British politics is broken
20-26 March 2015 issue
Cover Story: British politics is broken
Andrew Marr on the problem with rejecting the mainstream parties.
The Politics Column: George Eaton assesses George Osborne’s chancellorship.
The NS Essay: Rowan Williams on Judas.
Peter Oborne on Tony Blair’s business empire.
Jonathan Ross: Why I love Marvel Comics.
Cover Story: The centre cannot hold
As the election comes ever closer, Andrew Marr considers the domestic political landscape, which is perhaps less stable than ever before:
A change is coming. The leading politicians I’ve been talking to recently, while breaking Sunday-breakfast bread, keep saying the same thing: the polling doldrums are temporary. Soon, somebody will forge ahead.
[But it’s] perfectly likely that neither of the big parties will break free and that the election will result in the collapse of the centre. Why is this?
Marr attributes our collective indecision to the “hangover” from the economic crash, which destroyed our preconceived notions of government. He writes,
[Does] the big story ahead of the 2015 general election not go like this? We had two grand political narratives offered to us in postwar Britain and they have both gone pop. The socialist story, which was that the public sector and public servants could be trusted to deliver a fairer and more decent society, could not survive the left’s brief alliance with turbocharged capitalism. Socialist critics of Tony Blair personalise this too much. It was a huge political defeat for social democracy, which began in the Thatcher period and continues today. Meanwhile, the free-market story, which promised a “virtuous cycle” of ever-greater prosperity, shared in by almost all, was also smashed by the events of 2008. The proposition that if you simply taxed people less and regulated business more lightly, you would find a stable, relatively fair and prosperous society growing automatically is one that even leading pro-market thinkers find hard to expound with a straight face.
Thus, the centre is gently collapsing – not simply mealy-mouthed, easy-osy, compromising, milk-and-water centrism or one-nation compassionism but the notion of there being a centre at all, a relatively stable central party system that is able to deliver coherent parliamentary majorities.
He adds, however, that a series of other political failures have contributed to this overarching sense of unease and distrust.
I have been simplifying. There are many other aspects to the collapse of the centre worth reminding ourselves of, as we head towards polling day. All of those stories about the failure of public bodies to behave properly or to protect the public – the terrible sex scandal stories, from Oxfordshire and Rotherham; the historic failures inside the BBC; the failures inside the NHS, leaving people to die in corridors – undermine the entire social-democratic narrative. If public servants can’t be trusted to look after sexually vulnerable teenage girls, why should we trust them to do anything else?
On the other side of the spectrum, the stories about tax evasion rip into the Panglossian suggestion that the attitudes that led to the crash have vanished, or even that the financial system possesses an uneasy conscience. Day after day, stories that are, in essence, about the failure of authority, public and private, and the necessity of general mistrust are fed to us. We are left to join up the dots. We do so.
Marr reflects on how this has wide repercussions for our society, even on the level of our individual interactions:
The collapse of authority and self-confidence at the centre of politics has consequences across society. One early example is the lashing anger and lack of civility in public discourse.
Moderate, moderately spoken feminists are warned that they will be raped if they don’t shut up. Hard-working public servants are trolled. Some Scottish nationalists take a little time off the moral high ground to taunt my BBC colleague Nick Robinson about his cancer. It’s not just them; the poison is everywhere. People say that it’s always been there – it’s just that Twitter gave it wings. But I wonder to what extent the increase in anger can be explained by the falling away of the traditional left-right ideological argument, by the collapse of the centre?
A second, more important consequence is that we are quite close to losing the state in which most of us grew up. I think it’s highly likely that we will see enough Conservative and Ukip members elected to deliver an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU within two years. The way things are, it’s quite likely that we will vote to leave. If Scotland wanted to stay and England wanted to go, what would that do to the already shaky Union?
No voter is going to go into the booth and vote for instability. But if we are collectively saying, “None of you is worth supporting,” then “none of you” – radical instability, an unpredictable clatter of change, a weak centre – is what we are voting to get. “None of the above” sounds like a fine, high-minded slogan. It wouldn’t make much of a government.
The Politics Column: The Budget showed Osborne’s greatest skill – the ability to rebrand his failure as success
The NS political editor, George Eaton, reflects on George Osborne’s record as Chancellor ahead of the 2015 Budget:
For five years, George Osborne has been managing failure. The Chancellor’s sixth Budget, like its predecessors, was delivered in coalition; the presence of Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander on the government front bench is a permanent reminder of how the Conservatives fell short at the last general election. As his party’s chief strategist in 2010, Osborne continues to live in the shadow of that campaign.
This political failure was followed by an economic one. Osborne’s ambition in opposition was to eliminate the structural deficit in a single term. The collapse of growth after he entered office forced him to postpone this goal. Higher-than-forecast borrowing cost the UK its triple-A credit rating, the metric that he had adopted as the defining test of his economic credibility. Few politicians have recovered from such a gap between promise and delivery.
Osborne, Eaton writes, is the exception:
Osborne’s skill has been to transform this political base metal into gold. He has been the great alchemist of this parliament. The Chancellor made a virtue of coalition government by co-opting the Lib Dems’ best ideas – increasing the personal tax allowance, granting new freedoms over pensions – and aggressively rebranding them as Conservative achievements.
Osborne’s greatest act of conjury, as fiscal boundaries have shifted, has been to entrench an image of himself as a figure of unbending constancy. Aides say that the Chancellor, whose once-poor approval ratings now exceed those of the three main party leaders, is congratulated by the public on “sticking to the plan” during his hard-hat tours. Like Margaret Thatcher (who was sometimes for turning), he knows that, in politics, appearance matters more than reality.
It was partly the fear of huge cuts to public services that denied the Tories a majority in 2010, in the most propitious circumstances. Osborne’s wager is that their unexpected resilience will persuade voters that further austerity is tolerable; that fear of a “tax bombshell” and “economic chaos” under Labour will predominate.
When the Tories entered office, some doubted that this question would even arise. The belief was that they would be evicted from government on a wave of popular outrage over the cuts. But the wave never came. Osborne has managed failure well indeed.
The NS Essay: The man who was offered goodness and said “No”
In a deep consideration of Peter Stanford’s new book, Judas: the Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle, the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asks: what motivated Judas? He writes that our fixation with the Judas figure has to do with his essential relatability:
Peter Stanford concludes his book Judas: the Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle by writing that Judas’s fascination is that he can “speak to both the betrayed and the betrayer in all of us”. He is a figure to think with. And what we are prompted to think about is this disturbing aspect of our humanity that is afraid of truth, or of justice, or indeed of love, because of their potentially subversive and uncomfortable consequences. They all, in one way or another, upset our hopes for control. In the figure of a paradigm traitor, we have something like a thought experiment: imagine being confronted unambiguously with unqualified love, or justice, or truth; and imagine yourself desperately mouthing sideways, “Get me out of this,” or, “Give me an excuse for not taking this seriously.” Something in human motivation prefers independence to life, prefers security in isolation to ecstasy, or thanksgiving, or simply emotional nourishment.
He continues that this relatability forces us to search for good in Judas:
There are quite a few theories about Judas. Perhaps he meant well; perhaps he wanted to trigger a crisis in which Jesus would have no choice but to display his divine power; perhaps he was disillusioned by Jesus’s passivity and commitment to non-violence, or (at the other extreme) by his egoism and self-delusion.
Yet the existence of these imaginative projections, which have slender support in the primary texts, suggests that people felt uncomfortable with the idea of a sheerly arbitrary rejection of the good. Judas, like Shakespeare’s Iago, is difficult to leave alone. Surely there was something? “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know,” says Iago, inviting everyone else onstage to ask themselves what they know of themselves.
Williams concludes that we must accept both that Judas deliberately committed a great sin and that we could do the same at any time:
The Judas story leaves some substantial questions open for believer and sceptic. There is no final, satisfactory theory about why Judas should perform this act of irrational refusal, this negative image of justice and love. There will have been, as there always are, contingent things that trigger destructive capacity in people but the mysteriousness of how these work – why one schoolchild becomes a killer in the Middle East and another a blameless engineer or care worker – ought to make us wary of thinking that the rejection of love is something only found in people who are Not Like Us. If we don’t know why someone becomes a psychotic murderer, we are accepting that the processes of the inner life are very dark to us and that this darkness clouds our self-understanding as it does our understanding of others. Judas does an evil thing and is to be held accountable for it. It is not a destiny forced on him. Yet we must also say that Judas does an evil thing and we have no idea why – and we have to recognise that we must go on thinking as hard as we can about what moves people to evil.
Peter Oborne on the Blair behind the mask
Peter Oborne examines the real Tony Blair in his review of Blair Inc, a new book by Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan that explains how the former prime minister has made a fortune since retiring from office:
British prime ministers – think of Attlee, Macmillan, Eden, Douglas-Home, Wilson – used to take the values of the public sphere with them into retirement. They might produce a volume of memoirs and a book or two. The idea of making serious money out of being a former premier was unthinkable. This changed with Edward Heath, who developed an unsavoury yet profitable connection with the Chinese government. Margaret Thatcher earned handsome fees from speeches, while John Major has profited from his connection with the Bush family and the Carlyle Group.
But Tony Blair has made a fortune.
Oborne explains how Blair, according to the authors of the book, “abused” his post as an envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East, simultaneously advising Middle Eastern dictators. He concludes:
This book does not pin down how much money Blair has made. He insists it is no more than £20m; the authors speculate on £60m. I would guess that it’s rather more than that.
All this makes for gloomy reading. It is an illustration of David Marquand’s thesis about the collapse of the public domain. Again and again, Blair and those like him have seized public goods and used them for private gain. Something has gone wrong with our national life and the sad story of Tony Blair helps to illustrate the scale of the problem.
Jonathan Ross: How Marvel’s universe of strange, flawed, streetwise superheroes conquered our own
Jonathan Ross remembers his life through the comics he grew up with as he reviews Roy Thomas’s 75 Years of Marvel Comics:
All the best comic books have an origin story. It tells you how the protagonist became who they are, sketching in the traumas that ultimately define what kind of hero or villain they would be. Batman saw his mum and dad gunned down in a backstreet mugging. Superman was sent hurtling through space by his devoted parents as his home planet imploded, becoming, for a time at least, the sole survivor of an entire species. The Hulk was a scientist who exposed himself to the lethal force of his own invention – the “gamma bomb” – to save a half-witted teen who had ignored the warning signs for a bet. Peter Parker, better known as Spider-Man, started out using his powers, an unwelcome gift from a radioactive bug, for personal gain. He couldn’t be bothered to stop a petty thief, thus becoming the architect of his own tragic narrative when that same crook murdered Peter’s surrogate father, Uncle Ben, forcing the young web-spinner to embark on a life of thrill-filled crime-fighting.
Here’s my origin story: skinny, short-sighted, timid kid who doesn’t play well with others and hates sport discovers a beaten-up copy of Fantastic Four number three and a pile of other early Marvel comic books in a junk shop. He buys them. Reads them. Loves them. And keeps buying, reading and loving them for the rest of his life.
Thomas’s book isn’t a critical history of the company: for a more in-depth, less partisan history of the industry, I recommend Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones. But if you’re looking for a joyous celebration of the greatest (IMHO) comics company in the world, you won’t find a better or more lavish read. As the fan club members used to holler in the 1960s, “Make mine Marvel!”
Helen Lewis on Labour’s “embarrassing Uncle Tony”.
Will Self: Our mob mentality is like a bad orchestra – we saw away at the same tunes and ignore the racket.
Peter Hoare: Nature writers are seeking to restore a rich, neglected vocabulary – but words can tame as well as illuminate the land.
Michael Brooks on the neuroscience of Jeremy Clarkson.
First Thoughts: Peter Wilby on George’s not-so-marvellous medicine.