UK may have ditched its right-winger with bad hair but the policies are just as terrible – Joyce McMillan
As this year of horrors limps towards an end, it’s difficult to resist the impression that voters, in sundry countries across the world, have decided to join the fray by embracing a politics of absolute despair and nihilism, disguised as an eccentric but invigorating promise of change. In Argentina last weekend, and then this week in the outwardly sensible Netherlands, voters have opted in historic numbers for leaders of the far right who sport improbable hair, extremist views, and a conspicuous lack of policies that might in any way improve the lives of most of the people they aspire to lead.
It is, of course, easy to overstate the achievement of Netherlands politician Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party, which is projected to win just under a quarter of the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house; he has already suggested that, in search of coalition allies, he will abandon policies that are unconstitutional in the Netherlands, such as the closure of mosques and banning of the Koran, and put on the backburner his unpopular plan to leave the EU, while focusing on addressing the housing crisis, and reducing inflation.
Nonetheless, as leader of the largest party, he will exert a powerful influence on the next phase of Dutch politics, exploring trademark far-right policies such as the rejection of action on climate change as a sinister EU plot, and the complete withdrawal of support from Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression. And in Argentina, meanwhile, the newly elected President Javier Milei wields a chainsaw at rallies – signalling his determination to inflict drastic cuts on the Argentine state – while promising to abolish the national currency. Milei is described as a right-wing libertarian; but of course, his concept of liberty does not extend to women’s reproductive rights, since one of his top priorities is a complete ban on abortion.
Well, enough of these characters, absurd, dangerous, and destructive as they are. What we must try to understand, though, is exactly why otherwise sane voters are drawn to such figures; and it seems to me that we might begin by looking in no less a place than the House of Commons, where Jeremy Hunt this week delivered his autumn statement on UK tax and spending.
Now the normal tone of British political commentary, faced with far-right successes in politics elsewhere, is one of mild self-congratulation. British politics, we are told, remains wedded to the ideological middle ground, and we have now recovered from our brief infatuation with Boris Johnson, our own proponent of improbable blond hair and hard exits from the EU. Both Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are impeccably sane and normal-looking politicians, with tidy hair and “mainstream” opinions; and in terms of understanding the European or South American hard-right, there is apparently nothing to see here – except perhaps a disturbing, normalising glimpse of Nigel Farage on I’m A Celebrity.
Yet a long, hard look at Wednesday’s autumn statement reveals a politics that, in a much less obvious way, is almost as fully detached from reality as the rantings of a Wilders or a Milei. For at a time when the British public realm is almost literally crumbling before our eyes, when every expert on public services can talk of little but the damage done by 13 years of relentless austerity, and when the UK increasingly lacks the human and physical infrastructure necessary to support a successful, 21st-century economy, the UK Government is not seeking to address these increasingly desperate needs – or the mounting costs that result from the failure to meet them – but is instead, once again, boasting of tax cuts.
Even on its own limited terms, this policy is now notable, to many, both for its increasing economic illiteracy, and for its absolute moral vacuity, given the stress under which many vital services in Britain are now operating. In a magisterial piece in Sunday’s Observer, the commentator Will Hutton pointed out that public investment in Britain has deteriorated since 1980 from an annual average of 4.5 per cent of GDP to an average of 1.5 per cent, and is now – according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research – running at half of what it needs to be. Nero, he thundered, was said to have fiddled while Rome burned; but now “we have a legion of right-wing commentators, think-tanks and Tory MPs, babbling about tax cuts while Britain burns”.
Yet this is the political and economic discourse that passes for normal in Britain, its central and largely discredited neoliberal assumptions rarely challenged in mainstream debate; although measured against the reality of the country’s needs, it is arguably at best irrelevant, and at worst destructive to the point of irresponsibility. Small wonder that here in Scotland, almost half of voters want out, and most of the rest seem – somewhat desperately – to be pinning their hopes for radical change on the unlikely figure of Keir Starmer.
And small wonder, even more dangerously, that voters everywhere, tired of the same old orthodoxy from mainstream parties of the centre-left and centre-right, are increasingly turning to those candidates who seem to offer something different, almost regardless of what that something is. The truth is that persistent failure to offer real choice, in a democracy – a choice of economic ideologies, a choice of systems and assumptions – finally discredits democracy itself, breaks down the barriers to extremism, and for some at least, reduces the whole spectacle to a contest as to whose ridiculous hair offers the best laugh.
And the consequence of that collapse, let’s be clear, will be nothing but barbarism; more power for those already powerful, more humiliation and loss of rights for the rest of us, the trampling of justice and peace as goals worth pursuing anywhere, and the further devastation of the planet, by those who would create a desert, and call it wealth.
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