The narrow confines of British public debate

My parents were quite liberal when it came to bedtime and television, and I’ve always been grateful for it. I grew up in the 1980s watching Sportsnight on Wednesdays (a school night), The A-Team on Thursdays (another school night), and Spitting Image on Sundays (the most important school night). Spitting Image’s irreverent towards the most powerful people in the land was always exciting. Even before I’d reached the age of 10, I knew that in Ireland our broadcasters didn’t have the guts to make programmes like it. A sketch that remains particularly vivid involved the Norman Lamont puppet repeatedly saying to a literally grey John Major, “If you say something often enough, people will believe you”. Very funny, I thought, but surely if there is overwhelming evidence that you’re wrong, your credibility will be shot? No?

Since moving to Britain, what I have found is useful for a follower of politics is a passing knowledge of memes, because if this month’s general election confirmed anything, it was the centre right’s mastery of transmission (and guardianship) of certain ideas and attitudes that decided the outcome.

Beside the endlessly diverse, invariably interesting Britain I interact with on a daily basis, there is a political monoculture. Whereas one could not possibly attempt a reductionist summation of Britain and its peoples, it seems plausible to try to do that with voters. Insofar as people consider what politics is capable of achieving, there seems to be little faith in the possibility of genuine wealth creation for the common cause, or indeed for any other cause. Instead, a voter asks, who is going to mind my money? The same mindset regards public investment as a euphemism, as though all government spending is invariably wasted. Tory rhetoric is attuned to this mentality, which is considerably influenced and shaped by a largely foreign and non-dom owned press.

It wasn’t always thus. The great institutions of this land, such as the NHS, wouldn’t have been created if people and politicians always thought this way. It also seems as if, during a period when the world is being opened up as never before, public discourse in Britain is turning in on itself ever more. An alien that landed here in the month of April – having read up on Britain’s history, its economy, its international treaties and other relationships during the flight through intergalactic space – would be utterly bewildered by the narrow terms of debate that the general election was framed around. As would almost any foreigner who was merely passing through.

Here is a short list of some issues that are shaping the 21st century, and which get an airing in the media, but are strangely not election issues: Wars that are proliferating across the Middle East, a nascent new Cold War with Russia, a fragile Europe, and a whole new international order with a centre of gravity shifted towards Asia. Where does Britain, whose permanent seat on the UN Security Council looks less justifiable than ever, stand in relation to all this? Not to mention the possibly existential need to successfully introduce green energy solutions by the middle of this century.

So what was talked about? Well, the economy was, in a certain limited sense. The Keynesian rebirth after the 2008 crash has been finally killed off, in England at least. The Conservatives, along with their media outriders, were very effective at making the deficit seem to be of critical importance, when many economists would tell you it actually isn’t. It seemed at times that the global banking crisis, for which Tory and New Labour governments going back over 30 years of deregulation and general obeisance to an avaricious financial industry are equally culpable, had been airbrushed from history. It called to mind the words of an aide to George W. Bush, who told a New York Times journalist during that administration’s triumphalist first term in office, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”.

The discipline to stay on message, saying something often enough so that people will believe them, was in its own way something to admire. That they picked up an enthusiastic me too refrain from the Liberal Democrats, for all the good it did them electorally, was a particular bonus. It was quite abject of Labour to fail to counteract the trashing of their record. They should have been countering the deceitful Tory narrative often enough in reply so that at least some people would believe them. Instead, we now have Labour leadership hopefuls subjected to something resembling a cross between an inquisition and a show trial over Labour’s spending record in government, with demands that the apostates recant before they are deemed acceptable candidates.

Looking at the other dominant topics of the election, immigration clearly stands out. The tone of public debate is almost poisonous now, and rancour sets its own terms of debate, which tends not to be conducive to producing effective solutions. The housing crisis, which is palpably at the heart of so many other problems in the country, and central to inflammations in the body politic around immigration, is at least finally getting a hearing. The NHS, thanks to its totemic status, will always be a leading concern, as will schools. And let’s not forget the SNP scare this time around. But it’s a thin cast of characters overall, given the many dysfunctions in the way Britain is run today, and a government that appears ill equipped or simply not motivated to tackle them.

On election night, I gave myself permission to stay up late. For all the non-discussion of so many issues that affect the country, the election still turned up a dramatic result worth witnessing. As the SNP wiped Labour from the map in Scotland, I thought about the future existence of the United Kingdom, and the implications for another union (the EU), and I comforted myself with the thought that surely some of these big conversations might finally be coming.


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