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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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