scholars and rogues

The Silly Season

It was, I admit, a bit of a surprise to discover that my new country has anarchists around. Not the Kropotkin bomb-makers, of course–the bomb-makers we do have don’t seem motivated by anarchy, exactly. It’s a much more reasonable form of anarchism, as far as I can tell, although I haven’t really investigated it in any depth. But, still, some folks I admire–artist Clifford Harper, folk group Chumbawamba–claim to be anarchists. And it’s not just here, I gather–there’s an annual Anarchist Book Fair in Ghent, and one in London, and who knows where else. This has probably been a good year for this sort of thing, considering the death of capitalism and all.

And they have certainly had lots of good news this week, of a sort. The English have always had a bit of a libertarian streak–just look how they drive–and those of that persuasion got lots of confirmation recently. For one thing, it’s autumn, which means it’s time for the annual party conferences. So last week we had the Liberal Democrats blowing themselves up a little bit, this week we seem to have had the Labour party disengaging completely from reality, and next week who knows what the Conservative party will manage to come up with. For another thing, it was just one of those weeks that had a lot of news flow that would make an anarchist smile.

Consider the recent measures the government has been putting forward under the Childcare Act passed three years ago with, presumably, good intentions. It basically said that childcare providers must be registered, with a whole raft of exemptions. One of these exemptions was mothers, funnily enough, but even there it gets complicated. The Independent valiantly tries to explain it:

The legislation, which came into force three years ago, is complicated. It says mothers who look after each other’s children are generally exempt from the requirement to register as childminders if they provide the service for less than two hours a day or 14 days a year. If one mother, Mrs A, goes to the house of another, Mrs B, to look after Mrs B’s child, she is also exempt because it is considered home care. But if Mrs A took Mrs B’s child to her own home, it would be deemed to be offering a childcare service.

Well, that seems clear enough. But now Ofsted, the educational authority which is sadly tasked with enforcing the provisions of the law, has decided to challenge the childcaring arrangements made by two policewomen who are taking care of each other’s children:

Ofsted has “lost the plot” by telling two police officers they broke the law by caring for each other’s children, it was claimed today.

Margaret Morrissey, of the parents’ pressure group, ParentsOutloud, said: “If we have reached the point in our society when we cannot trust our very close friends to look after each other’s children, I think it is time to give up and go and live in another country.”

She was speaking after the children’s services watchdog said the police officers’ arrangement contravened the Childcare Act because they were providing a childminding service for a reward. As such, the two mothers would have to register as childminders and subject themselves to regular inspections by Ofsted. The Children’s minister, Vernon Coaker, has ordered a review of the case and officials from his department are discussing with Ofsted how to interpret the meaning of the word “reward”.

It would take a far longer post than this one to detail the various controversies that have arisen from this law, however well-intentioned it may have been. But it once again raises the question of whether a Labour government can actually run anything that works the way it’s supposed to.

Nothing that anyone heard at this week’s Labour conference will have provided any consolation. Peter Mandelson suddenly is the darling of the party, after having been deeply loathed for the past decade, at least. It has constantly been a race to the bottom between Mandelson and Jack Straw, the current justice minister, whom Alan Watkins once described as “emerging from the slime”, or something along those lines. And I guess the view is that at least each has some vestiges of competence. Gordon Brown, on the other had, continues to lurch from one panic attack to another. His big speech yesterday basically (a) blamed the financial crisis on the Tories (who haven’t been in power since 1997), and (b) declared war on capitalism, or something, in an attempt to bring back the unions that the party has managed to infuriate since 1997 (through the constant and nibbling privatization of anything that moves, and some things that don’t, like the Royal Mail, Mandelson’s big idea). Every week it’s something new, it seems. If we’re not about to trash the schools further, we’re about to once again try to completely destroy the English countryside.

Brown himself looks like he’s in a perpetual state of coronary attack. Which I hope he isn’t, really, since I don’t want to inflict that on anyone. But he is deeply unpopular and approaching being an object of ridicule. His failed attempts to set up a bilateral meeting with Obama while in Pittsburgh elicited howls of laughter here, and a bit of pity as well–not a good position from which to lead a party which in one poll is now running third behind the Tories and the Lib Dems. And of course none of this is helped by Labour apparently deciding that its decade-long infatuation with the rich, especially the City rich, has reached the limits of its usefulness. It seems like only yesterday that Tony Blair was forever availing himself of the hospitality of the fabulously wealthy at every opportunity, especially around vacation time. Now Labour is going after the rich as vociferously as it can. Seems like old times. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if Labour weren’t also going after the middle class–on which it has relied for successive election victories–with just as much enthusiasm. At least he finally seems to be abandoning the ID card fiasco–although one can never be sure with these guys.

Well, Labour does indeed have a problem, and it’s not just Brown, as deeply unpopular as he undoubtedly is. It’s that practically everyone else is even more unpopular. Mandelson and Straw are both widely loathed outside the party. Alan Johnson, who several talking heads considered an appropriate replacement for Brown last spring before melting into oblivion as the Home Secretary, has proved, as they say, a damp squib. The fabulous Miliband boys remain just that. Education minister Ed Balls is just pathetic–his recent “big idea” of “saving” a couple of billion pounds by eliminating most of the leadership at secondary schools was hooted at, and will probably not ever be heard of again. Part of the problem here is that Labour is chock full of people who have never done anything else. Well, several of them were lawyers, but I don’t really think of that as doing “something else”. It’s like the Republican party these days–a bunch of people who work for the party, and then get elected to something. This is about as far from the real world as it gets, and it’s not exactly a training ground for preparing legislation that might actually work.

All of this will bring the Lib Dems a fair amount of cheer, after they managed to screw up their own conference last week. Actually, I like the Lib Dems, and if I could vote here, that’s probably who I would vote for (certainly not the arrogant and preening Glenda Jackson, who is technically my MP, and who has accomplished absolutely nothing of note during her tenure). It has a number of serious and thoughtful leaders–Nick Clegg, the party leader, Vince Cable, who is really the smartest guy in the room whatever room he happens to be in, and Menzies Campbell, who led the party in opposition to the Iraq fiasco. And the Lib Dems do hold their own in the local elections around Britain–in the last series of elections earlier this year, they got more votes than Labour, and in general they do pretty well head to head against the other two parties in local elections. But they haven’t been able to capture any real electoral advantage in the Parliamentary elections thus far, holding steady around 20% the last several elections. Maybe this time will be different, but the party’s big proposal at the conference–a surtax on homes valued at more than £1 million–flopped big time. As someone pointed out, in just the Borough of Richmond in London, most of the houses are valued at more than £1 million-and they’re mostly owned by retirees. It’s actually a fairly modest tax, and it may only affect 1% of the property owners in the country, but still. Clegg himself gave an ok speech, but the damage was done. Yes, it’s a wealth tax, but there are probably better wealth taxes.

So next week we get David Cameron and the Tories. Cameron has done a pretty good job of making the Tories palatable–he’s young, he rides his bike, he is unwavering in his support of the NHS, he has good instincts, he’s apparently turned the party green (although we’ll see if this remains the case if he gets into power), and he’s not Thatcher. At the moment, that seems to be enough. But the Tories will always be Tories–there are still some crackpots floating around, but it has to be said that so far Cameron has kept a lid on things. Right now, he looks fresh, and Brown looks very, very tired. And it’s not as if there would really be major changes in the direction of anything. Ross McKibbin’s excellent article on the election in the current issue of The London Review of Books is entitled “Will we notice when the Tories have won?”, and he has a point. None of the parties, whichever gets elected into a majority, will have much room to manoeuvre.

And McKibbin argues convincingly that Cameron has a much harder task here than Brown does. Brown simply has to convince people that things are still on the right track, and that he’s not Old Labour–a difficult task, certainly, but a straightforward one. Cameron has to keep his promises, which may be a bit harder to do:

Historically, however, the Conservative Party hasn’t always been penny-pinching; and even when it has, the pinching was often more apparent than real. The financial crisis, undoubtedly seen by many Tories as an opportunity to wield the axe, has been an embarrassment for Cameron. Previously, his fiscal policies had hardly been different from Brown’s. His aim was to keep government spending at high levels, especially on health and education, and not to make dangerous promises on tax. He had been firm on that, even in the face of a good deal of unease within his party. What happened cut the ground from under his feet as much as Brown’s. He simply hadn’t been thinking in terms of cuts; waste and red tape yes, but not cuts. To make things more complicated, he obviously still believes that any significant ‘attack’ on the NHS is politically impossible. The increasingly bizarre criticisms of the NHS in the United States have also compelled him, out of a sense of national loyalty if nothing else, to reaffirm this commitment: hence the promise not only to maintain current levels of spending but to raise them above the rate of inflation in the next parliament. This is a promise probably a majority of Tory MPs regret and most (privately or publicly) think impossible to fulfil.

Cameron’s position is shaky. He leads a party with warring fiscal traditions and he doesn’t currently represent the predominant Thatcherite one. He has made commitments on spending which, if maintained, will limit his and Osborne’s freedom to manoeuvre. Within the party the usual attempts are being made to argue that you can make ‘safe’ cuts by spending more effectively. Michael Gove, the education spokesman, is particularly strong on this. But one thing the Thatcher governments did demonstrate is that there are no ‘safe’ cuts to be found in the public services – or, if there are, no one has yet found where to make them. Cameron knows that. Yet everyone agrees that there will have to be cuts, and if health, education, defence and the Home Office are ring-fenced they will have to fall very heavily on a small number of programmes.

Meanwhile, there are nine months to go, and considerable scope for Labour–indeed, anyone–to trip over its own feet further. But if trends hold, we’re unlikely to see another Labour government in its current form–there could be a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, or a Tory/Lib Dem coalition, if neither Labour nor the Tories gains an absolute majority. But, as McKibbin notes, there is little likelihood of major changes in anything, really, if either Labour or the Tories become the majority party:

That the Labour Party has a fundamentally Tory conception of the state also diminishes partisan politics. It was not inevitable that Labour would adopt such a conception; but the fact is that having done so, it has maintained it for most of its history. Labour and the Conservatives do not always agree about what the state might do, but they agree about its institutions and hierarchies. That is why Labour has never been able to free itself from the inherited institutions of the British state: king-in-Parliament, a state church, a semi-medieval constitution, an overblown defence and security apparatus. And when it has tinkered with the state, even on important issues like devolution or the new supreme court, that has served only to make the whole system even more incoherent. Rather than challenging the Tory idea of the state, New Labour has entrenched it: to its cost.

All of which would bring a smile to the face of any self-respecting anarchist. Because he or she knows it could be worse–no one here is calling for a military coup.

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5 replies »

  1. Great post – but you haven’t seen my husband drive – he is half French. And as for the Belgians… (and my first husband was half Belgian).

    “..he’s young, he rides his bike..” with his car shadowing him!

    Still Mr Blue Go Green gets my vote…

  2. I know, I was just in Bruges and Ghent this past weekend. Downright scary. But they do stop if you step in front of them. I’ve seen English drivers not even slow down. And hat car following Cameron? It’s to get in front of some English driver before they get near Cameron!

  3. London is a law unto itself…and I would need to check the population of origin stats. 😉

  4. I agree with you on the Lib Dems except, every now and then, they release their hounds of idiocy and you realise that – just beneath the surface – they’re completely nuts. In Oxford, we’re dominated by both the Lib Dems and Labour, and the silly assenine rubbish that they thrust through my letter-box is extremely annoying. As a crass, materialist capitalist (in other words, someone who owns a business and employes people) neither of them thinks anything of regularly using my demographic as the label for everything evil in the world.

    Nice one, considering that the UK is, as the French famously said, “A nation of shopkeepers.”

  5. Thanks. Actually, in Camden the Lib Dems are the least objectionable, probably, and one or two have been very good indeed. Recent Tory candidates looked and sounded good until they got elected, and then turned out to be, well, something different. The deal here is trying to preserve residential, particularly neighborhood, integrity, which the Tories always support until there’s an actual voteon something, and they always go the wrong way on these. Disappointing. The Labour people, of course, are just hopeless. And I’m a natural Labour kind of guy. But they lost me with Iraq, and haven’t done a thing since then to try to get me back.