Inspired by Donald Trump, UK right-wingers are using culture war to distract from toxic economic policies that are ruining people's lives – Joyce McMillan
It was the day, after all, when Donald Trump – one of the planet’s most successful right-wing populists – was finally arraigned for one of the many alleged crimes and misdemeanours for which he is currently being investigated; in this case an apparent hush-money payoff to “adult” film actress Stormy Daniels, and the alleged falsifying of business accounts to conceal the payment.
To say that Trump is not interested in addressing the substance of this case, though, is an understatement. His lawyers may have to do so; but The Donald already has his defence worked out, and it consists entirely of attempts to discredit the legal process by which he has been brought to book, and every one of the individuals involved, including the New York County District Attorney, and the judge in the case.
Like Trump’s continuing claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, his chosen line of defence has a corrosive effect that goes far beyond the individual case, in that it seeks to destroy faith in one of the very pillars of liberal democracy, and to unmoor Trump supporters from any idea of truth or objectivity, in order to advance the cult of the leader, who enjoys a kind of monopoly on trust.
Nor can those of us living beyond US shores remain entirely indifferent to the continuing Trump drama, not least because the playbook of Trumpian politics continues to exert a powerful influence on right-wing politicians everywhere. On this side of the Atlantic, Trump’s all-out attack on institutions still tends to be moderated, at least a little, by a general tradition of reverence for the British constitution. What is becoming ever more familiar in British politics, though, is the endless use of distraction, accusation, and misdirection to divert public attention from any serious assessment of the truly parlous performance of British governments, over the last 13 years.
This week, for example, saw three striking events in British right-wing politics, each one more revealing than the last. The first was the death of former 1980s’ Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, widely praised by the Prime Minister and right-leaning commentators as an “inspirational” politician whose policies led to an era of untold prosperity – this at a time when every aspect of Lawson's legacy, from tax-cutting to privatisation, is arguably crumbling before our eyes.
The second was the emergence from the new-look Equality and Human Rights Commission of a suggestion that transgender women should be deprived of the protections given to women under the UK Government’s Equality Act 2010; Britain’s tiny minority of trans people, after all, have become the latest popular target of right-wing moral panic, and a supremely useful distraction from real-life issues affecting the other 99 per cent of the population.
And the third was the UK Government’s much-trumpeted announcement that it would now transfer 500 asylum seekers (or less than one in 200 of those currently awaiting decisions) from the tacky hotels where they are currently accommodated to a kind prison-barge parked off Dorset; another embarrassing act of “performative cruelty” in an immigration policy becoming ever more Trumpian in its combination of absurdity, illegality, and shameless hate-mongering against the vulnerable.
Now of course, in the Catch-22 of Trumpian politics, by even writing these words I have identified myself as someone who – unlike millionaire-by-inheritance Donald Trump – belongs to a privileged liberal elite who are running the world, and understand nothing of ordinary people and their views. According to the British right-wing academic Matthew Goodwin, in a column widely published and re-published in the UK this week, the mere existence of high-profile figures like Gary Lineker and Carol Vorderman, who dissent from current government policies and say so, shows that liberals have “captured” the national conversation, and are now imposing their “luxury beliefs” – for example, on treating refugees decently – on a nation that profoundly disagrees with them.
And this truly Trumpian effort at misdirection – trying to pin accusations of abuse of power on the liberal left, after a solid 13 years of increasingly right-wing Conservative government – certainly comes at a time when British people are feeling immense rage and pain. The real source of that anger and suffering, though, surely lies much closer to home, for the political right; not least in the legacy of decades when – thanks to politicians like Nigel Lawson – the workers’ share of wealth and income was deliberately and systematically depressed, to further swell the fortunes of a ballooning class of billionaires.
Breaking trade unions, driving down wages, removing labour market protections, selling off much-needed public housing, and transforming essential public utilities into commercial corporations with a monopoly licence to gouge consumers for unaffordable prices – all this, along with desperately inadequate benefits, collapsing social care systems, and an actual inability to afford enough nourishing food, is what is causing pain to millions in Britain, in the year 2023; and as statistic after statistic shows, its roots belong nowhere else but in the toxic right-wing economic orthodoxy of the last 40 years, and its unacceptable human cost.
So no, I will not be told that to point out these truths makes me a liberal elitist. What it makes me is a worker, a trade unionist, and a child of the relatively egalitarian post-war-settlement, who knows what that settlement was worth, in terms of human well-being, opportunity and freedom. And I can also remember a time before Trump-like apologists for the new billionaire class tried to take up residence in our minds; shouting “look, over there!” at various other vulnerable groups, while their paymasters looted our economies and communities and trashed our natural environment, while leaving the rest of us to live not only with public squalor, but also, in too many cases, with real private poverty, and pain.
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