Wednesday, 6 September 2017

OMG-where do we go from here?

The most potent force for change in Britain's political life  isn't so much  elections, which mainly mark paragraphs in the story, but the great mood swings  which occur every few decades and change the whole course of policy. One occurred after the First World War which killed  Victorian certainties and faith in the inevitability of progress. Another followed the second as the post war settlement shifted the balances from wealth and capitalism and towards the people, with a welfare state, progressive taxation and Keynesian demand management to ensure growth and full employment

This led to three or four decades of affluence, les trentes glorieuses for the French, the never had it so good years for the British but the settlement came under increasing strain from inflation and balance of payments problems and in its turn, broke up, ushering in what Jim Callaghan described as the next great sea change.

That brought in the age of neoliberalism. The state was rolled back to empower the market, austerity cut back the welfare state  and utilities were privatised, Finance ruled, industry declined and growth for all was replaced by a zero sum grab by wealth.

Now after its four decades neoliberalism is coming to an end. Living standards have stalled, inequality has grown, the elite have been excessively greedy, the promised regeneration has failed and a peasants' revolt has  protested against austerity, neo-liberalism and the long decline into the EU. This new change in the tide produces the major question. Where do we go from here? 

New tides surge in because of abuse of power by the dominant interest. The post war settlement was designed to favour labour as against capital which had abused its power before the war.It strengthened union rights, and empowered the people by welfare and full employment.

Instead of cooperating, as  German labour did, the unions took a confrontational attitude to business, opted for capitalist competition by free collective bargaining, empowered the shop stewards and defeated all attempts at reform by both Wilson and Heath.Union power used in this negative way was denounced as excessive by management and the media, and seen as the major cause of Britain's slow growth and comparative decline. Certainly it was powerful enough to bring down two governments, Ted Heath's in 1974 and  their own Labour government in the winter of discontent of 1979.

With the power of labour abused capital took its revenge.The incoming Tory government by broke the unions, under-ran the economy to discipline labour by higher unemployment, privatised the great utilities and decimated the industries which were the centres of their power to create a new balance in which capital, business and Finance were  dominant.

In its turn the new dominant interest abused its power by greed,speculation, debasement of standards by banks and financial interests, by driving down wages and cutting costs, and by tax evasion and levels of skullduggery unimaginable for earlier generations.

Now, after four decades that abuse of power has produced its own nemesis in a failing economy which can't pay its way in the world and a tax base which can't support strong defence and the standards of health care, housing and education demanded by a modern society. The left behind people have revolted against austerity, globalisation, inequality and static incomes .The time is ripe for the next shift in the balances and a new direction of travel.

Though Capital's dominance has clearly failed it's difficult to see what will replace it. Both major parties are treading water and groping for new solutions .Thought is palsied by the great Brexit debate which will dominate everything in the near future. Yet past experience  makes one thing clear. The interests must be better balanced to avoid swinging the pendulum so far in any one direction that the dominant interest can abuse its power as both Labour and capital have done in their time.

This suggests neither socialism nor neoliberalism, but cooperation in the national interest  with a balance ensured by effective, independent regulation so that power in any of its shapes and forms can't be abused. The market can't do it. The state is too cumbersome. Only  independent regulation of workers rights and capitalism's duties  can bring the conflicting interests  towork together to build a stronger economy and pursue the national interest, rather than continuing a zero sum struggle for a dominance which both will only abuse.

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