THE energy and desire to generate change has no channel in the depressing reality of current politics, writes Joyce McMillan.
If you head along to Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre at lunchtime this week, you’ll find a monologue in progress by up-and-coming Scottish writer Andy Duffy. The play is called Crash, not least because its central character, brilliantly played by Jamie Michie, is himself like a walking embodiment of the pre-2008 financial system within which he works – amoral, ruthless and unable to measure success or happiness except by the cash he holds, in the form of flickering figures on his screen.
One of the interesting observations in Duffy’s script, though, is his observation of how well this central character’s world-view matches the new-age philosophy embraced by his latest girlfriend – the idea that all the problems we encounter come from within us, and that we as individuals can always change our destiny by simply developing a positive attitude. And if you want evidence of how far millions of people across the West have internalised this individualistic approach, and lost the will to band together against obvious injustices being inflicted on them as a group, then you could do a lot worse than cast a glance over a couple of sets of statistics which emerged this week.
For on Wednesday, like a canary at the coalface of the current British economy, a report was published by the World Economic Forum which suggested that, in just a year, Britain had fallen from 18th place in the global index of gender equality to 26th. Worse, it argued that this sharp decline in performance was due to just one factor: a decline in average female earnings, over the year, from £18,000 to just £15,600. There could hardly be a more graphic indication of how the policies of the present UK government brutally disadvantage women, notably middle-aged, modestly paid public employees who are now being driven out into Britain’s ballooning underworld of insecure part-time work and zero-hours contracts. The main point about these numbers, though, is not a feminist one. The point is that deteriorating gender equality is an ominous sign of a society in regression, where general social equality and public provision is deteriorating, and where a strong civic and convivial culture is being replaced by an individualistic and uncivil one which favours the strong and those without caring commitments.
It’s therefore no surprise to read that the top countries for gender equality are the five Nordic nations, which routinely also lead the world on general measures of happiness, equality, wellbeing and health.
And, right on cue, also this week, comes an Oxfam report highlighting the staggering levels of inequality crippling the global economy. Oxfam now counts just 1,640 dollar billionaires worldwide and yet it calculates that if this tiny group of individuals were taxed to the tune of only 1.5 per cent, enough money would become available to provide free education and healthcare for every child across the world’s poorest nations. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andrew Haldane, backed the Oxfam report, saying “there is rising evidence that extreme inequality harms, durably and significantly, the stability of the financial system, and growth in the economy”.
Yet where – amid all this mounting evidence of a society heading backwards and of a global economy locked into a system that is demonstrably damaging – is the political movement dedicated to shifting the UK on to a different course? For a generation, our country has been proudly in the forefront of the move towards more lightly regulated and unequal societies. Our main party of government is wedded to the myth that this process of disintegration represents “reform” and “progress”. Our leading party of opposition does not challenge its general direction or the flawed economic analysis on which it is based. The millions who are being made to pay the price for the system’s failure are presumably all at home on the sofa, wrapped in onesies because they can’t afford to run the heating and blaming themselves for having the wrong attitude. They are certainly not rioting in the streets, where they ought to be. And six weeks ago, the people of Scotland, offered a chance at least to attempt a switch towards a more benign Nordic social model, decided by a substantial majority to stay on this destructive course, for fear of finding something worse.
It is, in other words, strikingly difficult to find any real signs of hope in a British political landscape that currently veers between the depressive and the delusional. The SNP, under Nicola Sturgeon, declares itself determined to defend social democracy in Scotland but seems unclear as to how it will actually do that in such hostile times. The Labour Party apparently imagines that the answer to its Scottish problems is to promote a Westminster politician who has been one of the leading advocates of Labour’s conversion to the system that is currently failing us. And the Green Party genuinely grapples with the real issues facing us but is often excluded from high-profile debate and struggles to attract more than 8 per cent of the vote.
It was this summer’s Scottish Yes campaign, of course, that came closest to breaking the depressing mould of current politics, with a lively, engaged electorate often debating their future in a spirit of hope, conviviality and invention, rather than of fear and caution. Some 45 per cent of Scottish voters chose to reject the dismal establishment narrative being presented by the usual gallery of men in grey suits, and to vote for a different vision of their future, built up from a mixture of face-to-face conversations, live meetings in local communities and intense information exchange on social media. As campaigns go, it offered many profound insights into how progressive change might begin to happen in future, and how it might organise itself.
For now, though, it is difficult to feel anything but despair over the difficulty of shifting Britain from the clearly destructive course on which it is set. The main political parties condone it; the people do not challenge it. If this year’s Scottish referendum represents the nearest thing we have seen to a rebellion against it, it’s nonetheless a rebellion that was defeated. That leaves those of us who accept the referendum result, and who care about social progress and justice, utterly baffled as to where to turn now.
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