The General Election for which UK voters are preparing themselves — and with such unexpected relish — could well be the last occasion of this type.
I am hardly predicting the end of parliamentary democracy in Britain, for all that its prospects have rarely looked shakier since the 1930s. But it is as sure as anything political can be that if Labour staggers back into office — with the help of the Liberal Democrats — that event will mark the end of voting as Britons have known it.
Among the few items in Gordon Brown’s manifesto that resemble new ideas is the promise of a referendum to replace first-past-the-post elections with something akin to Australia’s system of preferential voting
So here it is. The sacred beast of British politics — dictatorship by electoral minority — looks like being on the way out, after decades of providing Westminster-style administration its unique efficacy. On the recent record of course, maintaining such traditional swank would outdo the Vatican, so something had to go: whether imported Australiana will provide an appropriate fix is anybody’s guess. (And we’ll see how the migration of point-based immigration policy works over there too.)
But overall, it’s the tentative quality of Labour’s campaign that has been striking. The cover of the campaign manifesto, titled A Future Fair For All, depicts a nuclear family against a world-class sunrise — but inside, there’s precious little to read about how to disperse the current economic gloom.
Labour likes to see mutual businesses rejuvenating earth scorched by capitalist delinquency — and Britain still does have certain brilliant mutuals like the John Lewis Partnership and the Nationwide Building Society. But their leaders must be smiling wryly. When they defended their firms against ruthless carpet-bagging Labour was busy cuddling the City. Numerous mutuals were morphed into speculative dodgem cars — most spectacularly Northern Rock, where the big crash began — and the sector’s present task is rebuilding itself rather than the nation.
Still, transferable ballots and a splash of mutual-worship don’t pose an intrinsic threat to democracy.
Things may be otherwise with the Tories. Their manifesto bears the grandiose title, An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain. Mostly it is a mass of nonsense — and yes, the Tories are glorifying mutualism too — which anticipates multitudinous citizen-volunteers assuming the burden of public administration. David Cameron may believe parts of this.
The real campaign though is driven by the visible belief held by the Tories and their friends that the good-times machine must be got back on the road. They see few flaws in the magic chariot Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and friends rolled out three decades back — except maybe, it now needs to be driven with the pedal harder down.
The chariot of neoliberalism has many designers — but chief is the late Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist whose volume The Constitution of Liberty was insistently brandished by Thatcher.
One of the reasons this book has so effectively shielded neoliberalism from its critics is the tedium it imposes — which prevents most readers reaching its depths of pagan goofiness. My favourite item is Hayek’s argument of principle against government action of any kind — quite distinct from the bar-bore’s moan about government incompetence. What Hayek dreads is governments doing something effective: for that might stop private agents pressing on towards perfections as yet unknown. "If there is one thing characteristic of the Christian world", wrote the philosopher R G Collingwood in 1942, "it is the habit (which the ancients never acquired) of doing now, whether in politics or in science, what has to be done now, and leaving other things for another time".
One need not accept the religion to accept its lesson about doing what is needed — and about leaving perfection to the future. (Think too of the SEC officials suing Goldman Sachs for fraud: they clearly doubt that the ultimate refinements of credit-swapping can really be God’s work.)
Some Marxists have shared neoliberalism’s lofty ambition for humanity, and also an authoritarian bottom line. Neither will accept failures of theory: any social disarray generated must be transient, requiring only prompt suppression, as in Chile’s salutary instance.
If we’re honest, we know rather little about how the modern world’s core societies — Britain, the US, France, Australia and so on — actually work. What’s clear is their astonishing stability and resilience. Back in the days of monetarism — remember monetarism? — J K Galbraith said economics had reached such a state that this crackpot notion had to be tested somewhere. Best, he thought, that it should autodestruct within British society which was robust enough to sustain the damage. And give or take some riots and a few million lives blighted by unemployment, that’s how things went.
But Galbraith’s principle runs now to treating the entire west and its associate territories as an adventure playground for syndicates of greedy twerps and of promoting near-death experiences for the financial system. Somehow arresting this dance of death is what this election is all about.
It’s best to dismiss fables about modern finance being intellectually sophisticated. Before writing about it I had to get huge amounts of mathematical help. Practical inquiry, however, showed that bankers needed it more — and that they never bothered. They hired battalions of fine mathematicians, but firmly ignored any advice apt to cloud the speculative moment. (And the technology was there to let governments imagine risk was distributed, when it was actually being concentrated.)
Equivalent wilful ignorance now fuels a ranting Tory campaign which asserts that spending cuts must come. Why? To pre-empt inflation and to clear the way for a fresh charge into the unknown. The state’s claim on GDP, says British entrepreneur Luke Johnson, has risen from about 38 per cent in 1997 to perhaps 52 per cent today. Funding this vast amount of public largesse means the UK borrows 25 per cent of all its state spending. Clearly the country is living beyond its means …?
Ahem, no. There’s no public spending explosion, as Martin Wolf pointed out recently in the Financial Times: this year’s spending will be up 2.2 per cent on projections made two years ago. The huge, though manageable deficit comes from the crash having cut nominal GDP by 9.3 per cent and tax revenue by 18.1 per cent. With luck, good judgment and much working-class pain, Britain — like America — can probably get back into modest growth, and some day regain its fiscal poise.
But a slash-and-charge program has every chance of plonking fresh catastrophe on top of that just barely past. Even the stoic Brits might revolt rather than put up with spending cuts as the passing cost of liberties yet to be supplied. No major European society has encountered such an inflexion-point since 1945. British Tories might have to decide whether they agree with Hayek that neoliberalism should readily meet dissent with authoritarian violence.
Better if the voters deny them a chance to find out. Present polls suggest few are inclined to: roughly 56 per cent are anti-Tory (say Labour 28, Lib-Dem 29). The Tories have 31 per cent. They would be toast without first-past-the-post. But for this election, it’s still there.
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