of these seats would be the UUP, Alliance or the abstentionist Sinn Fein. The main beneficiary from an anti Brexit pact would be Sinn Féin.
To conclude, an anti Brexit pact in Northern Ireland would need to meet the criterion of being an overarching imperative which all participating parties agree is more important than their own agendas. It would need a very clear understanding of what being anti Brexit actually means, in order to communicate to the electorate what they would be voting for. It would require all parties to commit to taking their seats at Westminster in order actively to oppose Brexit. And given NI’s communal voting patterns, it would be hard for any party other than Sinn Féin to usurp the DUP or UUP in their currently seats, especially without the co-operation of the Alliance Party.
Therefore an anti Brexit pact in NI is unlikely. But sadly it does look as if we’ll get a pan unionist pact again. It says much about our politics that some parties can work together to keep us divided, whereas we cannot meaningfully combine on the most important issue of our time. Voters will have to make their own decisions.
In the wake of recent events in Syria, Tanya Jones argues that we need to find and develop nonviolent ways of extending real democracy, of sharing resources fairly, and of resolving conflict. We may not have chosen this as a starting point; but if we don’t start now, she warns, it is going to get a great deal harder in the near future.
If you don’t hurt people, you don’t really care. That seems to be the message of the almost universal Western approval of the US bombing of Syria on Thursday. We don’t know what the effects of the fifty-nine missiles will be, how many people have been killed immediately and how many will suffer from their effects. We don’t really mind that Donald Trump acted without the authority either of the United Nations or of his own Congress. We don’t ask ourselves, remembering the Ghouta attack of 2013, how sure we can really be of Assad’s culpability this time. We simply breathe a sigh of relief that something has been done, some ‘message sent’, some tension relieved, some reassurance given than we are not callous observers. If the alternatives are indifference or violence, we will, when the stakes are presented as so high, choose violence.
There was a time when this was true on every level, the domestic as well as the global. Parents and schoolteachers who did not beat the children in their charge were irresponsible, naive, ultimately cruel in neglecting their duty to mould children into virtue. Our criminal justice system relied upon violence as its ultimate sanction. Slowly, very slowly, we came to realise that there were better ways. This realisation trickled as far as our attitude towards our nearest neighbours, though, as evidenced by Michael Howard’s comments about Spain, it may not long survive Brexit. But as far as our stance towards the world at large is concerned, violence is still the answer.
Sometimes this means outright war, though that is expensive in every sense. More often we content ourselves with one-off incidents, or, as now, by approving those of others; with arming, funding and training direct combatants; with supporting proxy militias, with subsidised arms sales or by the use of military technology in ways that are unclear and often, as in ‘no-fly zones’ don’t sound overly aggressive at all. All of these involvements of course kill people, primarily civilians, all of them prolong the conflicts, all of them enmesh us, however ignorant we may be, in the web of violence, and all of them reduce our capability to act as honest brokers in helping to seek resolution and peace.
But what are the alternatives? If we are determined to reject violence, are we condemned to a UKIP-style insularity whereby we don’t attack others only because it’s too much trouble? I don’t believe so. The absence of a positive word for non-violence should not mislead us into thinking that it is a lesser, an easier, a weaker alternative to the rifle or the drone. On the contrary, it is considerably more difficult, not least because our position in the world, the structures that uphold us, have been built for so many centuries upon the threat and use of violence. To take part in peaceful, co-operative solutions, the UK needs not just to begin at the same level as its potential partners but to show a degree of humility and regret for past mistakes that sits particularly ill with our current bombastic jingoism. In the words of the old joke, in this, as in so much else, I wouldn’t start from here.
But, given that here is where we are, perhaps we might try some of the following:
Tell the truth. About history and in particular our own role. As far as Syria and the Middle East are concerned, that includes the Sykes-Picot Agreement of a hundred years ago, Winston Churchill’s bright idea, long before his national treasurehood, of converting the Navy from coal to oil and needing a source for the same, the Suez Canal and our dependence upon India to buy our stuff, the duplicitous mess we made over Israel and Palestine, our ongoing rivalry with France and our part in the Cold War, all long before Blair and the dodgy dossier. About the complexity of the Syrian war and the impossiblity of finding a side wholeheartedly to support. About the role of climate change in catalysing the conflict, and our responsibility for that. About what lies behind the simple diagrams and cheerful words about ‘precision bombing’ and ‘collateral damage’.
Listen to the voices. There’s nothing essentially unusual or alien about the conflict in Syria. Those who began demonstrating in March 2011, as part of the wider Arab Spring, wanted what we all want: a chance to have our say in our own government, to talk about politics and our lives, to have the chance to earn a living and care for our families, to give our children a better future. Those same quiet voices are speaking throughout the world, and we, in our privileged position, have the opportunity to listen, to amplify, to reply and to support them, before they are shouted down by noisier demands. Which leads me to:
Understand the potential for violence and sectarianism. Most movements for reform, for human rights and equality begin peacefully, very peacefully. No one knows better than the oppressed that real social justice and equality can’t exist in a world of division and death. But where good and positive protest is met by violent repression, old wounds can easily be opened, solidarity fissured into prejudice and courage twisted into despair. Then we look, too late, across from our comfortable vantage-point and blame ethnic and religious identities for conflicts that have a much more universal cause.
Don’t demonise individuals. It’s so tempting, and so easy to ascribe all blame to ‘evil’ leaders, whether ‘dictators’ or ‘terrorists’ and so to turn messy and complex situations into simple morality plays. It’s used to justify violence, to distinguish this particular act of cleansing from the ambiguities of past actions and to avoid dealing with our own complicity and the need to dismantle some of our own privilege. It might be as well to remind ourselves, too, of the clay feet of our favourite heroes.
Help those in need. With so-called ‘humanitarian aid’, of course: food, water, shelter, medical care. But also by providing spaces for dialogue, exploration, discovery, transformation (of us as well as them), by demonstrating patience and generosity. Those of us living in Northern Ireland are acutely aware of how very much time and room is needed to build peace, and that the process, as the past few weeks have shown, is not without its cul-de-sacs and quagmires. And if that is the case with a conflict so comparatively straightforward, with so few truly global implications and so little outside intermeddling, we might have the grace to realise how much more goodwill and good energies will be needed to achieve the common good in the Middle East.
Welcome refugees. Again, a little imagination would go a long way. These are people like us, people whose needs and hopes are basically the same as our own, with the difference that they have been forced from their homes, their work, often their families, everything that made their daily lives humdrum and ordinary. They ask very little, mostly to go home as soon as they can. We can learn far more than we are called upon to give.
Be brave. It’s not always easy to go against the consensus, especially when that consensus is supported by such a wave of moral outrage and illustrated by scenes of horror and heart-stopping tenderness. However bad the consequences of military action, its adherents can comfort themselves by saying ‘At least we did something’. Non-violent action is something too, often very much more, but it doesn’t reach the front pages, and it’s not so easy to condense into 140 characters. So make connections, talk, give generously, say sorry, pray if that’s your thing, but most of all listen and think. This isn’t primarily about us, about virtue-signalling, or appearing strong, or making sure we condemn in all the right places. It’s about the people affected now, and their children and theirs in turn. And it’s about all the people in other places who will, over the next decades, gather in their city squares calling for justice and equality and a halfway decent life.
We have a little space of time now, while the world is still comparatively stable, while the European Union still exists, while nuclear weapons haven’t been used to their full extent for seventy years, before our harvests and water supplies and coasts are devastated by climate change. In this little space of time we could, if we set our minds to it, really find and develop nonviolent ways of welcoming campaigns for equality and free speech, of celebrating diversity and change, of facilitating real democracy of sharing resources fairly and of resolving conflict. It’s going to be a great deal harder if we don’t do it now. Let’s not give up before we’ve tried.
The ‘economic nationalism’ offered by right-wing populists sounds as though it is a break with the dominant, neoliberal economic model (the “crank economy”), argues Maurice Macartney, but on closer inspection, it is simply another version, this time within more easily controlled borders.
It has been a bad few weeks for right-wing populists (pauses for cheering to subside).
Bouffant hairdo notwithstanding, Geert Wilders failed to become the Dutch Donald Trump, and the original US version failed to ‘repeal and replace’ President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Of course, we should be careful not to read too much into these events. We have yet to see how many French voters will support Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for instance. Moreover, Mr Trump may have failed to take health care off millions of working class Americans, but he may yet achieve other aims such as doling out yet more tax cuts to an already hyper-rich elite.
Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s failure leaves him looking less of a ‘closer’, more a loser. And if his astonishing claim that “nobody knew healthcare could be this complicated” (it’s the ‘nobody’ that gets me – wasn’t he paying attention this last seven years?) is anything to go by, he may have just started to realise he is out of his depth. If those who voted for him begin to realise that too, the mid-term elections of 2018 are going to be very interesting.
Closer to home, we are also witnessing the continuing collapse of UKIP, with their sole MP, Douglas Carswell, jumping ship to become an Independent. Ironically enough.
So are we at a turning point? Has the surge of right wing populism reached its high tide mark? Time will tell – but progressive politicians and campaigners cannot afford to sit back and relax. It cannot be denied that Trump, Wilders, Le Pen, Farage and the rest have tapped into a broad seam of discontent, the strength and breadth of which took most of us on the left or even on the centre right by surprise. Even if Trump (let’s use him as metonym) begins to lose momentum at this stage we cannot simply go back to business as usual, for at least two key reasons, one more immediate, the other more fundamental.
One immediate reason for Trump’s success was his open appeal to a xenophobia of varying degrees of intensity. The openness of this appeal shocked liberals and leftists, and the centre right, most of whom felt that such a man could never, surely, make it all the way to the White House. But it is precisely that unthinkability that gives us a clue to the power of Trump’s appeal, and gives us forewarning about the way to overcome it.
In an excellent discussion of identity politics in the New Humanist, Lola Okolosie and Vron Ware remind us that in the late 1970s, when Rock Against Racism got going, it helped make racism ‘uncool’. The effect, as Ware says, was a “powerful relegation of racist views to the edge of what was acceptable, without being moralistic”. No one, until recently, she significantly continues, wanted to be seen as racist. Okolosie draws the conclusion: someone like Nigel Farage allows people who formerly held back because they did not want to be seen to be racist to come out, as it were. Mr Farage’s supporters felt they suddenly had authorisation to “speak their truth”. The parallels with Mr Trump’s energetic rallies are clear.
The lessons for the left, though, perhaps need a bit more thought. To be clear, Rock Against Racism, and all the other anti-racist efforts, were great and necessary interventions. But not wanting to be seen to be racist is not the same thing as not wanting to be racist. If we are to address the cause of the current upsurge in overt xenophobia, simply shouting and shutting down the xenophobes (being ‘moralistic’) will not do the trick. Rather, we need to defuse the xenophobia itself. That will take a long, detailed effort that cannot bypass honest conversation. Amongst ourselves, and with others.
You cannot solve the problem of xenophobia, after all, by repeating its core gesture – ‘othering’ a whole group of people and labelling them ‘enemies’ (or in this case ‘racists’). Not without talking to them first, at any rate. Xenophobia comes in a spectrum, with everything from those expressing confused discomfort at one end to out and out white supremacists at the other. Collapsing that spectrum down, so that ‘they’ appear to be ‘all the same’ is not how to deal with this. But because many, including some on the left, are so quick to collapse the spectrum rather than engage in a conversation about the meaning of the confused discomfort (think Gordon Brown meets Gillian Duffy), the underlying issues have remained unaddressed, sometimes for decades.
And it is the underlying issues that we need to be clear about if we are to get at the root causes of our current problems. Indeed, Gordon Brown couldn’t address those with Mrs Duffy because it would have meant facing up to the systematic flaws in the policies he had been pursuing since 1997. Policies governed by the logic of crank economics.
To sum up that logic, for thirty odd years the dominant political parties told us that the market knows best, that if we try to ‘interfere’ with the workings of the market, no matter how painful they may sometimes be, we will do more harm than good. We will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Millionaire Conservatives and Republicans told us that we had to keep turning the crank, keeping costs (such as wages) down and rewarding the ‘wealth creators’ or they wouldn’t be able to ‘create jobs for us’. Self-proclaimed ‘centrists’, like millionaire Tony Blair, and the Clintons, told us that we had to keep turning the crank, keeping costs down and rewarding the ‘wealth creators’ or we wouldn’t have money to put into public services or social security.
Enough people bought into this logic for it to shape the outcome of successive elections from the late 1970s until the crank broke in 2008. Oh, sure, conservative governments were elected after that – decades of momentum don’t come to a halt overnight – but try as they might to get the crank turning again, some of the workings had become disconnected. The machinery was out of whack. But why?
Predictably, some politicians and newspapers opened, in Tanya Jones’s wonderful phrase, a can of worms and pulled out a big red herring. They pointed at the broken workings and sold the idea that it was foreigners what done it. Bureaucrats in Brussels, Eastern Europeans taking ‘our’ jobs and houses.
Wrong. But repeat that story often enough (daily, as in Daily Mail) and it starts to sound, to some, like common sense. For those at the receiving end of the downward forces, symptoms of the crank economy come to appear as causes in themselves. People without much money competing for precarious jobs on low wages, competing for barely affordable housing, or for the last remaining places in an overcrowded school find it easier to spot an outsider coming in for a share of these resources than to notice the real problem: the massive, and systematically increasing share of our collective resources being cranked to a tiny group at the top, precisely by putting downward pressure on a whole broad range of people at the bottom.
We need to get the message out: yes, you have been given a raw deal, but it’s not because of outsiders. It is because of the policies pursued for decades by the political parties currently claiming they have ‘taken back control’ for you.
Their goal is not to ‘repeal and replace’ the crank – quite the opposite. Look at the details of the ‘replacement’ Mr Trump had in mind for Obamacare. Here’s a graph, showing the scale of the cuts in coverage for the least well off, and the associated huge tax breaks for the very wealthiest.
And here is a graph showing the forecast effects of Mr Trump’s and Mr Ryan’s tax plans.
Bit of a pattern emerging, no?
Incidentally, clearly Ryan’s is more painful for average Americans than Trump’s, but let’s not be hoodwinked into thinking the latter is anything but a high-geared, well-greased machine cranking wealth to the top. Indeed a really cynical part of me thinks the whole function of the Ryan plan (according to which 99.6 per cent of the tax relief over the next decade would go to the top 1 per cent) is to make Trump’s (with ‘only’ 50.8 per cent going to the top) look generous. Lest you are tempted by that bait, remember this: those in the poorest fifth will ‘save’ $100 under Ryan and $120 under Trump (though of course they will bear the brunt of public service cuts). Those in the top 0.1 per cent (including, for instance, the Trump family) will receive $1.4m under Ryan and fully $1.5m under Trump. Let’s see that on a chart:
Struggling to see the two columns on the left? Then let’s convert the figures into something more visible. If each dollar is 1 millimetre, the columns representing the poorest fifth come in at just over 10 centimetres, or around four inches. About the height of a coffee cup. The columns representing the tax relief for the top 0.1 per cent reach 1.4 and 1.5 Kilometres respectively. There is currently no building on earth tall enough to unfurl a full-scale copy of our chart from.
Take back control for whom? For ordinary citizens? For democracy? No: the right-wing populists want to take back control the better to keep turning the crank. Better still, if they can get you to put your shoulder to the crank by telling you how awful these foreign regulations are (it’s all ’ straight bananas’ and ‘health and safety gone mad’) they will do so, and get you singing the national anthem while they’re at it.
Mrs Thatcher used to say ‘there is no alternative’ to the rule of the market – the crank economy. Right-wing populism appeared, at first glance, to offer just such an alternative, in the form of so called ‘economic nationalism’. But judging by Mr Trump’s emphasis on cutting social security and doling out tax breaks to the rich, this is no real alternative at all, more an attempt to confine the crank within more easily controlled borders.
So what is the alternative? Global economic democracy.
But to discuss that, we’ll have to wait for another post.
In the last of our series on the Assembly Election of 2017 Jenny Muir sets out the case for a progressive pragmatism built around broad and shifting partnerships, and aimed at achieving specific goals.
As hope fades of a new Executive being formed next week, and another election may be called, where does the (previous) election leave progressive politics?
The increased turnout, from 55 per cent to 65 per cent, should be welcomed. Yes, some may have voted in response to scaremongering from the DUP or a revitalised Sinn Féin election machine hoping to take the party over the line to the First Minister job. But getting people to the ballot box is the first step towards electoral change. We cannot get people to vote differently if they are not prepared to vote at all.
So how did people vote? Pretty much the same as before, according to vote share: unionists lost only 0.7 per cent; ‘others’ (Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit) gained 1.5 per cent and nationalists gained 3.8 per cent. The seat share tells a slightly a different story, and it’s the seats that matter. The reduction from 180 to 90 hit unionists hardest, with a 7.4 per cent decrease; ‘others’ increased their share by 1.2 per cent. The big winners were nationalists, with a 6.3 per cent increase. The breakdown of 40 unionists (including the TUV and Claire Sugden), 39 nationalists and 11 ‘others’ does indeed remove the unionist majority for the first time. But the election statistics also show that the ‘other’ parties are still failing to make the kind of gains that might seriously challenge the communal blocs.
It’s particularly interesting that this continues to be the case when 40 per cent of us identify as neither unionist or nationalist, compared to 33 per cent unionist and 25 per cent nationalist. Of course there are many reasons why people vote the way they do, and also reasons why people with progressive views might join a communal party. All parties are coalitions to some extent, and if your party’s ideological basis is British or Irish nationalism, then there will be room for a wide range of other beliefs within the membership. Individuals from different parties can and do work together in the Assembly to advance particular causes. It is also important to ask how this work can be done elsewhere, for example in local councils and in single issue campaigns.
So… what should we be working on, whom should we be working with, and how should we be working together?
What? At The Combination have defined progressive values as including social justice, equality, democracy, nonviolence and sustainability. Stephen has listed marriage equality, abortion rights, trade union rights, equalities issues and environmental protection as topics around which progressives can make alliances. Other possibilities include education, health and housing. Basically there is no shortage of issues where common ground may be found across parties and between political activists and civil society campaigners.
Who? Many of us have mixed experiences of interaction with other parties, but will recall working together in trade unions and single issue campaigns as a matter of course, in order to maximise the chance of achieving change. The difficult and unwelcome truth about progressives working together is that we are going to agree on some issues and not on others. For example, it’s proving easier to build a coalition on equal marriage than on abortion. There is a sticking point on ‘integrated’ versus ‘shared’ education. Health campaigning is very fragmented. So our partners in particular single issue campaigns and initiatives will differ. To me there is no question that these partners will include members of the communal parties in some instances.
How? In Northern Ireland we are disadvantaged by the lack of a non-party structure for progressive politics, such as a think tank or a broad-based civil society campaigning organisation. There are very few non-partisan forums for political debate, especially to promote the kind of constructive discussions that explore and understand different views on controversial topics – essential to develop the trust Tanya talks about, and the finding of common ground and willingness to compromise noted by Stephen. New spaces for progressive debate and collaboration must be developed as a matter of urgency.
And the game changes completely once an election is called. Formal pacts are superficially attractive, however they present two major difficulties: each party to the agreement must benefit; and the identity or independence of the parties involved must not be eroded. This is almost impossible to achieve. Far better for local campaigners to indicate informally how they would like preference votes to be cast, and to leave the electorate to make up their own minds.
A politics of progressive pragmatism can be developed around broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box. It sounds like an extremely modest aspiration. But it’s better than what we have now – and will be needed more than ever in the next few years.
To navigate the many complex, multi-faceted problems we face in this so-called ‘post-truth’ world, a shrug of distrust is not enough. We are going to need to rely on all our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, argues Tanya Jones, in the third of our Assembly election posts.
There are two kinds of stories for progressives about this year’s Assembly election. Maurice and Stephen have told two of the hopeful ones. As a candidate in the demographically knife-edge constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I’m perhaps more pessimistic. Those small green shoots pushing through the snow are undoubtedly there, but nurturing them will be a hard task.
I begin in the same place as Stephen, with Mike Nesbitt’s comments about vote transfers, which, whatever their effect upon the vote itself, apparently constituted his own political death warrant.
But what was so egregiously outrageous about what he actually said? Contrary to the impression widely given, Nesbitt did not recommend that Ulster Unionist voters give their immediate post-UUP preferences to the SDLP. He said that he intended to do so himself, but advised others only to transfer to any candidate they trusted to deliver for their “community, constituency and country”.
On the face of it, this sounds so anodyne as to be the political equivalent of a Hallmark greetings card. What other criterion could possibly have a higher priority than trust? And the ambiguous placing of ‘community’ at the head of the alliterative list even looks like a nod towards keeping those transfers largely unionist. In a Northern Ireland context, my ‘community’ might mean the village, town or suburb where I live, but it’s more likely, as Maurice discussed last week, to mean the group of people who share my religious, cultural and political preconceptions.
But, far from the yawn appropriate to Sunday afternoon platitudes, Nesbitt’s comment was greeted, even from within his own party, with howls of outrage. Here in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP was quick to distance itself, advising its voters via Twitter to transfer to other ‘pro-union’ candidates. The content of the advice is explicable, of course, in view of the unionist pact for the 2015 Westminster election which enabled Tom Elliott to overturn Michelle Gildernew’s four vote majority. The fact that it jarred so glaringly with the rest of the overwhelmingly anti-DUP Twitter feed didn’t seem to surprise anyone.
The odd thing is that, logically, this election ought to have been about precisely the issue of trust. At the heart of the RHI scandal were a lack of transparency and a failure of good governance. It was that betrayal of citizens’ trust, along with the breakdown of trust between the two Executive parties, which caused the election in the first place. But that very soon wasn’t the issue. Neither coalition partner wanted too strong a light to be shone on any aspect of the scandal, from the secrecy of political donations to the dysfunctional relationships between departments and ministers. Instead of ‘trust’ or any of its synonyms, the buzzword chosen by Sinn Fein was ‘respect’, and that played perfectly into the DUP’s hands.
‘I don’t trust you’, is a banal statement of fact, but ‘You’re disrespecting me,’ has an edge of combined victimhood and aggression that worked both to prod nationalists towards the polling station and to goad disaffected DUP supporters back into the fold. And it worked for any issue they chose, most effectively that of the Irish language.
‘Same old, same old,’ say the weary. But there is now a new dimension to the traditional tribalism of Northern Ireland. Only ten months separated the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections, but those ten months included both the UK’s EU referendum and the election of President Donald Trump. I’m wary of sentences that begin ‘This vote meant…’, for people voted for both Brexit and Trump in smaller numbers, and for more varied reasons than any tidy explanation allows. I think it’s safe to say, though, that a mistrust of perceived establishments, elites and experts played a large part in the rhetoric underpinning both campaigns. The fact that Trump and the triumphal triumvirate of Farage Johnson and Gove are members of all the elite and establishment groups that matter only seemed to bolster their credibility.
It’s a credibility, though, that doesn’t necessarily imply trust. A traditional political polarity will say ‘My opponent is devious, flaky and possibly corrupt, but you can rely on me.’ But these new populists present themselves as mavericks, and their indiscretions, insensitivities and worse are all presented as refreshing evidence of their salt-of-the-earthiness. ‘Follow me,’ they say. ‘I don’t know any better than you where we’re going, but we’ll find someone to kick along the way.’ It’s a style that’s easy and infectious, requiring nothing so tedious as policy, and was used in the Assembly election campaign by both right and left, with ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Punish Stormont’ and ‘Elect A Fighter’ prominent on our lampposts.
A post-truth world, as we are reported to be living in, is perhaps necessarily also a post-trust world.
And the implications of that are terrifying. There are times and places when it wouldn’t matter very much, where societies are chugging along much as they always have, and a bit of iconoclasm is positively healthy. Even now, there are plenty of power systems, notably the financial and military, about which we aren’t sufficiently sceptical. But to trust virtually no scientists, no politicians, no lawyers, no economists and no historians, except those who peddle our own pet conspiracy theories, is to take from ourselves every tool with which we might build a better future. And in our global village, with even the liberal media fascinated and obsessed by emergent fascism, there seems little hope of containing the infection.
We face two* huge existential threats: domestic, in the massive shadow of the looming Brexit, and global, from the increasing certainty of catastrophic climate change. (*The uncontrolled belligerence of a nuclear-armed Trump is a potential third that even I, in this gloom-ridden mood, can’t quite bring myself to mention outside parentheses.)
The almost universal response to both has been to stick our heads firmly into the sand, occasionally surfacing to shout ‘Project Fear!’ before burrowing down again. But these are not remote eventualities that might possibly occur, or benign changes that can be dealt with by business as usual, calm-down-dearie and not frightening the horses. These are complex, multi-faceted, many-tentacled problems. In order to navigate them with any kind of success at all, we will need everything we as human beings have ever learned, about science, about ethics and about our own history. To dismiss all that accumulated knowledge and wisdom in favour of a shrug of the shoulders and a gut instinct would be the final confirmation of the Age of Stupid. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a snarky tweet.
But there are signs of hope, some of which have already been identified and explored on this site. A blind fatalism is as unhelpful as any other kind of darkness. In between writing the first and second drafts of this piece, the exit polls came in from the Dutch elections, showing a decline in support for the much-vaunted Geert Wilders and a surge for GroenLinks. I was joyfully reminded that right-wing populism isn’t globally inevitable, that people aren’t necessarily insular and despairing and that a small patch of hope can spread a long way. And I started reading the paperback edition of Yanis Varoufakis’s And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in the foreword of which he writes of the ‘precious common ground’ shared by all those, whatever their political labels, who are ready to confront the ‘monsters … crawling out of the fault lines’.
And there are answers, at least partial ones, and dedicated, creative and informed people working hard to reach them. But it does need trust; not unthinking allegiance to any individual or institution, but a lively, questioning, thoughtful understanding of what history, science and experience can teach us, allied with a basic belief in human goodwill. It won’t be easy, but we’ve already begun, thousands of us, across the world and across the years.