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Laurie Penny: Why won’t we grow up and start planning for the future?

Britain's Summer of Angst.

Ahead of his first visit to the White House as Prime Minister this week, David Cameron published a remarkable op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he lays out his vision for Britain’s future role on the global stage. The piece is a feat of political positioning, and Cameron’s realism about Britain’s status as "junior partner" in the "special relationship" is to be commended. The only jarring note is our glorious leader’s desperate claim that Britain is “a strong, self-confident country, clear in our views and values”.

This is a painful untruth. Loath as we may be to admit it, this country is embroiled in a torturous crisis of identity and purpose, unsure of our collective views, unconvinced of our national values, our confidence profoundly and, some might argue, justly shaken. We are undergoing a systemic and traumatic change in the political settlement that has defined the past two decades of our national self-image, and as our new overlords attempt to relaunch civil society with platitudes about community spirit and £60m pilfered from disused bank accounts to fund a few museum volunteers in Liverpool, even the conservative right can't offer a stable, positive vision for Britain’s future.

Our culpability in the Deepwater oil disaster, our role in the financial crash of 2008, even our miserable performance at the World Cup, have disturbed the popular impression of Britain as a country that “punches above its weight”. If 2009 was the "summer of rage", then 2010 is surely the summer of angst. After the rash of "Will you be supporting England?" articles during a certain international kickball competition, England’s dismal result – being knocked out before the quarter-finals by Germany, of all humiliations – was an own goal for the weary mythology of "two world wars and one World Cup".

Even the liberal press is shuffling with embarrassment about having attached any importance to the games, and it would be crass of those of us who always thought of the World Cup as a silly willy-waving competition to feel in any way vindicated. Britain’s self-esteem is at a chronically low ebb, and this matters for the left as well as the right: extreme nationalist organisations are on the rise, the future looks grim and uncertain, and the bloodier, uglier parts of the past, as evidenced by the Tories’ stated desire to "tell a big story" about the glory days of empire, keep getting brighter and brighter.

Readers of this blog have accused me variously of hating or misunderstanding my country and all the things that make us great. I find this rather harsh. In fact, I think I’m in a unique position to empathise with the current crisis in Britishness, as being a person from the UK in 2010 is not dissimilar to the rather embarrassing emotional trajectory of being a sensitive young person in one's early twenties.

You’re broke, and making bad choices about your money; you’re unsure who your friends are and worried about a future whose outer edges you can barely imagine; you spend your time guiltily re-examining all those horrendous things you did when the world was younger and meaner, but the navel-gazing is interrupted by bursts of shocking arrogance and gleeful, dirty pride. You had such plans and ambitions, and now the world seems to be moving on without you, leaving you behind; you long most of all for a sense of narrative coherence, for a certain story to tell about who you are and where you’re going.

It is right for the left to worry about Britain’s self-conception, because it affects every aspect of our policy, from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dark hints by Cameron about working with America “for an Iran without the bomb”, to the costly renewal of Trident, and the coalition’s indulgence of the City of London at the expense of the people of Britain.

Paul Gilroy, the historian and author of After Empire, eloquently observes that Britain’s unwillingness to grieve and move on from our former global superpower status is stifling our growth and development as a nation.

“The vanished empire is essentially unmourned,” he writes. “The meaning of its loss remains pending. The chronic, nagging pain of its absence feeds a melancholic attachment.” This despondency fuels a persistent fatalism in our national outlook, a complaisance, even on the left, with cannibalistic neoliberal policymaking, a meek acceptance that the present is unfair and the future will be worse.

This is a ridiculous way for anyone to behave, much less a nation with 2,000 years of illustrious and inglorious history. Britain is not behaving like a "strong, self-confident country". It is behaving like a country in the middle of a violent and bewildering identity crisis, a country that has deceived its citizens time and time and again in order to prop up its sense of self-importance, a country whose insecurities are doing untold damage to ordinary people in the UK and across the world. It is behaving, in short, like a country that needs to get its act together and grow the hell up.

What characterises a quarter-life or mid-life crisis, as well as mortgaging one’s long-term solvency to pay for expensive bits of bling such as sports cars, international wars and nuclear missile delivery systems, is a sense of lost time: a sense that, whatever happens, the years to come cannot possibly be as eventful, as exciting or as prosperous as the years that have gone by.

This, of course, is nonsense. Britain is a country with a future as well as a past. We may feel ancient and irrelevant, but Britain is a young country, and this is a young planet. We will never again be a superpower, but we have much to contribute to the future of global society, a future which, however stridently world leaders, business owners and neoliberal apologists choose to ignore the fact, will indubitably continue beyond the year 2030.

It is with deep love for my country that I dearly wish the British would grow up, get over ourselves and start planning for that future.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.