Tag Archives: UK Politics

The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Thatcher, decency and criticism

Street parties were held across the UK this week. Spontaneous affairs, they were also long in the planning. Those who gathered in various cities felt that the appropriate way to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher was to dance in the streets.

Thatcher was a polarising figure. It is said that no one is indifferent in their view of the woman or of what she represented. People either loved or loathed her. Supporters say she put the “Great” back into Great Britain. Some critics long claimed that they would dance on her grave.

But being an opponent of the politician, or a critic of her political views, does not mean that decency should be forgotten. Some commentators compared Margaret Thatcher with the Nazis. Think about that for a moment.

Much is made of her ignorance of the plight of ordinary people. Unions speak of the devastation wrought on families when pits closed or when jobs were lost through privatisation. Thatcher, they say, was heartless.

Such criticism confuses the abstract with the personal. Owen Jones writes of Thatcherism as a “national catastrophe.” The current economic crisis results from Thatcherism having “wiped out the country’s industrial base in favour of a deregulated financial sector.” She didn’t fix the economy because it didn’t need fixed: “Britain’s most sustained period of growth and increasing living standards were the three decades after the war, with their high taxes on the rich, strong trade unions and state interventionism.”

That all sounds wonderful, but ignores basic truths. The country’s industrial base was on its knees. Three decades of growth after the war were premised on an explosion of consumer growth, changing lifestyles and a growing population. Growth, already stalling, screeched to a halt with the 1973 oil crisis. By 1978, much like today, the economy needed structural change. Thatcher recognised this, and she delivered.

John Rentoul stole my thunder by writing that Thatcher was “a necessary Prime Minister.” The economic reforms of the 1980s would have happened. Many Southern European countries are paying now for having delayed them for 30 years. The vitriol towards her stems from the social impact of these reforms; by carrying them out with such speed and verve, huge swathes of the country were devastated. Individualism is king today. If there was such a thing as society in 1983, it is a lesser thing in 2013.

Ken Livingstone, on the night of her death, blamed Thatcher personally for the nefarious effects of neo-liberal economics across all of the West. She may have dominated her party and country, but she was not the only champion of such policies. Has Livingstone never heard of Ronald Reagan?

The Left likely does not intend the compliment of attributing the West’s embrace of free market economics and individualism to Margaret Thatcher alone. It was Neil Kinnock, Labour leader during much of the 1980s, who pointed out that the humiliation of the Left was ably aided by the stupidity and arrogance of the Left. No fingers pointing at Arthur Scargill.

It is entirely fair to say, as several more moderate voices have said (including, surprisingly to me, Russell Brand), that many of her policies were either distasteful or downright immoral. Perhaps most appalling of all was her objection to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, paralleled by her support for Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. And Tories wonder where the nasty label came from.

Which brings us back to those street parties. Writing in the Guardian on Monday, Glenn Greenwald made the argument that because she was a public figure, criticism of Lady Thatcher should not be silenced: “[A] demand for respectful silence…is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power.”

No one suggested that criticism of such a controversial figure should be silenced. People simply expect it to be respectful. Greenwald writes, much like a 16-year old with no argument would assert on a GCSE History paper, that Americans’ views of Ronald Reagan continue to be shaped by the “week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence.” Pity those people whose entire world view is shaped by a week of historic reflection.

Pity those people who, railing against the mean-ness that Thatcherism engendered, express glee in her death. Pity those people who cannot channel their anger into advocating for a more beneficial capitalism. Pity those people, like Owen Jones, who miss the point completely in calling for a workers’ revolt.

The world has moved on from 1945, and from 1974 and 1984. The ease with which we communicate and travel means we are all better off today; both possible because of Thatcher’s reforms. Those who abhor Thatcher need to argue for a more social Britain, with more social equity and more community. Dancing on anyone’s grave does not advance that task.

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