The black hole where the election ought to be
The UK election is a sham. It’s time for a whole new politics.
‘Why aren’t the little people getting stuck into the election?’ That’s the question burning a gaping hole into the collective mind of the political and media classes. For years, they’ve fretted over the public’s apathy — apathy being ‘indolence of mind’: nice — and have wondered how they might coax us off our lardy, uncaring arses and into the voting booth; how they might tempt us to, you know, show an interest in politics.
We at spiked think it’s time to turn this question on its head. Forget ‘why isn’t the public taking this election seriously?’. The real stickler, the true mind-bender, is why the political and media elite is taking this election seriously. What is wrong with them? How can they keep a straight face as they indulge an election that contains absolutely no substance, no serious divergence between the parties, no discussion of big ideas, big visions, the future? Their acceptance of this election as normal, even as exciting, is the truly weird behaviour.
There’s nothing normal about this election. It’s time someone pointed out the strangeness of it, the spirit-crushing smallness of it. In essence, the sort of stuff that used to be the concern of local elections — red-tape issues, careers guidance for teens, providing certain services to rural communities — has somehow become the meat of the general election, that once-every-five-years affair at which we once got to choose between traditionalism or semi-socialism; between those who thought power should rest with the upper or capitalist classes and those who thought it should be somewhere nearer the people; between people and institutions that had different visions for how the economy — the very engine of the nation — should be organised; who had different ideas, different values.
And now? David Cameron excitably promises to provide superfast broadband to rural communities. Okay. Get on with it. That’s not a political issue, far less a General Election one — it’s a practical task. Ed Miliband actually made headlines with his promise that Labour will provide ‘face-to-face careers guidance for all 16-year-olds’. What? Various politicos are trying to cajole us into voting by reminding us that Nelson Mandela spent 20 miserable years on Robben Island for the right to vote. Yes, but he did so to secure the right of black people to determine their destinies, to take control of their lives, not so that they could say Yay or Nay to giving spotty youths a 20-minute chat about whether they should go into nursing or retail.
The suffocating smallness of the election is summed up in the parties’ attitudes to economic matters. Labour’s slogan is ‘Balancing the books’. Seriously. It promises there will be ‘no extra borrowing’ under a Labour government. So there will still be borrowing, just not extra borrowing! And that’s it. This from a party whose 1918 manifesto called for the ‘immediate nationalisation’ of the railways, mines and electrical power, the ‘democratic control of industry’, and ‘employment for all’. From calling for ‘the common ownership of the means of production’ to promising to ‘balance the books’ in less than a century. For its part, the Tories, once the party of business and the free market, promise to create a surplus by 2018 so that Britain can ‘start to pay down its debts’.
What we have here, on that most immediate of political issues: the economy, is not a choice between clashing visions of power, of control, of growth and development, but rather between two slightly different bank managers. No wonder that when Cameron didn’t turn up for that TV debate, lots of politicos said ‘Imagine not turning up for a job interview’: they really think this is a job interview, presumably for the position of bean-counter, rather than an opportunity for them and us to engage in an open-ended clash over ideas.
The emptiness of the election can be seen in all the parties’ deadening obsession with tax. Utterly bereft of ideas for how to grow the economy, how to create new wealth, new jobs, massive new forms of industry and infrastructure, instead the parties discuss how to shift around the wealth that already exists. Take some wealth from that person and give it to another person. The centrality of tax to the parties’ economic promises speaks volumes about their static worldview, their incomprehension at the notion that perhaps whole new economies might be created through some serious thought about ditching the aspects of economic life that are not working and coming up with new industrial programmes.
What we can see in this election is how violently the parameters of acceptable political thought have shrunk in recent years. It is no longer appropriate to talk about a centre ground in which all parties, desperate for votes, are coalescing. No, what we have today is not so much a centre ground as a black hole of small thinking and stultifying consensus, a swirling, powerful dynamic that is sucking everyone and everything into it, inviting parties no longer sure what they stand for, and observers who long ago ditched the pursuit of big ideas, to submit themselves to the New Normal: slow, or no, growth; increased state intervention into all areas of life; the restraining of industry in the name of the planet; the maintenance of a vast system of welfarism to care for little people who apparently cannot care for themselves; and the policing of certain ideas and forms of speech, in the academy, in the press and in the public square, in order to pacify public passions and stabilise the nation. Those are the nuts and bolts of the narrow new consensus, the ‘ideas’ that bind all wings of the increasingly shrinking political and media spheres, and which no amount of stage-managed shouting — whether on TV, on Twitter or in press outlets that still fantasise about Britain being split between Thatcherites and Labourites — can disguise.
At the heart of this black hole of post-politics and dead ideologies there lurks Tina — There Is No Alternative, Thatcher’s maxim, which, for all of today’s Thatcher-bashing posturing, is now the dominant outlook. Strikingly, even among those who eschew parliamentary politics in favour of taking apparently grassroots, radical action, the terrifying smallness of the New Normal finds expression. In fact, these groups effectively demand that politics and the economy should be even smaller. Whether it’s anti-fracking groups agitating against our unearthing of new resources to energise economic growth, or the informal tax collectors of groups like UK Uncut who parrot officialdom’s belief that shifting about existing wealth is all we can hope for, or Russell Brand and his dopey acolytes bemoaning globalisation and capitalist greed, the only real challenge to the shrinking parameters of political thought is coming from those who think they should be shrunk even further.
As a consequence of the collapse of a once-divergent political landscape into a black hole of sameyness, those who still have big ideas find themselves branded extremists. As the parameters of politics have shrunk, many now find themselves outsiders, even pariahs — not because they have changed what they think or say, but because what it is acceptable to think and say has changed. The shrinking of politics makes mad extremists of those who might once have been considered simply principled or even quite moderate. For example, 20 years ago, calling for the building of new airports and the expansion of globe-trotting travel opportunities to more and more sections of society might have seen you talked of as a liberal or a capitalist or as pro-business. Now it will earn you the tag ‘climate change denier’ and ‘despoiler of the skies’, and you will be invited to play the freak in polite debates with the obedient inhabitants of the black hole.
To those of us who still believe in massive economic growth, unfettered freedom, the right of all to speak their minds, and for schools and universities to teach the Classics, Greek, Latin and everything excellent and human, the same cry is always made from the black hole: ‘That’s not realistic.’ It’s not realistic to have huge new industries, because the planet will suffer. It’s not realistic to allow full freedom, because people cannot be trusted. It’s not realistic to pass great knowledge on to a new generation, because many of them won’t get it: it’s not relevant to their lives. But if we only ever did what was ‘realistic’, there would have been no Industrial Revolution, no splitting of the atom, no walking on the Moon.
It’s time to kill off Tina. It’s time to question the validity of an election that gives us no real choice over the economic growth or moral future of our nation and our lives. It’s time to move beyond what is realistic to ask what is desirable. And spiked, which proudly inhabits a moral universe a million light years away from the black hole of the New Normal, thinks vast new wealth, more freedom, more scientific and social experimentation, and the cultivation of excellence in every area of education and human endeavour is highly desirable. We vote for that — not on 7 May, of course, where it isn’t an option, but every day, in our articles and essays and debates, in our invitation to readers to resist the lure of the black hole of realistic policies and to embrace instead a bigger, more human, possibly quite risky politics.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.