Joyce McMillan: When fair play is posted missing

Policy driven by privilege and elitism simply attracts disillusioned voters to reactionary politics, writes Joyce McMillan

The Royal Mail has increased in value by £1bn since the sell-off, one of the factors promoting Ukips popularity. Picture: Getty
The Royal Mail has increased in value by £1bn since the sell-off, one of the factors promoting Ukips popularity. Picture: Getty

IT’S Monday afternoon, and the public accounts committee of the House of Commons is grilling some of the men who did well out of last October’s controversial sell-off of the Royal Mail. That the initial price of the shares was set too low now seems hard to dispute; today, they are worth almost £1 billion more than on the day of their launch, a gain of almost 60 per cent.

What was exercising the committee, though – under the trenchant leadership of Labour MP Margaret Hodge – is that many of the city companies which advised the government on the sale, and on the setting of the price, have turned out to be closely linked to the assorted hedge funds and management companies which benefited from priority rights to invest in the new company, pocketing huge gains within days of the launch. And if members of the public accounts committee are uneasy about the propriety of this process, then their anger is as nothing to the disgust experienced by ordinary voters when they read stories like this. The men taking part in these deals insist on the technicalities; but what voters see is a bunch of privileged people setting up deals which enrich them all, at the expense of those who – even if they worked six or seven lifetimes as teachers, or nurses, or mid-level office workers – would never earn as much as Lazard Asset Management made from this deal in a single week.

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And if baffled observers of the UK political scene are looking for reasons why Nigel Farage’s Ukip Party now stands at 38 per cent in some European Election opinion polls – and is currently well in the lead over the Labour Party – then they really need look very little further than the present government’s apparent conviction that the Royal Mail sell-off was a “success”, along with the Labour Party’s refusal to commit to reversing it, and the apparent conviction of all those involved that a few verbal reassurances from a bunch of plutocratic smoothies should be enough to set our minds at rest. Government for and by a privileged elite can only continue for so long without provoking a revolt; and anyone who glances for even two minutes at the Ukip website can see that this party is the one millions in England – and thousands in Scotland – are choosing as their preferred vehicle of protest.

It is, of course, something of a social and cultural tragedy that the party’s headline policy is a xenophobic one, based on a series of demonstrable untruths about the negative impact of immigration on the lives of ordinary British people. It’s worth noting, though, that the party – while light on detailed policy – also has its eye on other issues: high marginal taxes paid by low income earners, the housing crisis, cash-strapped public services.

Like any populist party of the right, in other words, it represents a response to real economic problems – classic ills of extreme and ill-regulated capitalism – wrapped up in a series of false solutions, almost impossible to apply in the real world; and this is why, despite their sky-high Euro poll ratings, Farage and his unmanageable party of saloon-bar reactionaries are unlikely ever to amount to much more than a giant protest movement, struggling to make an impact when it comes to winning seats at Westminster.

As a protest movement, though, Ukip’s effect on British politics has already been seismic. Ever since Gordon Brown’s politically catastrophic encounter with Mrs Gillian Duffy during the 2010 general election campaign, mainstream UK politicians have been almost visibly terrified of the wrath of voters on the immigration issue; they have failed to challenge the myths and lies on which negative attitudes to immigration are often based, they have failed to emphasise the huge positive contribution to British society of migrants in general and recent EU migrants in particular, and they have colluded in the development of immigration policies which often fail to meet basic standards of justice, compassion and legality.

And while mainstream politicians of other parties have reacted to Ukip’s success with all the confidence of rabbits caught in Farage’s advancing headlights, most of the British media – including the BBC – have indulged in a disgraceful love-affair with this “colourful” politician, giving his views a prominence far beyond anything justified by his actual electoral success.

None of this, of course, is unusual in historic terms; if people are not offered a radical and progressive form of popular politics – and Tony Blair ensured that the Labour Party stopped doing that, more than half a generation ago – then they will turn to reactionary forms of popular politics, including the racist and the xenophobic. Here in Scotland, the same disillusion with the Westminster establishment which is driving voters towards Ukip mainly benefits the SNP and the Yes campaign; and although the First Minister has this week been giving a pyrotechnic display of his many imperfections, we can count ourselves fortunate that our party of protest against Westminster is also a broadly centre-left party of Scottish Government, with a notably progressive and inclusive policy on matters of race, immigration and identity.

There is, though, no room for complacency over the Farage phenomenon, here in Scotland or anywhere else. As Alex Salmond’s flirtations with the wealthy and powerful demonstrate, 21st-century politicians in office come under huge pressure to align themselves with the world’s elites, against the interests of the people as a whole. At Westminster, it often looks as if both major parties have simply caved in under those pressures; so much so that it takes a myth-peddling demagogue like Farage to alert many Westminster politicians to how out-of-touch they are.

And although an independent Scotland might just experience a brief window of opportunity to redesign its systems, and to create a more robust form of democracy for the age we live in, we should be under no illusions about the force of those pressures – pushing us, like everyone else across the world, to accept as inevitable a culture of privatisation, exploitation and ever-growing inequality that would rob us of dignity and true citizenship, inside or outside the UK; and of the hope of living in a just and convivial society, with a future that seems both possible, and bright.