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Friday, May 8, 2015

Doubts and divisions - Between prosperity and recklessness

By Swapan Dasgupta


Late last month, while waiting in the lobby of a Central London hotel, I was buttonholed by a Greek gentleman and asked whether I too was part of the St George’s Day lunch being held in the premises. He was in a very jolly mood after what appeared to be a high-spirited afternoon and we got talking. “I thought St George’s Day was an English celebration. Is it observed in Greece?” I asked, in what was a shameful display of ignorance. “It is a big day in Greece and Cyprus, a national holiday”, he informed me. 


Despite its overt identification with England—courtesy, I guess, the football fans—St George’s Day is yet to be declared a national holiday in England. That could be because national holidays in the United Kingdom tend to be infrequent and, apart from the four days of Easter and the two days of Christmas, remarkably non-denominational—Bank holidays in May and August doesn’t offend the prevailing spirit of multiculturalism. Groups and communities celebrate everything from Eid, Diwali, Guy Fawkes Day, the Solar Solstice and the Queen’s official birthday. But national holidays tend to be seriously rationed. 


When it comes to the United Kingdom—a curious mixture of a Heritage State and post-national cosmopolitanism—it is always hazardous to talk of new traditions. However, I would like to hazard the guess that very shortly, maybe even in a year’s time, St George’s Day may well become the newest of national holidays in England, celebrated with the same measure of joyousness as St Patrick’s Day in the Republic of Ireland. 


The outcome of the British general election of May 7 is in some doubt. The number of seats won by the political parties will no doubt be known by the time this edition of the newspapers reaches readers but who will be Prime Minister and which coalition will endure the statutory five-year term of the House of Commons will, in all likelihood, take a longer time to determine. However, regardless of the detailed outcome, historians may well come to regard the 2015 poll as a landmark election—as significant as the Liberal win in 1906, the Labour landslide of 1945 or, for that matter, Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979. 


The landmark elections of the 20th century were defined in terms of the social and economic legislation that flowed from their Parliaments. The Liberal and Labour governments elected in 1906 and 1945 created the modern British welfare state; and the Conservative ‘counter-revolution’ of 1979 re-established the primacy of the market economy and globalisation. In 2015, regardless of whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is resident of 10 Downing Street, the UK is likely to witness a new phenomenon: the regionalisation of politics that threatens its very survival.


To those familiar with late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, this isn’t as new as it seems. The Home Rule agitation led to a sizable Irish nationalist bloc in Westminster with priorities that were totally at variance with the assumptions of the Liberals and the Tories, then the two national parties. Accommodating Irish aspirations within the Westminster system that involved the pre-eminence of Parliament proved impossible and increasingly the separatist Irish MPs began to be viewed as a tumour that Britain was best rid of. What contributed most significantly to the exasperation of both the Tory leader Lord Salisbury and the Liberal stalwart William Gladstone was that a solid bloc of some 85 Irish nationalist MPs held the balance of power amid fierce competition between the two parties in the other regions of the UK. In 1892, Gladstone became Prime Minister on the strength of ‘outside’ support of the Irish nationalists. But far from integrating Ireland into the power structure, the inconclusive talks on Home Rule increased the gulf between Catholic Ireland and the rest of the UK. When Ireland finally went its own way, Winston Churchill wrote impishly: “The two supreme services which Ireland has rendered Britain are her accession to the Allied cause on the outbreak of the Great War, and her withdrawal from the House of Commons at its close.”


History doesn’t always repeat itself but it just may. Scottish nationalism, fuelled on tales of Jacobite valour, had always enjoyed folklore status in Scotland but politically it was insignificant until the Scottish National Party beat Labour into second place in the Scottish Parliament election of 2007. Since then it has been an upward journey, despite the resounding No vote in the 2014 referendum when Labour and Conservative joined forces, to the point where it is expected to win more than 50 of the 59 seats from Scotland. If this landslide does become a reality and the Conservatives fail to win 24 extra seats in England and Wales, the SNP will hold the balance of power. In a situation reminiscent of the 1890s, the UK government will be held hostage to a party that is limited to just one region and which has a clear pro-independence agenda. 


On paper the SNP isn’t demanding another referendum: it is seeking to make governance impossible. At present, the differences between the SNP and the rest seem irreconcilable. First, it is quite firmly opposed to fiscal austerity and controlling the fiscal deficit. It wants a steep increase in spending on health and education that is beyond the capacity of the British exchequer. Secondly, it seeks a drastic reduction in defence expenditure and the scrapping of the Trident programme. Thirdly, it is firmly committed to enhancing Britain’s engagement in the European Union at a time when the mood in England is sharply opposed to the curtailment of national sovereignty. Finally, it has no intention of giving up its demand for an independent Scotland as the price for power sharing in Westminster. It is in fact seeking to create an emotional schism between England and Scotland to the point when there is widespread relief in both London and the Shires at the departure of Scotland from the Union. 


So far Scotland has bred a nationalism that is a blend of “progressive politics” (a euphemism for hard Left economics and trendy social policies) and “civic nationalism.” There has been no countervailing reaction in England, although both Conservatives and Labour grudgingly acknowledge that English identity needs to be taken on board and rescued from mavericks on the Far Roght. However, if the SNP decides to force its agenda on a Labour that is under pressure from its committed grassroots to unsettle the legacy of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that has ruled since 2010, we are likely to see open warfare between a Britain that seeks to combine prosperity with stability and another Britain whose mood has become increasingly reckless. 


During the election campaign the Conservatives have tangentially invoked English nationalism by invoking the larger threat posed by the SNP. However, if floating voters, in the belief that this is just another routine election, fail to accord this message any urgency, Britain could be in for turbulent times. As a major financial hub of international capital, any move to impose punitive taxes on the successful will see both a flight of capital and a run on Sterling. 


Only two major countries in the EU—Germany and the UK—have staged a recovery from the financial crisis that hit the world of capitalism in 2008. In the case of UK, the turnaround has been more modest. The politics in the aftermath of today’s results will determine whether the forward movement is maintained or sharply reversed. 


Celebrating St George’s Day in a dispirited London doesn’t look terribly appetizing. In a more normal UK it can be exhilarating. 

The Telegraph, May 8, 2015

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