By many accounts, there were two showstopping moments during the second debate at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum last night – both coming from the audience. The first was ‘the wee wumman’ who called out Alistair Darling for his expensive after-dinner speeches for private health companies, hoping that he felt Aneurin Bevan on his shoulder. The second was the quietly-put question: ‘If we are better together – why aren’t we better together now?’
Watching that line was like watching a bomb go off, and the effect on the audience was similar. The gentleman had a point – and he knew it was a powerful one, from his quiet smile. Let us put to one side the internal decline that we have witnessed, with 820,000 officially classified as living in poverty in Scotland last year, an increase of 110,000 on the previous year. Even in comparison with other countries in Europe on many basic financial metrics, the UK does not even compare well. The UK’s state pension (maximum £5881.20) is the lowest in Europe, with Germany disbursing the equivalent of £26,366 and Ireland (so often derided financially by UK government ‘experts’) £10,415. The UK’s interest rate on its borrowing is increasing at a time when the interest rate in every other country in the EU is decreasing, with Ireland far financially stronger. This is all down to financial mismanagement and incompetence: the Conservative Party, for so long the party with the reputation of fiscal prudency, has been demonstrated as financially inept (for all that it ‘talks a good fight’) by its handling of the economy during this financial crisis by making a priority of pursuing ideological rather than economic goals. As with the Labour Party, it also shares the failure of four decades of Westminster administrations in neglecting to set up an oil fund for when the North Sea resources run out, making the UK the only country other than Iraq to have failed to do this in the world. Instead, it has squandered the money – initially on Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist experiment (coincidentally once again an ideological priority, as with today’s financial management policies), paying for all the people that she made unemployed through deindustrialization, in a policy aimed at establishing financial services as the priority for the country’s economy. And that ‘eggs-in-one-basket’ strategy didn’t exactly turn out so well.
Labour of course hardly come up smelling of their trademark roses, especially with Gordon Brown’s pension grab and gold sell-off. Ironically, although Labour may have been demonised throughout the last decades of the twentieth century as ideologically-driven spenders who would wreck the economy, it seems that the Conservatives are the party that can more easily be accused of having actually done that.
So what, actually, is ‘better together’ about the UK? Where is this world-beating strength, except casually squandered, deindustrialising to invest in a financial services-based City that fails, sustaining nuclear weapons that cripple the larger defense budget thus sending soldiers into illegal wars for the US without adequate equipment… Suddenly, the oft-cited ‘punching above our weight’ seems more like a psychological pathology, instead of some pooled strength – an inability to get past the Age of Empire.
“There is no future in England’s dreaming.” (John Lydon)