British decline presents new opportunities

In the post-recession world we should focus on pursuing fairness at home

The tale of British success remains a potent one. Britain launched the industrial revolution; emerged victorious from two world wars; gained a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and became one of the five official nuclear powers.

Thus, the sense of decline fuelled by the recession, the humiliation of our political class and the mounting casualties in Afghanistan has been particularly painful.

The subject of British decline is picked up in this week's issue of Newsweek, Stryker McGuire writes:

Even in the decades after it lost its empire, Britain strode the world like a pocket superpower. Its economic strength and cultural heft, its nuclear-backed military might, its extraordinary relationship with America - all these things helped this small island nation to punch well above its weight class. Now all that is changing as the bills come due on Britain's role in last year's financial meltdown, the rescue of the banks, and the ensuing recession.

Like many others, notably on the conservative right, McGuire commits the error of explicitly linking Britain's decline to its rising public debt. Even if the national debt rises to around 80 per cent in five years time, from its current level of 56 per cent, this will remain lower than the predicted G7 average.

As Peter Wilby writes in this week's New Statesman, "In 2008, Japan's debt was 170 per cent of GDP, Italy's 104 per cent, Germany's 65 per cent and the US's 61 per cent. Through most of the 20th century and much of the Victorian era, UK national debt was far higher than it is now."

But elsewhere, McGuire correctly argues that the collapse of the housing market and the decadence of the financial sector have left the economy without any obvious source of growth. He concludes: "The great test of the next prime minister and probably the one after that, will be not only to redefine Britain's place among great nations but also to renew the kind of spirit that has ruled Britannia in the past."

Yet the assumption that Britain should fight to maintain its position in the international pecking order ignores an alternative approach. Instead of struggling to project power abroad, we should focus on pursuing fairness at home.

This must begin with a programme of radical constitutional reform. The great error made by numerous commentators has been to discuss the political crisis and the economic crisis in isolation from each other.

In truth, far more than the expenses scandal, it is the financial crisis that mandates immediate constitutional reform; a set of 18th century institutions were shown to be utterly incapable of dealing with a 21st century crisis.

John Keane (whose latest tome The Life and Death of Democracy I am currently reading) makes this point well in today's Guardian:

Let us remember the true cause of the deepest slump since the Great Depression: democracy failure bred market failure. Unelected regulatory bodies and elected politicians, parties and governments let citizens down.

In the post-recession world, this sceptred isle will be forced to become a more pragmatic and a more modest nation. The £20bn renewal of Trident, little more than a national virility symbol, must be cancelled. Military intervention abroad, humanitarian or otherwise, will become increasingly unthinkable.

Politicians will no longer be able to promise the public services of Sweden with the tax rates of the US. An aging society will require all of us to pay higher taxes to fund an acceptable care system.

The so-called 'special relationship' with the US will continue to diminish as successive administrations focus on deepening relations with advancing powers, notably China, India and Brazil. Even Conservatives will be forced to admit full engagement with the European Union is the most attractive way of exercising influence.

Such reforms are long overdue and the chance to recast Britain as an egalitarian and progressive society, along the lines of the Nordic states, is now available. It is one the next government must take.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war