Riots, protests, and materialism

If material advancement provides social glue, then economic growth is essential to ensuring stabilit

Riots and student protests in the UK, worldwide demonstrations against bankers and capitalism in the bigger advanced economies -- it's all happening. Is there a connecting thread? Undoubtedly. All are markers of a period of quite extraordinary social change.

Until recently, the world's advanced economies had experienced nearly two decades of the biggest increase in prosperity in the history of mankind. This has been very fortunate for the majority of the population, especially those in the middle classes and above. As British anthropologist, Ernest Gellner, pointed out it in his acclaimed 1997 book, Nationalism, the material improvement in (most) people's lives creates political and social legitimacy.

Looked at this way, material advancement for the masses -- goods, services and experiences -- available at high streets, shopping malls and through the internet, is a "universal bribery fund" whereby the social order is maintained -- in other words, it takes over from ties of kinship or tribal loyalties in providing social glue. Buying off trouble through consumption, as Gellner also pointed out, is far more effective than the "old method of terror and superstition", which is still deployed in closed societies like Burma and North Korea (and until recently in Libya, but that's another story).
Up until 2008 when the banking crisis started to unfold, that is.

Bill Clinton got it spot on when he kept reminding himself of its political significance in the run-up to the 1992 US presidential election in the short, succinct phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." In other words, governments in liberal democracies with large middle-class electorates are given power primarily on the basis of their perceived economic competence.

But Gellner went one step further than the former US president; he rightly predicted that modern democracies will be in an awful predicament when the universal bribery fund is not quite so plentiful - " [when] the cornucopia temporarily dries up or even just slows down, as from time to time in the nature of things it must."

So, economic growth cannot and should not be taken for granted. It can falter and stutter. When it does governments can lose power very swiftly even if the reasons are beyond its control -- lying at an international level (where modern financial instruments and monetary flows create a level of complexity that is difficult for anyone to understand) rather than because of events on the domestic political scene. This is what lies behind the political and social instability of many of the world's advanced economies -- the end, at least for the moment, of a taken-for-granted cornucopia means that political leaders from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel and David Cameron are under considerable pressure to come up with a recipe for growth, while some George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi have been obliged to fall on their swords because they have conspicuously failed to do so.

Commentators differ on what all this means for the countries of North America, Europe and elsewhere. In a recent BBC roundtable discussion , celebrity investment manager Nicola Horlick opined that the advanced economies have reached the limits of their growth potential -- they have plateaued in other words, and respective populations will just have to get used to a permanent change in living standards. On the other hand, Will Hutton, chair of the Big Innovation Centre, reckons that current difficulties are a temporary blip, and that the endlessly creative capitalist economies of the US and Europe will renew themselves over the next two decades as well as seeing off the challenge from economies like China.

Whatever the outcome, the big lesson is that economic growth is vital to the maintenance of the social and political order -- both nationally and internationally. Even many of the world's top bankers, traditionally strong adherents of the trickle-down economic theory, have been forced to recognise that normal economic service is not about to resume shortly, and that with the sound of the protestors' chanting and drumming in their ears it is in their interests that the fruits of growth -- the universal bribery fund -- should be distributed in such a way that it includes as many people as possible.

Gordon Brown (remember him?) got it right when in a 2006 speech delivered to UN Ambassadors he talked about "a new paradigm that sees economic growth, social justice and environmental care advancing together can become the common sense of our age." Not quite as snappy or as focused as Bill Clinton's phrasing - note there are three ingredients rather than one -- but it's not a bad recipe for maintaining stability in complex multicultural societies and a densely interconnected world.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton.

 

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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