Saturday, 15 March 2014

I'm Definitely Not All Right, Jack

The fulsome eulogies to Bob Crow and Tony Benn should remind us of two things: that politics in Britain is dominated by personalities, and that its participants consider it a game in which both sides can shake hands and indulge in mutual admiration at the final whistle. These are two sides of the same coin: the engineered narrowing of the spectrum of the "possible" and the consequent need to amplify differences in style and tone to fill the void. Many blame the media for this "trivialisation", but this is ahistorical (consider the exploitation of image by Gladstone and Disraeli) and a distraction from the managerialist turn during the neoliberal era (do you have an idea where Bob Ford of Toronto stands on the political spectrum, any more than you do José Manuel Barroso?)

Benn famously insisted that politics should be about policies, or "issues", rather than personalities, but gave the lie to this by repeatedly putting his own ego (loosely camouflaged as "principles") ahead of pragmatism. He was a Cavalier, not a Roundhead, let alone a Leveller. His only substantive achievement was to allow hereditary peers to "step down" and become MPs. Concorde would still have happened without him, as would the constitutional turmoil within Labour. The exhaustion of social democracy, the structural decline of Labourism, and the advance of the fissiparous New Left were the products of wider economic and social forces. His diaries will remain a fascinating resource for historians and wannabe politicians, but they are also a monument to narcissism. Richard Crossman's diaries will probably stand the test of time better - even if they are no more reliable, their entertaining style suggests a greater shrewdness.

Though he held his views sincerely, during the 60s as much as the 80s, Benn's essentially antique worldview was that of the Liberal Edwardian upper class that moulded his family: a romantic view of sovereignty and Parliament, a commitment to public service (he would have made a fine viceroy), and a schoolboy crush on the salt of the earth workers, both ancient and modern. There wasn't a cynical bone in his body, which was perhaps his major flaw. He needed to be less Ian Carmichael and more Terry Thomas. As he got older, and left the drama-queenery behind, he came more and more to resemble an eccentric vicar (I can't help but recall the lefty rev in John Mortimer's Paradise Postponed). There was much truth in Harold Wilson's crack that he immatured with age, proceeding from the whizz-bangery of his youth, via a sentimental evocation of the history of the Labour movement, all the way back to a nostalgia for the seventeenth century. He was in many ways an iconic New Elizabethan: collectivism, cosy comforts and jet engines.

Unlike Benn, Bob Crow had few illusions about Parliament and the Labour Party. The Tory reaction to his death (reflecting the consensus view of the political class) seems to have surprised some people, despite the obvious condescension in praising a man who "stayed true to his roots", "fought his corner", "loved Millwall" etc. The real reason for the warmth is simple nostalgia for the certainties of the 70s. For all Crow's actual pragmatism and moderation (an adept negotiator and moderniser behind closed doors), he was willing to play up to the public role of a latterday Fred Kite. The reason Boris Johnson always refused to meet him is simply that Johnson is incompetent and Crow would have run rings round him. Unlike the mayor, the RMT leader had substance behind the media persona.

The key point about Bob Crow was that he was atypical of the union movement as a whole - not because of any personal genius or style, but simply because the RMT found itself in the fortunate position that London became ever more dependent on a functioning Tube system as the population ballooned over the last 25 years. The wider reality of "union power" over the period is that it has been noticeable more by its absence than its exercise, and by its defeats than its victories. Grangemouth last October was more typical than the day of action on the Tube in February. The RMT is a godsend to the Tories because it preserves the image of a militant union exerting leverage, even though the actual level of disruption through industrial action is slight. If it hadn't existed, they would probably have invented it, like so much British "heritage".

Since the mid-70s, the dominant narrative has been that economic stagnation was the result of over-mighty labour (with a sub-trope of malign "barons" misleading the rank and file) and that inflation was the product of escalating wage demands and poor productivity. In fact, the decline in profitability (which "stagnation" was the euphemism for) was the paradoxical product of increased productivity (which led to tighter margins due to over-capacity) and technology-enabled globalisation (which gave a leg-up to lower-cost manufacturers in the developing world). Double-digit inflation, the other half of the "stagflation" double-bind, was a product of the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, with the former having the more dramatic effect because of the economy's greater initial vulnerability (it took till 1977 to get this under control, not because of union militancy but because of the time taken to lessen dependency, plus by 1979 we had the offsetting advantage of North Sea oil tax revenues).

You don't have to believe this interpretation, but consider: after the miners' strike knocked the stuffing out of the union movement, and the Lawson boom saw the return of "confidence", you would have expected the new conditions demanded by capital (primarily low taxes and low wage growth), to have led to strong GDP growth, particularly as aggregate demand was maintained through growing household debt. In fact, growth has been slower since the 80s than it was in the 1945-73 period, and we've had the added bonus of market turbulence due to financial deregulation and asset bubbles. The salient point is that growth has been weaker than the narrative ("disempower unions and we will flourish") promised. It is possible to explain this as the product of globalisation (i.e. a relative decline of the West that would have been worse but for the countervailing impact of heroic free market dynamism), but this only reinforces the conclusion that stagnation is not (and never was) the product of union militancy.

The narrative changed focus in the Major years: poor growth and stagnant wages were the result of labour market inflexibility and inadequate skills (i.e. the fault lies in us, not in our capitalist stars). This became the mantra of New Labour as much as the Tories. Again, this has been proven wrong: trend growth has remained weak and a lot of it has been fictitious (e.g. property speculation), despite the UK labour market being one of the most flexible in the developed world and our educational performance being no worse than average (contrary to the relentless anti-state school propaganda - and that's without questioning the assumed causal link: Japan has been getting top marks throughout 20 years of economic stagnation).

Though the hard of thinking may see the passing of Bob Crow and Tony Benn as the "death of socialism", it may actually mark the point at which the narrative starts to unravel (the threads were obviously loosened in 2008). Admitting that the modern bogeyman was actually a pragmatic and effective executive, and that the bogeyman of the 80s was a fine old patriot, may just prompt people to ask whether we have been distracted by paper tigers all along.

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