Joyce McMillan: Painting a more positive picture

DIVIDE and rule. It’s the oldest mantra in the boss-class book, the golden strategy of tyrants and bullies down the ages; and there can never have been a place or a time in which it has worked better than here in Britain, in the spring of 2013.

The Pitmen Painters recalls an era in UK politics when workers forged a future for themselves and further generations by creating a credible society. Picture: Keith Pattison

On one hand, the real statistics surrounding our economy tell one story, and one story only; an ugly yarn about vast and growing economic inequality, with a top 1 per cent of the population commanding an ever-greater slice of national wealth and incomes, while all those in the bottom 80 per cent – from the very poorest to senior middle-class professionals – see their incomes stagnate or dwindle, in real terms.

And with the increasing relative wealth of large corporations and wealthy individuals in our society, comes ever-increasing power. From the financing of political parties, through the ownership of major media, to the revolving door between top companies and the government departments which are supposed to regulate them, major wealth-holders are now able to drive and influence the work of government for the outlay of what are relatively minor sums, weighed in the scale of their operations.

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The results of their influence are now obvious everywhere in our public life, from the disastrous failure of bank regulation that led to the 2008 global crash, through the current unwanted English NHS changes, to the growing avalanche of cases in which major corporations have struck “sweetheart” deals with Britain’s tax authority, the HMRC. Tax evasion and avoidance alone – never mind the massive additional tax breaks and grants given by governments to major corporations – is thought to cost the British exchequer around £35 billion a year, more than the entire budget of the Scottish Government; and it is perfectly clear that if this looting of the economy by the already wealthy was stopped, then we could not only forget the largely fictional narrative of essential “austerity” currently being peddled to the people, but also restart our depressed domestic economy, by raising the incomes or reducing the taxes of ordinary households, many of which are currently struggling to pay basic bills.

Yet at this crisis in our affairs, with the generation-long embrace of the neo-liberal “Washington consensus” producing a huge and utterly predictable political and economic crisis across the west, what topics are really animating the British people and their representatives, if the day-to-babble of Westminster politics is to be believed? Why, the hunt for the fierce, bad benefit claimants who are supposedly draining our economy, and for the immigrants who have supposedly taken our jobs and houses, combined with a revolt against the European Union which has the temerity to inspect our oil companies properly for alleged price-fixing practices, and to insist that EU workers should not be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.

Now in every case, the set of beliefs being peddled about these issues is false, and easily disprovable. Benefit fraud, for example, at around £1 billion a year, is a mere drop in the ocean compared with the massive avoidance of tax by those who could easily afford to pay. Yet day after day, a kind of surreal macho dialogue about who can be “toughest” over these essentially fictional issues utterly dominates Westminster politics; while the economy flatlines, decent working people lie awake at night worrying over the financial consequences of an economic crash for which they are not responsible, and – somewhere in the background – our beautiful planet begins to burn and die, because we lack the political sense and sinew to act to save it.

To say that this is an unpleasant sight is to understate the case. It is not only morally disgraceful in its “othering” and scapegoating of vulnerable groups; it is also intellectually contemptible, almost militantly stupid. Only a fool could seriously believe that the ragbag of policies currently being proposed by the Westminster government on Europe, migration or benefits has anything to do with tackling the UK’s real problems; and every voter who has fallen for this ancient boss-class scam bears some responsibility for their own gullibility and intellectual laziness.

In the end, though, the main fault has to lie with the vacuum of political leadership that has been allowed to grow up on the centre-left of British politics, since the 1980’s; when the chips are down, there can be no serious or substantive political debate among three right-of-centre parties – Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats – who all agree that the deficit lie is sacrosanct, who all take the corporate shilling, and who all think that myths about immigrants and benefit scroungers should be flattered and acted upon rather than challenged.

This week, I headed along to the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh to see The Pitmen Painters, the great 2007 play by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall about the Ashington Group, a band of four Durham miners who briefly became the toast of the art world in the 1930s. It’s a sentimental play, in many ways; but it is salutary to remember a time when at least some of Britain’s working people organised to educate themselves, to analyse the economy they lived in, and to raise themselves up by their own collective bootstraps. And they achieved change, of course – notably in 1945 – through a Labour Party created to represent their interests, in the highest corridors of British power.

Whether Labour can ever become that party again – can ever end its cringe-making Blairite love-affair with global capitalism at its most foolish, can ever stop apologising for its trade union connections, can ever focus once again on the task of representing ordinary British workers and consumers, rather than those who would exploit them – is a matter of debate. What’s clear, though, is that it is not that party now, and has not been, for the last 20 years. And if it fails to change the political game before the next Westminster election – or, at best, the one after that – then the Labour Party will not only have helped seal the fate of what is, regardless of next year’s referendum result, an increasingly strained union between England and the rest of the UK; it will have written its own obituary, as a party whose continuing existence has any point at all.