Left's lack of vision is gift to Donald Trump style culture warriors who want to keep democracy weak – Joyce McMillan

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has taken to spouting Thatcherite nonsense about how her mother taught her to balance the books at the kitchen table

A couple of weeks ago, the Aberdeen Press & Journal – leading newspaper of Scotland’s north-east – published a controversial front page emblazoned with the word “Traitors”. It showed a number of leading Labour figures dressed up like participants in the Traitors television series; and the aim was to accuse Labour of putting scores of thousands of oil and gas industry jobs at risk, not least by planning a continuing windfall tax on recent massive profits in the industry.

The image provoked some continuing debate, particularly after the First Minister – whose party currently opposes increasing windfall taxes – chose to share and retweet it. That row had largely died down, though, until Wednesday; when in his desperation to deliver some tax cuts, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, fell to raiding Labour’s already bare-looking policy cupboard, and declared not only that he would end non-dom tax breaks for wealthy individuals resident in the UK, but also that he would continue windfall taxes on the gas and oil industry for another year.

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Needless to say, this last-minute decision had not been discussed with the Conservative party in Scotland; and it was difficult not to feel a faint pang of sympathy for Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, as he sailed through the air and landed under a small political bus, bereft – in a region vital to the Tories in Scotland – both of his principle argument against a resurgent Labour party, and of his chance to seem at least as supportive of the industry as the SNP.

Politicians like Donald Trump are riding the wave created by modern-day culture wars (Picture: Mario Tama/Getty Images)Politicians like Donald Trump are riding the wave created by modern-day culture wars (Picture: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Politicians like Donald Trump are riding the wave created by modern-day culture wars (Picture: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Outwardly, the loyalty of Scottish Tories to an increasingly wayward and chaotic government at Westminster remains largely unshaken. Privately, though, it is difficult to imagine that some are not now brooding on the political possibilities for a rational, business friendly Conservative party in Scotland that could put a larger area of clear pale-blue water between itself and the largely discredited Westminster party.

For although it was never likely to be an inspiring event, it is striking, nonetheless, to observe the absolute wasteland of practical, principled and purposeful economic policy that Jeremy Hunt’s Budget has left behind it. It could have been worse, of course; but the overall picture remains grim, with the tax burden on ordinary British citizens at its highest level since 1948, yet the returns on those taxes are hitting historic lows, as public services struggle, major English cities run out of money, and one observer after another diagnoses the UK as suffering from chronic public and private under-investment, dating back to 2010 and beyond.

Nor, it seems, is any help coming, any time soon. One of the most alarming aspects of this week’s political debate, at UK level, has been the dead-eyed, almost robotic refusal of Labour spokespeople to step even a millimetre beyond the increasingly tight right-wing parameters of what they believe to be ‘acceptable’ economic policy.

Indeed their main response to this week’s Budget has been to talk about driving the sick and unwilling back into the workforce, and – in a line that would have looked tired 30 years ago – making sure that “a life on benefits is not an option”, while the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves spouts ancient Thatcherite nonsense about how her mother taught her to balance the books at the kitchen table, as if John Maynard Keynes had never lived.

What is most noticeable about all of this, in other words, is the absolutely abysmal quality of debate about economic policy that now dominates the UK political scene; the complete absence of serious analysis, innovative ideas, or coherent plans for any real economic renewal. The truth is that over the past decade, public debate the UK and America, and beyond, has often become the victim of a kind of intellectual meltdown, in which serious debate about policy options has been steadily crowded out by a right-wing “culture wars” agenda – encompassing issues from the fantasy-based Brexit project to the transatlantic obsession with immigration and “small boats” – which is typically not even grounded in fact, and is therefore not only damagingly divisive and often morally repellent, but also a colossal waste of political time and breath.

Small wonder, therefore, that this bleak political landscape is now strewn with the reputational casualties of such divisive and incoherent times, from Douglas Ross and Rishi Sunak – the Prime Minister who once promised integrity and professionalism, and ended up ranting in Downing Street about “mob rule” in the UK – to a Labour leadership now making itself structurally incapable of delivering the change of which it speaks, and the SNP at Holyrood, doomed to administer a Tory austerity which they have never supported, and now too exhausted to offer a plausible vision of the independence they seek.

And in this desert of serious progressive political thought, who gains? Well of course, those who do not fight the rise of culture-wars politics, but who, like Donald Trump, ride the wave, and bask in massive financial support from those already wielding huge wealth and influence, who want to see our politics forever distracted, divided, and disempowered.

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As that mighty writer Toni Morrison once argued, though, in such times there is “no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no room for fear". The more we identify and name these threats to democracy, and to any kind of sustainable future, the more we can begin to shift public debate back into a place where we are never again confronted with such a pathetic tribute to short-termism and low-level political expediency as Jeremy Hunt served up this week. Anyone with a sense of history knows that humankind can do, and has done, much better than this; and this is a time, if ever there was one, to turn away from the purveyors of junk politics who increasingly pervade our culture, and to start aiming higher, and demanding more.



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