Forward to the past! By William Bowles

8 October 2004

I suppose it’s not so strange really but the more the status quo crumbles, the more the British state retreats into its imperial past – with the help of the state-run media. Nothing could typify this better than the BBC’s coverage of the Tory Party conference this week. For a moment I thought I’d gotten a free ride on HG Well’s time machine, when during BBC 2’s coverage of the conference on 6/10/04, three virtually geriatric former members of her majesty’s armed forces were exhumed for their views on the Tories desperate attempts to recapture the ground appropriated by the Labour government by asking them what they thought of Labour’s policy vis our armed forces.

Amongst their comments we heard that it was time to reintroduce conscription (with a not so veiled reference to the ‘ungrateful’ nature of today’s youth but with the proviso that it should only be six months instead of two years so it didn’t interfere with their building a career) and that members of the armed forces need to be sent overseas for a period (where have these throwbacks been for the past 18 months?). More’s the pity of course that we no longer have the empire to ‘police’ where the loyal soldiers of the crown could get first hand experience at keeping the ‘natives’ in their rightful place.

That these antediluvian views get serious consideration in the 21st century just goes to show how bad things have gotten, yet when taken along with all the other examples – revisionist versions of colonialism, eg Niall Ferguson’s ‘history’ of the British Empire, the idea that imperialism is really not such a bad idea – a definite ‘trend’ has emerged. Taken in its totality, that is along with the predictable ‘law ‘n order’, immigrants and anti-European motifs, it really does seem that this country of ours is moving forward into the past at a rapid rate of knots.

Yet of course it is precisely because things have changed so drastically, that these views are once more being used by the mass media on behalf of the state, for it’s the total loss of legitimacy on the part of the state and the need to re-establish it that motivates these revanchist views to once more find a platform. And it’s doing it by appealing to the most conservative elements of our decrepit society by invoking fictitious images of a glorious past.

One gets a picture of tweed-jacketed nerds dug out of some forgotten mausoleum of media mediocrity deep in the bowels of Broadcasting House and given the job of reinventing our ‘great and glorious’ imperial past. That this media mafia still controls public broadcasting is a testament to the power the middle class professionals wield, smug in their assumptions about the world. The question is, does anybody take it seriously with its ‘Colonel Blimp’ connotations, but then consider how the BBC gets all sloppy over that other relic of the past, the Royal family to the point where it still retains a ‘Royal correspondent’.

Yet the subtext is pervasive, the enduring nature of ‘Britishness’ whatever that is, the infuriating ‘reasonableness’ of it all. All an illusion of course but one honed over the years to the point that it is now accepted as a complete replacement for reality and as importantly, the people who create it actually do live inside it and assume the rest of us will go along with what amounts to a ‘reality’ TV show on a grand scale.

Unfortunately for the Tories (and the BBC), the demographic (not to mention political) landscape has changed beyond all recognition. The core of Tory support; over fifty, white males that along with ‘aspiring’ sections of the working class that brought Thatcher to power is no more. All that’s left of their former support are either the most reactionary elements many of whom have been captured by UKIP/BNP and the retired living off their pensions in Bournemouth and Basingstoke. Effectively then, the Tory Party really is surplus to requirement and its response this week has been as the Independent put it, a “lurch to the right” (6/10/04) but will this help them when Home secretary Blunkett has taken the all the wind out of their sails?

Most importantly, what does it indicate for a Left alternative and in the current climate is there a Left constituency or at least a significant section of the populace willing to trust a Left alternative should one appear on the horizon?

At the moment, the only mainstream party willing to countenance anything remotely left of the Labour government is the Liberal Democrats and they have been in two minds about it even though a move to the right was defeated at their conference two weeks ago.

The current mood would seem to indicate that aside from the fringe right and the solid centre right who support the Labour Party, it’s a ‘plague on all your houses’ as far as the electorate are concerned, a position that Blair and co are only too happy about, for they know that they have nothing to fear from a discredited Tory Party (they’ll never be forgiven for the universally hated poll tax) and it’s unlikely that the Liberal Democrats can present a serious challenge at next year’s elections. At best, it’s conceivable that the Lib Dems could become the ‘loyal opposition’ in the next parliament.

What does this tell us about the ‘state of play’ in the current political and economic climate? The key sector of the working people are the public employees who along with virtually every country in the world constitute the majority of organised workers. Along with the transport and communication workers at the Labour Party conference, they capitulated to Blair over Iraq, in return for what is not clear though I suspect it’s a deal over (further) privatisation and layoffs in the public sector and an appeal for unity to keep out the Tories at the next election. Hence as far as the representatives of the organised working class are concerned, it’s ‘business as usual’ although it has to be said, that in order to swing the deal, the union leadership had to ignore the clear wishes (and votes) of their members.

What could upset the applecart is the consumer credit debt as it’s consumer spending that’s produced the largely illusory strength of the British economy. In fact consumer spending is the single biggest component of the GDP. The rising interest rates have already impacted on the booming housing market with a 10% fall in mortgages taken out with banks recorded in one month. All it will take to produce a slump is a fall in consumer spending. The entire process exists on a knife edge as it depends on consumer confidence that their credit debts won’t spiral out of control. Should the public stop using their credit cards then one can expect negative feedback to kick in and possibly defaults on house payments. Well we’ve been there before…it’s a fragile construction and easily toppled and along with it, the carefully crafted illusions of New Labour.

In sum then, it would seem that there are two almost mutually exclusive strands to political life in the UK. On the one hand, a goodly percentage of the populace are thoroughly disenchanted with the political establishment, viewing them quite rightly as a lying bunch of opportunist bastards but on the other, still thoroughly addicted to the consumer culture and hence unwilling to alter the status quo lest it disturbs their comfortable if indebted lifestyle. As always, it would seem that it will be external events that determine the direction of imperial England.

The critical issue is the response of the Left. So far it is fair to say that it has been abysmal in the extreme, typified for example by the opportunist line of George Galloway’s ‘Respect’ party that is pinning its hopes on appealing to the ‘Muslim’ community in select locations across the UK but deliberately avoiding the ‘difficult’ questions such as immigration, Europe and the far more challenging issue of developing a genuine socialist alternative that requires a leap of the imagination that embraces something larger than some illusory ‘return’ to a thoroughly discredited and unworkable ‘liberal democracy’ masquerading as socialism, that in large measure contributed to the creation of the current state of affairs.

Elsewhere I have suggested some of the central themes that a newly invigorated socialist movement needs that courageously embraces solidarity with the poor of the world, the challenge of the environmental crisis we face and that also challenges the entire idea of ‘progress’ as a never-ending stream of consumerism that is dependent on pauperising the rest of the planet.

Many of the signs are all around us including a deep dissatisfaction with a life without real purpose; a sense that what is missing is a feeling of belonging that is larger than our private and alienated existence. So rather than a return to a fictional past of imperial glory which is all the political establishment can offer, we can reconnect with a communality of interests that is clearly global in scope and yet also intensely local. Is it beyond our intellectual powers to envisage what such a programme should consist of?

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