Politicians of the ‘centre ground’ have led us to the brink of catastrophe
The era of moderate politicians is at an end. Right across Europe many people who grew up on a diet of consumerism and political cynicism are beginning to shake-off apathy and re-engage. As a consequence, from the Élysée Palace to the so-called “cradle of democracy”, the people of Europe are starting to rediscover the radical possibilities of the ballot box.
In Britain things remain relatively quiet. The £10-a-drink cocktail bars in the shadow of Canary Wharf are not stalked by fears of a socialist politician promising to tax the rich until the pips squeak. Nor is there any prospect of the extremities of left or right breaking through significantly at the next election. Judging by the turnout at last month’s local elections (turnout was 32 per cent, the lowest since 2000), people remain about as uninspired as ever.
Not that this is anything new of course. The formative years of my generation – those born in the eras of Thatcher, Major and Blair – were spent against a backdrop of increasing prosperity and declining political engagement. Whichever party you put a cross next to on the ballot paper it seemed like the outcome was always the same – a predictable set of policies within increasingly narrow confines. With more money in our pockets, or at least the illusion of it, many people started to drift away from the political process entirely. In an era of cheap credit and even cheaper materialism, those who did register to vote often did so for no other reason than the prospect of an improved credit rating. The citizenship of past generations was replaced, to an extent at least, by a generation of pushy consumers who identified not with political parties but with brands.
Even the political left accepted the politics of moderation in its own way, ditching the idea of class solidarity in favour of touchy-feely tropes about individuality and identity. Radical political groups began to draw up shopping lists of the hot issues they could campaign on and talked about the rights of small sections of the population while ignoring the problems facing the wider community. To be left was to be parochial in one’s concerns. Because ideas that might compete with liberal capitalism failed to attract mass audiences, front organisations sprang up which drew members of the public to causes of a more palatable nature. Contrary to common wisdom on the left, the British people didn’t spurn radical politics because of a hostile and conspiratorial media; they did so because they had money in their pockets and were under the strong impression things were going to stay that way. It was therefore left to radicals to attract support by convincing the wider public that they too were sufficiently versed in the politics of moderation.
And then Lehman Brothers collapsed. Cheap credit dried up and people were thrown out of work by the bosses of companies they had until that point viewed as benevolent and kind-hearted pillars of their local community. The grand proclamations of an “end of history” made by certain academics began to look like bombastic wish-thinking.
And yet in the aftermath of the crisis party politics remained largely unchanged, and the election across Europe of governments committed to austerity betrayed a feeling that a few years of belt-tightening would give way to a swift return to prosperity. Interestingly, the newly triumphant politicians of the centre-right looked not to the depression of the 1930s for lessons in dealing with the financial crisis, but to the 1980s – their formative political years – and sought to push-back the state in a way their political role-models had done a generation before.
One of the consequences is that Europeans are now beginning to understand what happens to living standards when economies are starved of money during economic contraction. Recognising that things are not getting any better, people have begun to punish with unpredictable consequences those parties that have been advocating austerity the most enthusiastically. In Greece, a neo-Nazi party has entered parliament and it looks increasingly likely that a leftist coalition will come out on top in the re-run of elections next week. This would make a Greek default and corresponding exit from the Eurozone a near certainty. If one country departs, other weak countries could follow, leading to the complete break-up of the Eurozone. In September of last year, economists at UBS published research on the potential consequences of the Eurozone falling apart. Monetary union break-ups, the paper warned, rarely occur without mass civil disobedience and even civil war. A Greek exit from the Eurozone might also trigger a run on British banks; and Alistair Darling, the pragmatic figure who bailed out the banks in 2008, has been replaced at the treasury by George Osborne, a man who at the time of the 2008 crash was willing to let the banks (and the savings of their customers) go to the wall.
Anyone who has ever been politically active will have heard it said at some point that they are “too political”; the underlying assumption being that in the 21st century politics is not something one needs to concern oneself with. Tony Blair, perhaps the most well-known political embodiment of the idea that what matters is what works, enunciated this way of thinking in a speech to students at the University of Singapore last year. “We live in a post-ideological era of government,” Mr Blair told the audience. Before adding that the “fundamental political divide between left and right is a phenomenon of the 20th century.”
What a tragic irony it is then, that we should be led so close to the economic brink, and perhaps in a very short space of time over it, by a generation of politicians and voters (after all, it is us who elect our representatives) whose hollowed out, non-ideological politics betrayed a belief that the major political questions of the day had already been resolved. As anyone even slightly switched on will have figured out by now, post-ideological politics has an ideology all of its own: one which at present is embodied by our elected representatives slashing living standards across Europe in order to placate a financial monster they can no longer control.
The era of moderate politicians is at an end, and as a consequence so is the complacent notion that it is possible to stay out of politics. “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia,” as Orwell once said. Leaders who previously put their faith in a certain type of economic system and claimed this as an expression of their moderacy didn’t know everything and as a result it turns out they didn’t really know anything. As for the rest of us, perhaps all we can really do now is wait for the economic and political storm to hit.
Follow James on Twitter: @obligedtooffendTagged in: banks, election, eurozone, george osborne, greece, politics, tony blair
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