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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Contemporary 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.