Joyce McMillan: The great right-wing economic project has failed

Pro-Brexit demonstrators hold Union Jack flags as they protest outside the Houses of Parliament. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Pro-Brexit demonstrators hold Union Jack flags as they protest outside the Houses of Parliament. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
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Markets show hypocrisy over borrowing levels that would have seen a Labour government lambasted writes Joyce McMillan

Outside, the weather is cold and strange, far more chill than in most recent autumns; and there’s a cold climate indoors too, in the corridors of power and the ordinary homes where the people of Britain are trying to absorb the implications of Philip Hammond’s autumn statement on the economy, delivered at Westminster on Wednesday.

For essentially, what it comes to is this; that in the year 2021, the average British worker will almost certainly be earning less, in real terms, than he or she was in 2008; and will also, in terms of social wage, be confronted by systems of support - benefits and vital public services - that will have been cash-starved over a dozen years of austerity to no real purpose, in terms of the health of the public finances.

At the time of the 2008 crash, after all, the entire aim of public policy, on all sides, was to avoid the “decade of stagnation” that blighted the Japanese economy in the 1990s.

Yet now, after seven years of chronic mismanagement by Tory-led governments, and the shocking display of recklessness among Tory politicians that has brought us to the brink of Brexit, it seems that a decade of stagnation will hardly mark the start of our difficulties, as ordinary British families - and a blighted generation who may never acquire the means to live a normal, independent and secure family life - pay over and over again for the consequences of an ideology most of them never endorsed, and for the excesses of a small financial elite.

READ MORE: Brexit: UK facing ‘dreadful decade’ as living standards slip

The ideology which brought us to this point is now passing out of fashion, of course; Theresa May’s “protect British workers” acceptance speech on becoming Prime Minister, like Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with its talk of reopening coalmines and prioritising American jobs over free trade, was far more reminiscent, in its economic stance, of old-style Bennite intervention in the national economy than of the buccaneering free-market triumphalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era, and all that followed.

Yet its legacy lingers on in the persisting absurd belief that you can slash vital public services, impose permanent wage stagnation on those who work in them, and do everything in your power to encourage an insecure, low-wage labour market in the private sector, without eventually driving the entire economy into the kind of permanent slump we now seem to face.

READ MORE: ‘Don’t hold breath for diplomat role’, Nigel Farage told

And bizarrely, as during many previous crises, “the markets”, which are supposed to be the rational arbiters of all things, show themselves once again to be driven by fevered ideological prejudices of their own, as borrowing levels that would have been greeted with shrieks of horror if they had been incurred by a Labour government are now treated with absolute sangfroid by the very same traders, and their friends in the media.

And meanwhile, we are all supposed to smile and nod and tolerate the increasingly terrifying, if entirely predictable, consequences of 35 years of orthodox right-wing economic policy often barely opposed by the politicians of the so-called centre-left.

The rise of racial hatred and loud-mouthed misogyny, the delusional blaming of “immigrants” for economic problems, the insular fantasy that leaving the EU will help us in any way - all of these major trends in current politics can be shown in a few minutes of argument to be based on nothing but empty prejudice. We live, though, not in an age of argument, but in an age of vicious megaphone politics blatantly designed to shift blame, and to distract people from the increasingly obvious failure of the great right-wing economic project of the last 40 years.

So what is to be done?

The bizarre opinion poll strength of the evidently incompetent Tories does, of course, speak volumes not only about the extent to which they have been allowed to dictate the terms of UK political debate since the 1980s, but also about the weakness of the opposition, a problem which seems unlikely to resolve itself any time soon, with or without the intervention of Tony Blair and his possible new party.

The level of tribal hatred within the Labour Party is now so high that policy no longer seems to have much to do with it; and the best hope for a new UK opposition politics seems to lie in the gradual emergence of a range of grass-roots movement - green, community-minded, dedicated to small-scale enterprise and practical social service - that may finally coalesce into a force that can counter the failed prescriptions of Toryism.

And oddly enough, although the SNP has been far more impressive than Labour in opposing Conservative government and offering an explicit alternative to its grim and loveless ideology, the same is finally also true of Scotland; a country which showed during the independence referendum campaign that it has abundant potential for a new locally-based but globally-minded politics, that uses the inevitable coming wave of economic change towards a low-carbon economy to re-empower communities, drive new technologies, make new international alliances, and open up the possibility of a sustainable and convivial future that might restore some long-term hope to our grimly managerial political scene.

The evidence so far suggests, after all, that the SNP will never muster the political radicalism to deliver that kind of transformation without constant pressure from below, demanding the necessary shifts in investment, legislation and political language. And although the future we face remains grim and uncertain, the direction in which we in Scotland need to be travelling - inside or outside the EU, or indeed the UK - actually becomes ever more clear.

We need to hold a vision of the day, perhaps 40 years in the future, when our society will be built on energy that is clean and permanently sustainable, and our future is no longer blighted by the terror of ever-increasing carbon emissions.

And even if we never reach that day, we have everything to gain - locally, globally, and personally - from setting our feet on that hopeful path, and working every day as if we were living, not just in the early days of a better nation, but in the vital years of transition to a better world.