Cameron goes hard on the euro – but is this a sensible strategy?

Blame-shifting may be politically expedient, but burning bridges with the eurozone is not going to h

It all started with PMQs on Wednesday, when David Cameron said that the eurozone should “make up or it is looking at a potential break up”. In a speech yesterday, he reiterated the message, telling business leaders that “the return of a crisis that never really went away” should end the current dithering. Now, for the third time in 24 hours, the Prime Minister has pushed the issue of a eurozone break up, this time during a conference call with EU leaders.

Speaking to Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Mario Monti, Herman Van Rompuy (president of the European Council), and Jose Manuel Barroso (president of the European Commission), the Prime Minister said that Germany should do more to prevent the single currency from unravelling.

It’s unlikely that this will go down well with Merkel, the German chancellor. Indeed, it’s unlikely that any of it will go down well with EU power-brokers. The fact that Cameron is repeatedly stoking fears of a eurozone break up will probably sour relations ahead of this weekend’s G8 summit. Cameron has defended his aggressive approach on the grounds that Britain’s future is so tied up in the eurozone that it is necessary to put diplomatic niceties to one side. Yet given his unwillingness to help broker a deal, this seems counter-productive.

As the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball put it in a strongly worded blog yesterday:

Cameron’s arrogance and unwillingness to engage with European leaders does not even come from a position of strength. Britain is struggling with a double-dip recession thanks to the Tory-led coalition. What is it that makes Cameron believe he can attack the Eurozone when his own and Chancellor George Osborne’s economic competence is so severely lacking?

. . .

It is becoming ever clearer that the UK   cannot go it alone. Our economy is well and truly tied up with the Eurozone. To believe anything else is to regress to some kind of post imperial cloud-cuckoo land when the EU did not exist and Britain was great.

Of course, it is obvious what the Prime Minister is doing. The country is back in recession and Labour are now neck and neck with the Conservatives on economic competence for the first time in this government, even overtaking them in some polls. No 10 has decided to go big on the single currency. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, it detracts attention from their own floundering economic policy, and a show of strength over Europe may give Cameron a short term popularity boost with his own backbenchers and the public. Secondly, it is an attempt to redefine the debate on the economy – a debate which the government has lost control of in recent weeks – by casting the eurozone as the main factor in Britain’s continued economic woes. It is not a new approach – the first two years of coalition have been defined by an emphasis on the “mess left by Labour” – but it is a shifting of the blame.

There is some logic to this strategy – there is certainly no shortage of struggling foreign economies at which to point the finger. But ultimately, it is unhelpful. As a Guardian editorial argues today:

Britain is not uniquely virtuous in the face of global economic downturn and institutional failure. In fact, Britain is not particularly virtuous at all. We are in recession again because that is the logical outcome of the policies followed by this, not any other, government.

Blame-shifting may be politically expedient, but burning bridges with the eurozone is not going to help find solutions.
 

Angela Merkel and David Cameron, Berlin, Germany, November 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.