‘Rejoice’ Revisited – Dystopian Democracy

Just over 40 years ago, on 26th April 1982, Margaret Thatcher weaponised the word ‘Rejoice’. It became a term that would forever divide the nation; the assassin’s kiss Thatcherite zealots would use, as much against their own ‘One Nation’ Tories as against Labour and the poor.

Thatcher’s ‘Rejoice’ announced Britain’s first ‘victory’ in the Falklands/Malvinas war. It symbolised the shift into a politics where winning was the only thing that mattered.

Ignore the number of bodies you have to step over. Ignore the dishonesties wrapped up in victory celebrations. Winning was all. Later, the desecration of ‘Rejoice’ seemed complete when Blair repeated it in his 2004 reference to Iraq.

So what does any of this have to do with today? Well, Conservative MPs have gone into similar celebratory rejoicings following the completion of the Metropolitan Police investigation into Downing Street’s ‘Partygate’ debacle. The mood music sees it as Johnson’s ‘get out of jail’ card.

Sack the servants

The MET reported that 83 people had broken the law 186 times during the Covid lockdown, and that 126 fines have been issued. Magically, however, Boris Johnson avoided anything more than a single, fixed-penalty fine. As Labour’s Dennis Skinner MP once observed, “When posh boys are in trouble they sack the servants”. So it is now.

Most of those fined seem to be in their early 20’s and in junior positions. They are the ones likely to be re-shuffled. But at the top of the tree, life will continue as normal. Talk of a ‘no confidence’ motion against the Prime Minister has disappeared. Those who gleefully broke the laws they themselves made will breeze above any sense of accountability. It’s what posh boys do.

The Sue Gray report that follows is unlikely to add much more. The moment has passed and Labour assists it by asking the small questions (‘Why did Gray speak to Johnson before publication?’) rather than bigger ones about the mishandling of the economy and the pandemic itself.

For the moment, external events are coming to Johnson’s rescue. Putin’s war on Ukraine disrupted life on a scale few anticipated. The disastrous consequences of Brexit and the wild-weather upheavals of climate damage wreak havoc with conventional economics. Their combined impact on fuel prices and food supply created a cost-of-living crisis that seems beyond the government’s ability to grasp. This is the space in which a new politics and a new economics has to be written.

The poor are not the problem

Let’s be clear about our starting point. No part of today’s crisis has been caused by the poor. There is no inflationary spiral that has been driven by wage increases. If we are heading into a season of industrial disputes it will be driven by poverty, not by Union power. We are back to the 1920’s.

The real problem is asset-price inflation; most of it driven by financial speculators and the rewards/bonuses paid to senior management, even when their businesses are imploding. Throughout the pandemic the wealth of the richest has grown at the same (frightening) rate as the numbers of people in extreme poverty.

Conventional economics was poleaxed by the pandemic but it delivered a speculators’ bonanza for the rich. In the era of finance capitalism these are the concentrations of wealth that must be taxed. Most of this enrichment currently goes untaxed. The rich have become the new welfare state. But, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, governments prefer not to mention it.

The blind leading the naked

Britain has a similar blind spot over energy. Treasury resistance to a windfall tax on oil and gas companies relies on claiming they don’t want to deter new oil and gas investment. But that is exactly what the planet requires. A race into carbon reduction and renewables offers the only safe space for future generations. Britain is one of the slowest countries to grasp this.

The UK needs a radical re-think of its energy market rules. Putin’s war may have sent energy prices spiralling, but no one even mentions the fact that the market price of gas has tumbled. There is an enormous gas glut. UK ‘day ahead’ gas prices are lower than before the war started. You just wouldn’t know this from anything Ministers, Ofgem or energy companies report.

E-on warns the government that 40% of its customers won’t be able to pay this autumn’s energy bills, but stays silent on the opportunity to lower its own charges.

The nuclear lobby isn’t much better. Both government and Opposition parrot claims that new nuclear subsidies are a necessary part of the answer. Households that can’t pay their current bills will be asked to pay a levy for electricity that may not arrive within their lifetime.

I’m not sure if the nuclear industry has a supply agreement with the afterlife, but large numbers of today’s bill payers will have died long before the first watt of electricity they’ve paid for ever comes through.

The nuclear lobby also conveniently overlooks the huge cost over-runs on current projects and the fact that we still don’t know what to do with nuclear waste. There is no recognition either that 27 of France’s 56 nuclear power stations are not currently operational, or that France fears a hot summer will cut the numbers even further (because river temperatures would be too high to manage the cooling). New nuclear may be another naked lunch, but pay the bill and let’s not talk about it.

The bigger, more immediate and transformative choices are barely discussed. All that’s on offer is the invitation to ‘rejoice’ in distractions.

… it’s where you place the blame.

There’s a memorable Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy comforts Charlie Brown after another baseball defeat. “Never mind, Charlie,” she consoles. “Just remember. It doesn’t matter whether you win or whether you lose. It’s where you place the blame.” Boris’ tribe could not have put it better.

Ignore the fact that Britain has not had a strategic plan for food or energy security for decades. Ignore the opportunity to make heating and eating affordable to households across the land. Ignore the opportunity to embrace a more circular (sustainable) economics. This would require an interventionist government willing to redistribute in favour of the people and the planet. It isn’t the government we have.

Instead, there is a descent into scapegoating. “Learn to cook”, Lee Anderson MP tells the poor. “Just get paid more”, (Rachel Maclean MP); “Work harder, (Boris Johnson MP); “Be a better business” (Jacob Rees-Mogg MP); “Get an Irish passport”, (Andrew Bridgen MP).

Those who can’t just be blamed will be criminalised. Climate protesters are first. Striking trade unionists will follow. Investigative journalists are already being hounded. Even Labour now puts more effort into silencing its internal critics than into defining the shape of a new, post-growth economics.

Paradoxically, Davos more openly acknowledges the nakedness that Labour, the Tories and the Lib-Dems still decline to accept. The next gathering of the world’s richest has an agenda that accepts the era of globalisation has ended. Their concern is how to protect their wealth in whatever follows. Those looking for a more sustainable, democratic and accountable future must take the debate into different spaces.

Somewhere beyond Davos

Urgent reductions in carbon emissions almost certainly begin with shorter supply lines, reduced energy use and the re-localisation of production. What Davos fails to grasp is that tomorrow’s stability also calls out for a new ‘internationalised’ welfare system.

Pandemics don’t recognise national frontiers. What we must learn from Covid is that vaccines must be shared (quickly and freely) on a globalised basis. The same is true for climate breakdown. To avoid tidal flows of forced migrations we need new sources of global finance, to protect, repair and improve the spaces people live in.

Climate breakdown doesn’t recognise national frontiers either. From forest fires ravaging California to floods in Bangladesh, from drought and floods in Australia to villages swept away in Germany, from disappearing rivers to impossible heatwaves in India and Pakistan, the roller coaster of wild weather takes no prisoners. To survive we must reclaim the mantle of being our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.

For the UN, World Bank or whatever to access the scale of resources needed also requires mechanisms that are not tied to nationally determined contributions. Davos won’t offer this, but the scale of wealth now hoarded by finance capital is the obvious starting point.

Half a lifetime ago, the economist James Tobin threw in the answer. His suggestion was a fractional tax on ‘speculative’ capital transactions. Long term investments weren’t included, just the transactions of those treating the financial market as a casino. Objectors pointed out that a Tobin Tax would need to be international in character. And there the debate stopped.

Today, as nation states tire of aid contributions, the remit should be given to the United Nations or the World Bank. Tell the Bank that their own salaries would have to come from the new mechanism and it would be in place within days. The world would have its climate emergency fund. The victims of drought, flood, plague, famine or fire would have the tools to survive and repair. And we would have rediscovered the interdependencies that allow us to call ourselves ‘humanity’.

Then, and only then, would we reclaim the right to rejoice.

Alan Simpson

May 24, 2022


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