For the SNP and Labour to respond to the unpopular bits of the Budget without convincing us this is part of a realistic programme for the transformation of society is simply failure hiding in a sheen of victory.
Tories are tories; we know that. They have been salivating at the idea that they would be able to privatise the NHS and cut taxes for corporations and the rich. That they did this in quite such a cack-handed manner is up to them. And the Lib Dems? It seems to me to matter little whether they have convince themselves that they are actually doing something good in government or whether they feel left with no option but to brazen this out. What seems to me to be missing is any sense of ‘the other side’.
There is no need to labour this point – it is hardly a new one. New Labour was entirely committed to a neoliberal economic (and to some extent social) agenda but believed that the best way to get there was to maintain some sheen of social cohesion among the wider population. And it was very much that way round – neoliberal economics may have been prevented as the tool for social equity but there is precious little evidence to suggest that in fact it was that way round. To illustrate this point I simply leave you to write down in one list all the kinds of people who were stonewalled on reasonable policy issues and in another list those who got their policy demands virtually without asking. You’ll quite quickly see who the policy programme was really working for.
The Tories don’t feel any need to shore up their neoliberal policies with social equity; they only needed to pretend they cared about fairness for long enough to get into power. By the time anyone has noticed there is no equity in what they are doing there will be not much of an NHS left and the roads will be owned by Tesco.
So what is the current alternative? Here we hit a problem that I continue to believe is at the heart of the problem (although I know some of you think I’m being precious) – there is no consistent alternative philosophy. We get instead a policy ‘alternative’ which is shaped primarily by supporting the bits of neoliberalism that seem popular and opposing the other bits. So Labour will reverse privatisation of the NHS – but will continue to accept that some private profit being drawn from the NHS is a good thing. This position holds even though it was Labour’s introduction of profit into the NHS that made its demise possible.
Meanwhile, the SNP is still stuck in a corporation hole in which it looks increasingly uncomfortable but refuses doggedly to leave. The SNP strategy was ‘free market, low tax, low regulation economy, Nordic welfare system and non-agressive foreign policy stance’. This model is based on a fragment of time, a five-year period when some people thought this could be true (look at Iceland, Ireland…).
And so the responses to the Budget are predictable and unconvincing. What is the alternative strategy? Just enough rich-person-baiting to look like you’re doing something but nothing to structurally alter the inequality of the UK? Supporting pensioners but not supporting those on welfare (which has the same level of moral justification as saving a panda but allowing the extinction of frogs because one is pretty and the other not)? Welcoming corporation tax cuts simply because they are popular with powerful people and based on no sort of analysis of what real impact it will have?
Meanwhile in the wider agenda the problem remains that Labour is shouting at a wall hoping it will fall down. They are going to repeal the NHS legislation at the first possible opportunity. What after that? Will they reverse the Crimean War? By the time Labour gets near power there will be nothing to reverse; it will be the only NHS left. You can’t repeal a death sentence after it is carried out.
And in Scotland we have to keep our disbelief suspended; we’re going to become a Nordic nation by doing what no Nordic nation would do – compete on the basis of low corporation tax. Despite every credible piece of evidence to the contrary, we have to believe this will work.
I don’t doubt the good intentions and will of these parties and their desire to change the politics of Tory Britain. But they need to do it from a solid grounding. It is no good for Ed Milliband to wake up in the morning and criticise what he thinks might not be popular that day, he needs to wake up with a realistic strategy for transforming society, which is the only way he can achieve what he thinks he wants to. And Salmond has to resolve the unsustainable contradiction in his own party’s strategy. Because if he hasn’t noticed, he’s losing the very people who want to support his bigger vision of a Nordic Scotland.
And so if there is no guiding principle to inform what alternative they would had offered to this budget before it happens but only a selection of ‘talking points’ they think would undermine the Government then sooner or later it will fall apart.
Yesterday was the moment when the class war was declared openly by the Lib Dems and the Tories – rob grannies to pay millionaires. At the moment this army of the rich is opposed by massed forced throwing pebbles, unsure what weapons they should actually be using. It is a scavenger strategy, not a basis for creating a better world.