The Phoney War in British and Scottish Politics Will End Soon
Sunday Mail, January 10th 2016
The big news this week wasn’t the Corbyn re-shuffle of people no one had heard of. Nor was it Cameron’s retreat on the Euro referendum over Cabinet collective responsibility. And it certainly wasn’t Donald Trump threatening to pull future investments from Scotland.
Nor was it the hostile words between Saudi Arabia and Iran or continued anxieties about terrorism. Instead, it was instability in the world economy, Chinese economic wobbles, their currency devaluing again and stock market falling by 7%, contributing to a mind-blowing £2.5 trillion being wiped off world markets in a matter of days.
While these turbulent economic storms blow over our heads, British and Scottish politics are strangely becalmed, focused on the small stuff, and seemingly unaware of choppy times ahead.
The Conservative Party has mastered the art of success for more than 150 years. George Osborne this week emphasised that austerity wasn’t over and people couldn’t just start spending the proceeds of growth.
In the real world, the economic recovery is fragile and unbalanced based on personal consumption, spiraling household debt, property prices and the biggest Balance of Payments deficit in UK history. London house prices sit at an ‘average’ £531,000: more unsustainable than the Blair/Brown ‘bubble’ of fantasyland Britain.
It is not an age of easy prediction. It is a time of surprises from Corbyn to Trump. Sometimes things look in contradictory directions at the same time. The Conservative dominance of Britain is based on a very narrow base, representing a mere 24.3% of the electorate, and 10.6% of the electorate and one MP in Scotland.
Yet Cameron’s election victory was historic in that it represents the first full term government elected with a higher vote since Anthony Eden replaced Churchill in 1955. Cameron is the first Prime Minister to be elected heading up one governing alliance, and for it to change at the subsequent election – becoming PM as head of a formal coalition in 2010, then a Tory Government in 2015 – since Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.
It is an age of historical precedents being shattered. Neither Eden or MacDonald turned out to be great successes. But at the start of the year, the Tories are more popular than in the recent election that they won: something which hasn’t happened since Churchill won in 1951.
Many Labour people and left-wingers have historically not understood the resilience of Tory England. They have done so at their peril, putting themselves at a huge disadvantage. It isn’t an accident that until Tony Blair, Labour had only ever won two elections which produced full term governments: 1945 and 1966.
Jeremy Corbyn presided over the longest and smallest reshuffle ever known. The extent and limits of his power were illustrated by how few people he was able to move. And yet however bad Corbyn’s camp might be at politics, they are getting more serious in intent by the day.
This is a leadership which thinks it can remake Labour. It is playing for high stakes, asserting the power of party members over MPs, and even over Labour voters. If it doesn’t pull it off, and everything points to them not doing so, Corbyn will become a small footnote in history.
Ever since Thatcher, political leadership has been about hero figures: part Presidential, part-warrior figures. It is an illusion. Thatcher wasn’t like that until her third term and near the end (Falklands war apart); it was this imperious style which finally brought her down. The same with Blair.
Neither Cameron and Corbyn are in control of their parties, being forced to compromise. That’s not necessarily bad politics, but it does beg the question: when will the myth of Thatcherite leadership finally be put to rest?
Scotland is in limbo. The SNP have become the natural party of government, and are slowly morphing into the party of the status quo of public life, having to defend all sorts of shrinking services and spending.
Long gone is the hype of ‘Red Nicola’. Rather it is careful, considered government, trying to reassure voters and with a bit more mood music of detail than the Salmond years. Even the odd scandal from parliamentarians doesn’t change the big picture, just as it didn’t at the height of New Labour in 1997.
Since the start of New Year I have been reading the diaries of the 1930s and war years of Stalin’s ambassador to Britain – Ivan Maisky. They cover appeasement, the phoney war, and the descent into global war. They are a gripping insight into British ruling circles. He quotes an observation of how the Tories deal with the 1931 Invergordon naval mutiny that ‘these people know how to rule. They need to be taken seriously’.
This era in British and Scottish politics is another phoney war. We are living in a lull, as huge storm clouds gather in the UK, Europe and the world. It isn’t an age for easy answers, but it is clear that Cameron and Corbyn are politicians of the transition, merely marking time. Can anyone in Labour or Tories, or the SNP start to offer a compass through these turbulent times?