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9 May 2005

Now parliament is just another hypermarket

Election: the campaign - J G Ballard found the election a charade. Real power has gone to the shoppi

By J G Ballard

More important than the size of Tony Blair’s majority was the turnout, which was not helped, I’m sorry to say, by my own small abstention. I voted for Blair at the last election, so why not now?

A grab bag of reasons: I like Blair but I think he is dangerous, with his actor’s sincerity that hides a hysterical personality and a talent for drawing everyone into his make-believe world. The Iraq war was only one of a series of huge self-deceptions in which we have willingly colluded, in the way that a bored and restless congregation incites an evangelical preacher.

I’m uneasy with the Downing Street apparatus that has assembled itself around him, a public relations firm pretending to be a brainier, British White House. Blair is our president, but he has little real power. The inertial forces that lock Britain into its past are too great for him, and all the levers in his hands have snapped.

I’m sure Blair took us into Iraq because he was flattered to be summoned from the lower school and invited into the senior prefect’s study. Bush and the neo-cons are driven by emotion, and this appeals to Blair. The emotions are the one language that he understands, and reality is defined by what he feels he ought to believe. He commands no battle groups, and Britain’s per capita income is one of the lowest in western Europe. Without the largely foreign-owned City of London the whole country would be a suburb of Longbridge, retraining as an offshore call-centre servicing the Chinese super-economy.

What really kept me away from the polling booth was the sense that the rate of political change has been slowing since the early 1990s. Do the possibilities for radical political change still exist? I would like to see the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, inherited titles and the public schools, a move that would bring us into line with the rest of the English-speaking world. I would like to see Oxford and Cambridge turned into graduate uni- versities entirely devoted to research, which at a stroke would cool the ardour of the “tiger mothers” of Holland Park and Hampstead determined to set their three-year-olds on the path to Oxbridge, whatever the human cost.

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None of these changes could be tackled by the present political system, however, even if the will was there. I would like to see the Labour Party lead a full-scale assault on the English class system, which still amazes visitors to this country, but I know it will never happen.

Outside heritage London – not just Bloomsbury and St Paul’s, but all those areas of the city dominated by a dinner-party culture – there are vast forgotten terrains where the greatest force for enlightenment is the nearest Ikea. Out on the London perimeter, in the motorway towns and retail parks that are the real Britain today, everything is ruled by consumerism. The cash till and the Pin preside. Consumerism defines people’s lives, but, like sex with prostitutes, it demands special skills from the customer and there is no money-back guarantee.

The huge vacuum this creates may soon implode. The mon-archy, the Church and politics have all faltered. The British monarchy is an afterthought of central Europe, the tale of a dysfunctional German family that destroyed itself in the supreme effort of trying to be English. The Church of England has long been secularising itself from within, and even atheism is now tolerated of its bishops.

As for parliament and the ballot box, I fear that politics can no longer bring about the radical changes this country needs. It’s surprising that this happened so quickly. After I came to England in 1946 I found the professional middle class completely stunned by the huge changes brought in by the Attlee government – nationalisation, the health service, a crash programme of house-building, decent living standards for all. The new barbarians were at the gates. Later, Harold Wilson at least made an effort to move Britain on from the radio-valve age, and refused to join the Vietnam tragedy. Margaret Thatcher, in her turn, challenged the outer limits of ideology and change, leaving Blair with little to do except sweep up after the storm.

But now politics has lost its will, and may even have reached its close, absorbed into consumerism and public relations. Perhaps elections and the ballot box are little more than a folkloric ritual, along with parliament itself. Like university lecturers and psychiatrists, politicians may incidentally do some good, but their real loyalty is to themselves and their profession. The chief function of election campaigns is to convince us that politics and politicians are still important.

A year or two ago I was having dinner with my girlfriend in a west London restaurant when a large Jaguar double-parked outside, headlights blazing. Doors slammed like shotgun blasts and two thuggish men leapt out and bounded into the almost empty restaurant. They stood menacingly over our table, then signalled to the Jaguar’s driver. Doors slammed again, and two more men strode in like Batman and Robin. They were Peter Mandelson and Reinaldo (“How handsome,” Claire murmured, out of luck, alas). They sat at a rear table, staring into each other’s eyes in the most inconspicuous way, while the bodyguards devoured a hearty meal, presumably at the taxpayer’s expense.

Fifty minutes later the procedure was reversed. The bodyguards leapt to their feet, and the driver started his engine, sounding his horn to remind himself that he was at the wheel. After a pause, Mandelson scuttled out with a doggy bag, an endearing touch. Bodyguards, ex-minister and boyfriend dived into the car, which roared off, headlights at full beam, tyres squealing. Every terrorist in west London must have sighed and turned back thankfully to Sex and the City. Exhausted by this self-conscious charade, I said: “The man is out of office – what was that about?” Claire replied: “Vanity.”

But I’m not convinced. I have no idea if Peter Mandelson is vain, and I assume that similar displays are going on every evening as ministers and ex-ministers make sure they are noticed, clinging to the last vestiges of power that confirm their own identities. To reassure them that they are still important, we need to turn out on the village green, cheer their three-legged races and clap their Punch-and-Judy knockabout. It may be only a charade, but they, of course, keep the day’s takings.

Real power has gone, migrating to the shopping malls and hypermarkets where we make the important decisions in our lives. Consumerism controls everything, and the ballot box defers to the cash counter. The only escape from all this is probably out-and-out madness, and I expect the number of supermarket shootings and meaningless crimes to increase dramatically in the coming years. If anywhere, the future seems to lie with competing systems of psychopathology.

Gordon Brown gave the task of controlling inflation to the Bank of England, and perhaps our politicians should surrender more of their roles to better-qualified agencies. Perhaps UK plc would thrive if assigned to the two companies that will decide our planet’s future – Microsoft and the Disney Corporation. Tony Blair would at last feel completely at home.

J G Ballard’s latest novel, Millennium People, is published by Flamingo (hardback)