Sunday, May 04, 2014

We are a decent people–don't let the extremists persuade you not to be


The toughest peacetime era in Britain in modern times was surely the immediate post war years - and yet it was probably the time of greatest unity and achievement. The population demanded change in the vote of confidence they gave to Clement Attlee and Labour in 1945. The creation of the Welfare State was an astonishing victory over vested interests - the doctors, the mine owners and the like. And on the foreign stage the withdrawal from Empire was kicked off at this time, starting of course with India. Whilst there was opposition in Parliament from the Conservatives to this revolution, and to some extent in the Shires, in the main there was an acceptance that Labour was doing what they had said they would do and for which they had a mandate.

Roll forward to today and the situation could not be more different. Living standards are immeasurably higher than they were 60 years ago and virtually ever indicator shows that life is better for most people. We live longer, have better healthcare, better and longer holidays, safer work environments, greater equality and tolerance of those who are different - and so on. The privations that most Britons had to face in those post war years - rationing, shortages and real austerity would be unthinkable today. And yet today the disillusionment with political leaders and with what are commonly seen as defective governance processes has never been higher. And this leads to a seeking for scapegoats that would have been alien to the post war generation.

Have we become selfish and greedy, incapable of accepting comparatively minor changes for the common good? Have we become so reliant on "entitlements" that when they are reduced or removed we complain whether it actually affects our way of life much or not? Has the Welfare State actually to some extent disincentivised us so that we look for others to provide solutions rather than accepting responsibility to find them ourselves? Have we lost the capability to work together, retreated to the silos of our family lives and withdrawn from collective voluntary actions? To some extent all these charges are true and all of these things, and more, do contribute to a palpable feeling of disconnection from political processes and to alienation.

That there are problems in modern society is of course true, but the safety net to protect the weak and the disadvantaged remains strong. So when you see the strident calls for governance changes which dominate our airwaves what are the real drivers of these calls? Why is the independence movement in Scotland so strong at a time when the actual lives of the Scottish people have arguably never been better. Why does the Anti-Europe and Anti-Immigration platform of UKIP appeal to so many? Why do a very large number of Conservatives not support a Conservative Prime Minister and a Tory-led Government - including many of their own MPs?

We are all a mixture of rational man and emotional man - the two sides of our brains. The anti-establishment imperative across our nation is almost entirely emotion driven. I'm not defending Mr Cameron nor his Government but I don't think he is so incompetent that there should be protests in the streets. Nor do I think that the measures introduced by the Coalition - in the NHS, welfare and education for example - are particularly revolutionary. I don't think that Ed Miliband is a particularly inspirational or impressive leader - he has none of the personal bravery of a Clem Attlee for example. Nor the cleverness or popular appeal of pre Iraq War Blair. But he is an intelligent and decent man and a political professional.

The opprobrium thrown at Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and the rest of the traditional party leaders it has created the open door through which Nigel Farage and his Right Wing fellow-travellers are now walking. Writing about the rise of the Right in the inter-war years in parts of continental Europe Eric Hobsbawm said

“What gave them their chance after the First World War, was the collapse of the old regimes and, with them, of the old ruling classes and their machinery of power, influence and hegemony. Where these remained in good working order, there was no need for fascism. It made no progress in Britain..the traditional Conservative Right remained in control”

Today whilst the Far Right has made some progress in some parts of Europe it is only in Britain that it is a real and present threat. Current indications are that UKIP will get at least a third of the UK’s seats in the European Parliament at the upcoming election. Much of that will be attributable to “the traditional Conservative Right” no longer being “in control”.

Whilst much of UKIP’s growth in support has been from the semi-skilled and unskilled working class cohort it remains in its leadership middle class and in its policies indistinguishable from those of the large group of Right Wingers  who have remained loyal to the Conservatives. These policies are nationalist, populist and many would say borderline racist. In other words very similar to those of the Right Wing parties that came to power in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a similar scapegoating going on as well – for Hitler it was communists and Jews – for Farage it is the EU and immigration. The nationalism is overt and simplistic

and its goals clear. As Orwell put it:

“Nationalism…is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

This is the UKIP pitch in a nutshell, though the absence of any reliable and sensible supporters at the top of his party does mean that Farage has to promote himself as the party’s face and only “credible” character (It’s relative!).

If we return to the “Rational man” / “Emotional man” argument we can see its relevance to our current dilemmas and an explainer of UKIP’s seeming success. UKIP’s populism and nationalism is, of course, an appeal to the emotions. Britain's membership of the EU is supported by all three main Party leaders, most economic analysts and overwhelmingly by the business community.  Similarly the benefits of past immigration are quantifiable and overwhelmingly positive. Rational man must reject UKIP’s blame culture and the scapegoats they have chosen – even if he shares to some extent their disaffection with the current political class! But that is not enough. But, as the psychologist Peter Noel Murray put it:

“Most people believe that the choices they make result from a rational analysis of available alternatives. In reality, however, emotions greatly influence and, in many cases, even determine our decisions.”

So what UKIP is doing with their poster campaign is to provide the “truth” (the “reason to believe” in brand terms) and at the same time pointing the finger at the political establishment who they claim is lying to you:

This type of propaganda is difficult to counter – and it’s happened before:

The Nazi newspaper “Der Sturmer” told what they claimed to be the truth whilst the vested interests, rich and powerful Jews in this case, lied to you.

It was no more true that the Jews ran Germany in 1930 than it is true that the EU runs Britain today. But, as Churchill put it:

“A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”

Things in Britain are nowhere nearly as bad as UKIP (and for that matter the Labour Party!) would like us to think they are. The positioning of Labour in the run up to the 2015 election is far from as Socialist as the Conservatives would wish to convince us it is. The social-democratic consensus is under strain, but it is far from broken and no sensible politician wants to break it. We are, and will remain, a mixed economy. We should stay a member of the EU and continue to benefit from this membership. We should remain a tolerant and pluralistic society recognising differences and not discriminating or seeking scapegoats. And whilst we may bemoan our problems – some imaginary rather than real – we should at the same time celebrate our freedoms and our mostly civilised way of life. It would not be true to say that “We've never had it so good” – though in many aspects of the way we live this is true as I said at the beginning of this piece. But let’s not let emotions rule all that we do. We are a decent people – let’s not buy the snake oil from the extremists. And for heavens sake lets get out and vote. Because they will:




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