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Living in the Valley of the Fallen

Spanish Francoists and English Tories are using economic suffering to impose a right-wing populist agenda and if it goes ahead in Britain it will transform the country into a nasty little place. What is worrying is that there is virtually no sign of any strategy that might actually save Britain from this fate.

It is probably barely worth writing this – everyone who might possibly read it will know it already, and those who really need to become more aware of it are in the middle of the biggest propaganda effort at least since the aftermath of 11 September 2001. But its worth repeating anyway, if only to get it off my chest. The European right and the European elite have with no shame, no sign of remorse, used a massive disaster almost wholly of their causing as a blunt excuse to further pursue their right-wing elite agenda. Disgusting doesn’t begin to cover it.

Let’s start in Spain – once again courtesy of translations from the Spanish intern currently staying with us. Valle de los Caidos or Valley of the Fallen is a giant memorial built by Franco nominally to those who died in the Civil War (whether it was meant to represent the dead of both sides is contested). In reality it is just the usual ideology in stone produced by all fascists, a predictable mixture of the projection of power married to religious conservatism. As if the symbolism and context were not ugly enough, about a tenth of the workforce who built it were political prisoners from the republican side. Again, there is ‘controversy’ over whether it was forced labour or fair labour – they were offered a small pay and time off their sentences if they cooperated. What I think we can assume is that none of these people would willingly want to build an ideological monstrosity which everyone knew was to symbolise the power of the fascist who murdered so many.

It has remained a rather visible point of division ever since, with neo-Francoists using it as a site of pilgrimage. So in 2004 the socialist government passed the Historical Memory law making it illegal for political rallies to be held there. Then in 2009 it closed indefinitely the basilica at the site, one of the main focuses for Francoist pilgrimages. Of course, a right-wing pro-austerity government was elected in the middle of the first part of the crash, elected on a platform of prudent management of public finances and the economy. But undeterred by the financial crisis swirling around Spain, last week it reopened the monument and declared that it would be a ‘memorial for all the fallen’. Short of asking Jews, Roma, trade unionists and gays to stand quietly before a giant statue of Hitler and quietly remember their lost family members, it is hard for me to imagine a less fitting proposal. The right in Spain has never really given up its tacit inklings for all things Franco. And it certainly hasn’t wasted time in using an economic crisis to push that agenda.

Here of course we haven’t had a civil war for absolutely ages; our right wing is all about class war. So the valley in which our fallen lie is the welfare state. We’re developing a major paper on an economic vision for Scotland and in it we keep coming back to a simple statement – the economy is a system for social provisioning. That is to say that the only purpose of the economy is to make sure everyone has everything they need. It is not ‘separate’ from society, it is one function of society. So if people do not have everything they need, it is an economic failure, not a social failure or a political failure. Our economy has been converted from a system of social provisioning into a cartel for the enrichment of the few.

Not according to Cameron. He waits for the economy to collapse and throw guiltless people into poverty and then uses it to attack the guiltless people on the basis of a straightforward populist imaginary enemy. That enemy is the ‘undeserving poor’, the Daily Mail invention of rich benefit cheats with multiple children sipping champagne at our expense. Just in case I haven’t gone about this enough, populism is the practice of controlling the majority by setting them against a minority among them perceived as ‘the enemy’. It is not uncommon to see this tactic but when used consistently and with purpose it tends towards what we generally know as fascism. Obviously I’m not equating Cameron to a fascist, only that by dealing with economic crisis by blaming a powerless group in society he is doing precisely what led to fascism in Europe – only its Muslim immigrants and the poor to whom our ire is being drawn, not Jews, gypsies and trade unionists.

I write this with some care – the left has a bad habit of shouting ‘fascist’ at anything we don’t like. My point is more straightforward; a nasty right-wing agenda is being pursued using the economic suffering of millions as an excuse and vilification of the weak as a means of cover. It is happening in Italy, Greece, and Spain – but it is also happening in Britain, Germany and France (though in France the timeline means that the rise of the far right actually harmed the right’s ability to pursue its agenda). Many others have dismantled Cameron’s fallacious arguments which are largely based on intentional misrepresentation, misunderstanding, prejudice and the art of distraction. Reality starts from the point that about 80 per cent of his target villains/victims are completely different than the belligerent story he tells about them.

I entirely understand the theory of how this process works and have written about it for years. Consistent long-term propaganda from a sequence of sources is something from which we think we are immune, but we’re not. Decades of Daily Mail propaganda along with a highly organised right-wing programme of misinformation-driven political restructuring (can I call it a plot?) are powerful weapons. Even so, I am amazed at the ease with which (according to opinion polls) the general consensus south of the border has been so easily shifted from anger at the elite (mainly in the form of bankers) to hatred of the poor. Then again, being from the generation I am I never really understood how the Great Depression ended up with poor people in Europe hating the Jews. It doesn’t really make sense, but it happens.

The outcome? We’re all right in the middle of the valley of the fallen. In this landscape mighty power looms over us and forces us to hate anything it can make us hate so long as none of us think of getting up and walking away. And we continue to fall. Cameron’s welfare speech should have been seen as extremist but it seems to have been accommodated under the banner of ‘Common Sense’ by many in England. Which means that the toe Cameron has dipped into this muddy pool will be feeling pleasantly warm and tingly just now – the days when he cared what Polly Toynbee wrote are long gone (although that is true for many of us…). He’s tried nasty populism and the fallen (which after all is most of us) seemed to quite like it. We can expect more.

What is most terrifying is the response from the other side. It seems to me that Ed Milliband is quite a well-meaning chap, but in this battle he seems to me to be way out of his depth. He thinks that the response is to go on and on and on about the ‘squeezed middle’. But he doesn’t seem to realise that this is exactly the same game plan as Cameron – the middle is squeezed by rich chancres above (in Cameron’s version this is only Jimmy Carr) and undeserving poor below. Squeezed from all sides by the enemy. How is this meant to help? How is this meant to offer an alternative take which isn’t about each against all? I can’t see it, I can’t see even the merest hint of a strategy for fighting back against right-wing populism. A strategy for possibly getting into power, yes. Changing power? No. Cameron might be using the fire to burn down the house but to me it looks like Milliband is just taking the opportunity to cook some sausages.

Britain has started in a bad-old place and seems to me to be setting its course towards somewhere worse. Those proposing independence have at least put forward a mechanism which can credibly address this problem (admittedly only in Scotland). No, it doesn’t mean we will necessarily succeed, but the intention, strategy and structure are contained in the plans. If unionists want to provide Scotland a mechanism then they need to start talking about full fiscal devolution along with media regulation and full devolution of welfare. If they want to provide a mechanism at a UK level, they are going to have to give themselves a very serious shake. Because right now I can see no sign of it and the ways in which I could imagine it being done require a shake-up of the British state almost as fundamental as Scottish independence.

Robin McAlpine