Tag Archives: Conservative Party

Cocaine Socialism: UK’s Richest Constituency ‘Shows Insane Levels of Empathy’!

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#GeneralElection17 Latest: Is 2017 the New 1997?

As regular readers of this blog will by now doubtless be aware of, while we at Mediolana devote a fair amount of space to covering political developments across the globe, we tend to confine ourselves to observations on the bigger picture: the global financial crisis; the Arab Spring; the rise of China, the BRICS/BRICIS and the emerging markets – in short, the macro trends which matter. We do not usually take too much notice of ‘routine’ elections in relatively stable European democracies unless there is something about them which is truly worthy of comment – and this year’s parliamentary contest in the United Kingdom is exactly that, and not for the reasons that you might imagine.

Forests have been felled in noting the sharp demarcation between the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – and their respective leaders, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn; moreover, this observation is indubitably accurate. Voters are being offered a choice between a low(ish) tax pseudo police state with seemingly sub-sexual sadist tendencies and a high(er) tax ‘retro’ social democracy with shades of the Second Coming – and given the general public’s recent proclivity for engendering erratic electoral outcomes, all bets are off as to what they might end up choosing.

But after some contemplation, we think that there are three deeper reasons why this particular election is worth analysing:

  1. Austerity question marks. The electoral discourse has revealed a profound disillusionment with the austerity status quo – and frankly, this is understandable. The 2007- global financial crisis was an historic opportunity to transition advanced economies to a more sustainable financial and ecological architecture by increasing the price of money and reallocating the many trillions of dollars spent on counterproductive wars to social spending and sovereign wealth funds. Instead, indiscriminate, cruel and in fact literally fatal squeezes on essential public services have been imposed with no sign at all of any concomitant debt reduction; this is now in the process of being rejected in the UK.
  2. Establishment disenchantment. The sheer cynicism and lack of deference – at least on the part of the broader public – towards such institutions as the ruling party, the prime minister and even so-called ‘deep state’ entities has been extremely apparent; interestingly, the two bizarre and tragic terrorist episodes that have happened during the election campaign seem only to have intensified this distancing when precisely the opposite effect would have been observed in decades past. And one of the few things that could remedy this – a decisive economic upturn which is felt by the majority of the citizenry – does not appear to be on the cards anytime soon.
  3. Professional angst. The eerily unequal and arguably inequitable British economy seems to have stung public sector workers into a level of political awareness and organisation not seen thus far in the twenty-first century: teachers, nurses, doctors and university lecturers have suddenly (re)discovered a sense of class consciousness, with a stunning 54% of the final group expressing a preference for the Labour Party in a recent Times Educational Supplement poll. Again, if they do not see a significant improvement in their slice of the fiscal pie, this kind of discontent has the power to shift the electoral – and ultimately the societal – landscape far beyond what might or might not happen later today.

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Back in the Shire: United Kingdom Enters Brave New Era of #Hyperausterity!

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Margaret Hilda Thatcher: The Last Social Democrat?

Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 11.49.07Contemporary audiences with no memory of the 1980s might associate the nickname ‘Iron Lady’ with a world volleyball icon rather than a Cold War politician, but for anyone with recollections of that decade – particularly those raised in the United Kingdom – one association for that epithet towers above all others: Margaret Thatcher, the nation’s prime minister for no less than an historic eleven years (1979-1990).

Thatcher is characterised by many – and not merely her ideological enemies – as having smashed the post-war consensus that defined the UK in the post-1945 period. Through her championing of monetarism and her emphasis on the individual and the family (as opposed to a purportedly ‘extinct’ society), the iconic Conservative leader bulldozed the existing social contract and created a harsher and more anomic Britain defined by relentless competition bordering on social Darwinism.

This thesis is a seductive one; when reading of free school milk programmes now enjoyed by children in emerging markets, or of privatisation programmes with results other than merely making the already-wealthy into neo-feudal lords in helicopters, it is tempting to conclude that Mrs. Thatcher really did change Britain beyond recognition – and not always for the better.

But taking the Really Long View, we at Mediolana wonder whether a decade plus of handbag-themed politics at 10 Downing Street was actually as radical as the political science textbooks (and not a few commentators) would have us believe:

1. Thatcherism = Reaganomics? When Thatcher’s reign came to an end on that memorable late November evening in 1990, Britain was a country where university education was not merely free, but where students’ cost of living was significantly subsidised by annual free gifts of money in the thousands of pounds. The idea that the United Kingdom would somehow wish to emulate the USA’s higher education model – now transmogrifying into a seriously ominous economic bubble – was not even a glint in a policymaker’s eye.

2. Relentless Monetarism? Mrs. Thatcher famously averred that she was not for changing course, but this is actually precisely what her administration did in the mid-1980s when faced with the stark reality that velocity theories of money, like Keynesianism before them, were not quite the panacea that was initially anticipated.

3. The State Will Wither Away? As Mark Mazower (presently Professor of History at Columbia University) drily notes in Dark Continent – his epic history of twentieth century Europe – the proportion of the UK’s economy under state auspices was almost identical at either end of the Thatcher era. It could have been even higher had Britain’s North Sea oil boom been invested in a Norway- or Qatar-style sovereign wealth fund instead of being frittered away on higher social security costs which were (with no little irony) due to the structural unemployment created by the monetarist fad.

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Celebrating An Own-Goal: UK Government ‘In Raptures’ Over Net Immigration Decline!

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The 2012 London Mayoral Contest: An Election About Nothing?

Perhaps owing to our status as a Kensington-based company, we have been repeatedly asked our opinion on the imminent elections for the post of Mayor of London, a position that – contrary to the expectations of many commentators – has taken on an increasingly high profile, not least owing to the fact that the incumbent is answerable to a constituency of over 7.5 million people which constitutes one of the world’s most dynamic conurbations.

Yet try as we might, we at Mediolana are struggling to get excited about an election which, at least in theory, should be one of the most thrilling political contests anywhere in global politics: a battle for representing and serving a city with neighbourhoods of almost every socio-economic profile imaginable within the developed world; a location where more than three hundred languages are spoken; one of a handful of genuine world metropolises.

Having surveyed the small mountain of multicoloured policy-filled literature that has dropped through our letterboxes during the last few weeks, we have concluded that there are a number of reasons that make the 2012 London mayoral election one to forget:

1. Lack of Ambition. The Conservative incumbent – one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (‘Boris Johnson’, ‘Bo-Jo’) – has some good ideas for what would be his second term in office, but they are disappointingly small in scale. His proposal to plant 20,000 trees on London’s streets is a noble notion, but considering that a city such as Istanbul – comparable in size to the UK’s capital, but with a smaller GDP – counts new saplings in the millions rather than the thousands, one is left wondering whether Johnson is really aware of the strides that are possible in this regard. Similarly, the current mayor has commissioned a truly outstanding ‘New Routemaster’ bus, yet has promised to roll just 600 of these out over the next four years, meaning that even in 2016 the NBL-type double-decker would comprise less than 10% of London’s bus fleet.

2. Lack of Ideas. Johnson’s only real electoral rival is Ken Livingstone, back in the Labour Party fold since January 2004 having won his first of two terms (2000-2004) as a maverick candidate outside the scope of a party machine. Staring at his campaign pamphlets, we wondered to ourselves: is this really the same man who once introduced visionary policies on transportation and air quality? The basic thrust of Livingstone’s campaign appears to be a series of virtually inconsequential financial subsidies: a 7% public transport fares reduction in a settlement where the price of a single bus journey starts at £1.30 is hardly pulsating; the restoration of a £30/week education grant, while welcome, is far from material.

3. Lack of Awareness. One thing that pretty much all the candidates – regardless of political hue – seem to share is their apparent blissful ignorance of the issues that preoccupy Londoners on a daily basis and which, if addressed, could make a real difference to the quality of life for millions of people. Twenty-four percent of Londoners would like to use a bike but refrain from doing so out of fear of getting squashed to death, yet we have heard no proposal for a Copenhagen-style network of segregated bikeways; vast swathes of the city are architecturally and socially conducive to riots, but the need for redeveloping these areas is scarcely touched on; and in an era where re-shoring is beginning to enter the economic lexicon, any initiatives to make London a hub for light industrial manufacturing capacity (and less reliant on the volatile and largely insolvent financial services sector) have passed us by. Roll on 2016?

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The Big Society: can it work?

The Big Society was the grand plank of the Conservative Party manifesto for the United Kingdom general election of 2010, and it has become part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. Proposed laws incorporating parts of the program have been introduced in Parliament. But what is the Big Society? Can it work? And if not, then how could it be made workable?

A good place to begin an examination of this concept is Conservative leader David Cameron’s November 2009 Hugo Young Lecture where he expounded upon the idea in considerable detail. Essentially, Cameron believes that through a combination of political decentralisation and subsidiarity, greater transparency and increased accountability, the general public can have greater power vis à vis  the services they use, better determine how their tax monies are spent, and shape how their local area is run. The state will focus on giving support to social entrepreneurs – one of the main purposes of the Big Society Bank, which had secured £200m in funding at the time of writing – and community activists, and on somehow prompting ‘a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation’ in the rest of the population. All this is towards the purported aim of eradicating poverty and producing a fairer Britain.

So much for the theory, but can it work in practice? As things stand, this appears uncertain. While few would argue against more devolvement and openness, the relegation of the state to a cheerleader role in accomplishing this end is unpromising. The more active purposes still reserved for state intervention are either remarkably modest in ambition, or alternatively so gargantuan and diffuse that it is hard to see how a government initiative could fulfil them, something that Cameron himself seems to acknowledge in his speech.

However, this is not to say that the Big Society is irremediable – provided, that is, the state applies some imagination and funding in the following areas:

1. Education. Cameron places great emphasis on education as a means of reducing poverty and increasing equality of opportunity and outcome, but in his speech there is barely an allusion to the appalling educational standards that blight very significant chunks of British society. The United Kingdom is a country in which functional illiteracy is a genuine problem and where the percentage of students gaining five grades A*-C at GCSE is around 50%; a similar proportion leave school without a basic science qualification, and around 70% do not attain a grade C or higher in a foreign language. Much more attention should be focused on forestalling this mind-altering waste of talent.

2. Transportation Infrastructure. Investment in transportation infrastructure is a sine qua non for engendering and maintaining a society in which the constituent parts feel connected. While some parts of the UK’s travel infrastructure – particularly its airports – are in many ways exemplars, other parts, particularly the country’s railways, are less good than comparable systems in many emerging markets, let alone developed countries.

3. Taxation. Another non-negotiable in putting flesh on the bones of the Big Society is the reform of tax legislation. In particular, there must be much stricter laws – and very public criminal prosecution of those that break them – pertaining to tax avoidance and evasion by the wealthy, since these all too routine practices are severely subverting many people’s belief that there is such a thing as society at all; furthermore, the UK’s tax base is being pulverised by the failure of some of the wealthiest people in the country to pay their way.

4. Public Space. There is no escaping the fact that there is nothing like great public spaces – well-maintained parks, fountains, playgrounds and pedestrian zones – to help create the feeling of community that Cameron so evidently desires.

5. Family. If families are the building blocks of communities and therefore society, then are moderate tax breaks really the best we can do for them? In Singapore, the government helps create them through running a dating agency, the Social Development Unit. This specific measure may run into some cultural logjams in the UK, but the importance of considering alternative ways of thinking about these issues should not be underestimated.

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