Tuesday, October 26, 2010

whose side are you on?

I had forgotten what it was like to experience this sense of sheer, visceral dislike. Throughout the long, disappointing years of New Labour, despite Tony Blair's gleeful destruction of the party's heritage and his lying mendacity over Iraq, I never actually managed to really loathe them. Jack Straw was a weak sell-out, Geoff Hoon a compromised liar and John Prescott a terrible bully, but none of them ever scaled the heights of unpleasantness of a Kenneth Baker or a Peter Lilly. For all his myriad faults Gordon Brown wasn't actively trying to make life shittier, more terrifying or unfair.  At least not here.

So it's eerily familiar in a way, this useless, all consuming rage at the coalition. To see David Cameron and Nick Clegg patting George Osbourne on the back after  the chancellor delivered his devastating and dangerous comprehensive spending review - a review that systematically targeted the poor, the sick and the unemployed and let off the wealthy, greedy and corrupt - was to be jolted back to life by a palpable and all consuming revulsion.

The assault on decent values and humane politics that has occurred since the coalition came to power has left people so bewildered that it's difficult to keep up with the mayhem. As others have pointed out, the government is following the shock and awe tactics identified by Naomi Klein. Terrifying the population into acquiescence has been their tactic, an obscene and insulting way to govern the people who voted for you. But the mixture of hyperbolic exageration and unashamed class warfare that is being perpetuated has successfully left the opposition feeling dazed. Many people simply assume that the government has a back-up plan, or harbour an optimistic belief that somewhere within this cynical land grab and disposal of the inconveniences of welfare provision and social justice lurks an ambition to make things better. 

But there doesn't seem to be. There is only a desire to eviscerate the welfare state and further entrench the vested interests of the rich and powerful. An intense summer of lobbying has meant that the banks  - who both caused the economic crisis and then took the public bailout that gave us the deficit - will walk away largely scott free. A  pitiful £2.5 billion levy* has been brought in, which, set against the  £7 billion in welfare cuts, makes the governments claims of fairness a sick joke. Not only that, but the structural problems within the banking industry industry, the ones which stop them from lending to businesses and individuals whilst allowing them to engage in ever riskier facts of financial gambling, the ones, that is, that caused the crash, will at some stage relatively soon cause another, even mightier, one.

Last week's BBC's Question Time was a perfect encapsulation of the current political landscape. The conservative MP Philip Hammond defended the cuts with a mixture of arrogance and stupidity, like a man very, very, very dimly becoming aware that he hasn't a clue. When questioned on the governement's obvious lack of policies to promote growth or alleviate poverty, he revealed a terrifying void. Like most coalition MP's,  he simply repeated the Tory mantra that Labour were responsible for the debt and that the cuts are the only way to deal with it and...and...that was it.

Despite the fact that this dishonest appraisal ignores both the facts (the level of debt was caused by the public bailout of the banks and not excessive public spending before that) and their own complicity in the financial deregulation that led to the crash, astonishingly the Tories are having some success with this line of defence. When questioned by a remarkably moderate and clear headed studio audience, though, the tax avoiding Hammond was left repeatedly at sea as to how he planned to create jobs or encourage growth. He simply didn't have a plan and was left, in the end, to mumble something about Hitachi investing in a new factory in Middlesborough. So, the coalition plan for growth is based, like Thatcherism before it, on providing a demoralised, un-unionised and low wage economy open to exploitation by foreign multi-nationals. There was nothing about solving the housing crisis, dealing with climate change, closing the gap between rich and poor, encouraging investment in business and manufacturing or reforming the banking system. Instead, the affordable housing budget has been reduced by 50%, at a time when private sector housebuilding is moribund, housing benefit has been cut and social housing rents raised to 80% of market rates. All of which is likely to further price families out of the housing market and increase levels of homelessness.

Labour's representative was, of course, hopelessly compromised. He spoke some sense, but really the party's approach of tinkering at the edges of government policy only leaves them open to accusations of not being tough enough. I like Ed Milliband, and he has decent things to say about an alternative approach to the economy. But, right now, Labour appear hopelessly compromised by their years in power, still desperately cautious not to alienate the right wing media and therefore unable to take the government on. The truth is though that New Labour invested in public sector jobs because the private sector had failed to create them. Instead of reforming the private sector and the financial services industry that was supposed to support it, they ignored the increasingly dangerous practices of the city. Inequality may have continued to grow but they did at least attempt to ameliorate its worst excesses. Their heart was somewhere near the right place even if they lacked the stomach to take on the central problem, which is that the thirty year experiment with laissez-faire free market capitalism has all but bankrupted the western economy. The fact that a small number of  people have grown ever richer and more influential during this time unduly influenced their economic policy. That, ultimately, was New Labour's crime.

There was no Liberal Democrat representative, unsurprisingly, in a week that has seen their party capitulate to an extreme right wing ideology that is alien to their core beliefs, assuming they still have some. They still flounder around, talking about fairness and caps on student fees and how the cuts are temporary (in direct contradiction to the official Tory line) but they have sold their supporters down the river and done irreparable damage to their party. In particular, they broke their pledge not to increase student fees and endorsed the Browne Report which will decimate whatever is left of the concept of free higher education and further increase social and economic inequality. It will also devastate arts and humanities subjects and, in particular, architecture, which will no longer be able to sustain a post graduate course. So far, the RIBA has said little about this and the heads of schools have muttered shamefully about challenges ahead and diversification.

Only Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, said anything sensible. She was clear and sane about what is happening and was able to articulate a set of decent alternative values to do with building a fairer, more equal economy based on a faith in technology, innovation, education and culture. So, this week I joined the Green Party. Probably a little late, but it felt the right thing to do, the only way to state a clear opposition to a bankrupt, free-market ideology that has done nothing but increase inequality, concentrate wealth increasingly in the hands of a self-serving elite who threaten to up and leave whenever asked to face up to the consequences of their actions and ignores the real threats of economic collapse and ecological catastrophe. 

There are still a large number of people in this country who stand to gain nothing from the cuts but who currently buy the government's line on why we need them. The shock and awe tactics are working for the moment. They are stopping us from asking the right questions. Why is the corrupt , dangerous and self-serving system that caused the crash not being addressed? Why are hugely wealthy people not paying their fair share of the need to reduce the deficit? Why isn't the government investing in new infrastructure projects, green industries and house building in order to create jobs?

I say all this not as a 'welfare scrounger', or a 'benefit cheat', or a 'union agitator' or any other of those familiar tabloid demons, but as another kind of media cliche; the owner of a small business with a 'hard-working family'. And, looking around, I see no reason to be optimistic. House prices and the cost of living has increased but wages have fallen in relation to profits. In order to keep up people have borrowed more and more, fuelling a credit boom that ended in 2008 with devastating results. Nothing in the present governments policies are aimed at dealing with any of these problems. Nor are the "greenest government ever" doing anything about the other massive and real threat to our livelihoods which is climate change, unless you count selling off our ancient forests. Such are the levels of our current complacency and decadence that people play games at climate change denial or suggest that real methods of tackling it are some kind of bureaucratic attack on their freedom. Well, their freedoms won't matter and their weedy and disingenuous arguments about political correctness will be seen as pathetic hubris in the end.

I'm not going to turn this into a half-arsed political blog. I don't know enough about it for one. And I believe that it's still important to talk about other things, to be interested in architecture and art and all sorts of things that will no doubt be ridiculed and further marginalised by the group of philistines that are now in power. But I also think that you have to nail your colours to the mast and state what you believe in. These are ideological times and a kind of war has been declared. Who's side are you on?

Finally, you should download and read this.

* Which the chairman of RBS suggests should be temporary rather than annual.


Emmett McNamara said...

I am an architecture student in Edinburgh and it is worrying that very few people are speaking about what is really happening in the UK and it's future implications for architecture. I am still excited about my future as an architect though and if enough people like yourself keep telling it like it is, eventually, we will all start moving forward again. Great blog

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for your comment Emmett.