LONG READ

Biden’s Inspiration for a Radically Better Future for the United Kingdom

President Joe Biden – Source: The White House

The Inauguration of Biden

Joe Biden is a politician with decades of experience at the highest level of US politics. With the energetic support of his Democratic Party, its senior politicians and its supporters, and despite all the rancour, anti-democratic and hateful un-American behaviour of the Republican Party, he has risen to the occasion of the 2020 Presidential election and gained the Presidency. He deserves great credit, and we should listen to his inaugural address with care.

‘We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos’.

He draws on the historic strengths and achievements of the people of the United States and offers a strong vision of hope and a belief that we can share in the common goals of opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour, and truth for all our people. To defend the truth and defeat the lies. ‘Before God and all of you, I give you my word, I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I’ll defend our democracy. I’ll defend America …Thinking not of power but of possibilities. Not of personal interest but public good.’

He follows Abraham Lincoln in saying ‘My whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation……Uniting to fight the foes we face – anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness.’

A great speech, showing the quality of character of the man. Let us hope it provides a turning point for America. The rest of the world, with the exception of Putin, Orban, Bolsonaro and Johnson, heaves a sigh of relief.

The Disunited Kingdom

The UK has become a very troubled nation. It was troubled in 2008/2010, thanks to the credit crisis, became even more troubled over the period 2010-2016 as a result of the harsh austerity and the Brexit Referendum, and is much more troubled now. The pandemic, Brexit, as well as Government incompetence and corruption, have exposed deep fissures and dissatisfaction in our politics and society. There have, recently, been some areas of goodness – the Oxford University vaccine, the performance of the NHS, the conscientious work ethic of so many employees in the caring, teaching and social and essential service professions, the rallying round of so many local and volunteer agencies, organisations and people, the endurance and resilience and neighbourliness and familial support of people generally.

But so much feels so bad and wrong, in Government, in politics, in our democracy, and in our social structures and attitudes. So much unfairness and inequality has been exposed and seems (but doesn’t need to be), endemic in our society. The experience of Covid-19 has shown how much inequality of health, poverty and child poverty, income, wealth, access to education and other opportunities there is in the UK; how these indices have deteriorated since 2010; and how important they are in determining resilience against illness and death from Covid-19.

On child poverty, there was this exchange at PMQs on 17 June 2020:

Keir Starmer – ‘A report last week from the Government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded that there are now ‘600,000 more children…living in relative poverty’ than in 2012. The report went on to say: ‘Child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022’ (before taking account of the pandemic).

Boris Johnson – “[…] But I must say that I think he is completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolutely [sic] poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this Government and there are hundreds of thousands—I think 400,000—fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.”

A subsequent fact check showed that Starmer had correctly quoted from the SMC Report. A search revealed no evidence that Johnson’s remarks had any basis in fact at all.

Certain sectors of society and certain geographical areas experience this worse than others. Poverty is worst among certain black and ethnic minority groups, older people, unemployed people, disabled people, single parent families, people living in the social housing or private rented sectors, and immigrant families. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in Europe. This doesn’t help to make a contented society. We thought we were a compassionate, caring society. To a very considerable extent we are not.

The Impact of the Pandemic

The pandemic will have worsened the deprivation and will have increased the Social Mobility Commission prediction for 2022 of 5.2 million children, after housing costs, living in relative poverty. There are many other indicators of inequality in our society.

The Joseph Rowntree Poverty Report 2020/21 concludes:

‘Even before coronavirus, millions of people in our society were living precarious and insecure lives. In many instances, coronavirus will have swept them deeper into poverty, as well as pulling others into hardship, many of whom will have not experienced this situation before […] We need to build up the public will for action on poverty and design policies that are built around our society’s values of compassion and justice […] we need a comprehensive package of policies spanning the labour market, social security and the housing market to support people to get out of poverty once and for all.’

The pandemic has shown and reminded us how inter-dependent humanity is, families, schools, care homes, towns, counties, countries, and across all levels of society, business employments, ages and races. Governments are there to supervise, manage, organise, direct, adjudicate and pay for all the services and infrastructure needed, and has the main financial, legal and responsibility powers for social, economic and political outcomes. Central Government is vital in determining the kinds of social outcome and is in turn determined by the electoral and democratic processes.

Unfortunately, current experience is that there is much unfairness and many democratic weaknesses in our current system. The present Government is exploiting those weaknesses and abusing its power, by manipulating affairs and the national narrative to pursue its own interests, and by deceiving the public about its performance. Our Parliament and Government do not reflect the society at large or the views and preferences of its citizens, and the consequence is that our society lacks, in large measure, the equality in those qualities that Biden aspires to – unity, opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour, and truth.

From One Nation Conservatism to Austerity

The Conservative Party has transformed from a moderately acceptable centre-right ‘One Nation’ Party under Edward Heath and John Major, to a more extremist right-wing Party prioritising individualism and the free market. This all began, in recent decades, with Mrs Thatcher’s announcement that ‘there is no such thing as society’. She crushed the coal mining industry with great speed, a massive police operation, and a complete absence of compassion. Norman Tebbitt advised people to get on their bike and look for work. John Major’s Government was bedevilled by European Union sceptics and haters.

In 2002 Theresa May called the Conservative Party ‘the nasty party’.

In 2010 the Conservative Party formed the national Government with the Liberal Democrats in coalition. Generally, the Conservatives were the dominant force in that Government, although the LibDems were a moderating influence in some areas. The Chancellor, George Osborne, strongly pursued the policy of reducing the national deficit, in order to keep the currency strong and retain the country’s international triple A credit rating. This policy meant large cuts in budgets for most public services and allowed David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea to become buried. At the end of Osborne’s tenure, in 2016, the triple A rating had been lost anyway, the deficit was still large, but the nation’s public services had been very seriously eroded, especially Local Government, Health, Education, Social Services, Environmental, Justice, Home Office including Police, and Welfare. The result was severe hardship and reduced quality of life particularly among many disadvantaged groups of citizens.

In 2012, ‘Britannia Unchained – Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity’ was written by five prominent Conservative MPs: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Chris Skidmore. This book extended the Thatcher message of a strongly free-enterprise, market-dominated, low welfare, low tax, small state approach modelled on the USA and countries in the Far East, the exact opposite of the Northern European Social Democratic model of Germany and the Nordic States. The 152-page book excoriated the UK’s ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ and, most memorably, derided British workers as ‘among the worst idlers in the world’. This exemplified the spirit that would later animate Brexit. For such libertarians, the appeal of a no-deal Brexit, as threatened and nearly achieved by Prime Minister Johnson, would create the conditions to impose policies unachievable in normal times, just as the 2008 financial crisis helped enable the austerity policy.

‘The European economic and welfare model – I think it’s over,’ said Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a veteran British free-market thinktank reinvigorated by current possibilities, and well-connected within Conservative Party ranks. He favoured cutting state spending in Britain by over a third and leaving citizens with a ‘basic safety net’.

Broken Promises, Deceit and Division

Conservative Governments have failed far too many citizens for the last decade, and they continue to fail them now. We have suffered a thin, narrow, hard Brexit with its serious omissions, failures and broken promises, and a pandemic which has been incompetently managed, leading to many thousands of unnecessary deaths. The Government, led by Johnson, has appeared to be very casual in its approach to almost every issue, lacking much sense of civic responsibility or urgency. For example, lockdowns have been too late, opening up has been too quick, Test and Trace has had limited success, and enforcing quarantine has only now been considered. There has been a renewed and invigorated hostile environment towards immigrants and refugees, totally insufficient environmental measures to achieve the UK’s commitment for 2030 under the Paris Climate Accord (Guardian, 8 February 2021), an on-going hostility engendering hatred towards the European Union, an uncaring approach to subsidising school meals, a sloppy (at best) and corrupt (at worst) contracting out of pandemic contracts, continued attempts to damage democratic accountability through Parliamentary means or by lies and avoidance, hypocrisy and deceitfulness over Northern Ireland politics, an absence of proper cooperation with and point-scoring against Scotland, and a dismissive attitude towards the Scottish National Party. The list of failures and inadequacies is unforgiveable and long.

Beneath all this lies mendacity, disinformation and deceit on a massive scale, as described in ‘The Assault on Truth’, by Peter Oborne. ‘I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson’, he writes. But it is not just Johnson, although he, as leader, sets the whole tone of what is permissible.

In a report by Truth Defence, reported in The Canary (5 February 2021), the extent to which lies, disinformation and falsehoods were deliberately used by the Conservative Party to influence the outcome of the election is laid bare. Examples include the release to their favoured press by unnamed ‘senior Tories’ of the story that the Labour manifesto pledges would cost £1.2 trillion over five years, was splashed across the front pages of The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. Subsequent fact-checks showed that this was not true. Another story was put out by ‘senior Tories’ to the news media that a Labour activist had punched a Tory political adviser. Subsequent video footage showed this to be untrue. A story about a four-year-old boy with pneumonia forced to lie on a floor in a hospital was contradicted by Conservatives messaging to the media that this had been ’staged’, which of course it wasn’t. These stories were widely covered on BBC and ITV News, and only corrected after scrutiny many days later, when it had become old news. But the damage had been done.

Then there was the huge Conservative Party advertising campaign on social media. 167 such adverts had to be subsequently removed because they were identified as false or misleading. And there were countless lies and false promises made extensively and passionately by the Prime Minister and other senior ministers, for example, forty new hospitals (money has only been allocated for six extensions to existing hospitals), 20,000 extra police (hasn’t happened), 20,000 extra nurses (hasn’t happened). If the new Conservative Party voters in the so-called Red Wall seats are looking forward to their ‘levelling-up’ rewards, regrettably they are likely to be waiting a long time, though if the past is anything to go by, this won’t stop the Prime Minister from trumpeting a world-class success story, and routeing any new investment to marginal constituencies.

The whole edifice of lies culminated in the large Conservative Party victory in December 2019. No wonder trust in the Government and the Prime Minister himself is so low. Democracy has been undermined and debased by the Conservative Party (now, virtually, the English Nationalist Party). They didn’t deserve to win the last election. They only won because they lied so much, which is hardly surprising because of the man they chose to lead them. That’s why they chose him.

The Future Direction of the UK

Only very major change will address these systemic problems properly and fundamentally. This needs to be a long-term project, requiring long-term commitment and extensive public buy-in. It would first have to be designed, then agreed and sold to the British public, and then implemented. Only the Labour Party has the history, organisation, capacity, respect and potential to do this.

Where to start? A good place is at the end, namely, where do we want to get to? The steps needed to escape from our troubles then become clearer.

There are four broad options for the UK’s future: a social democracy based on the Scandinavian (Nordic) model; just muddling through without a design in mind (which has seen a drift to the right since the 1980s); the US model (more private enterprise and big corporations, more individual rights, less regulation, enormous quantities of money funding advertising campaigns, Parties and candidates, a poor or non-existent public broadcasting service, and a smaller state sector); and the Singapore or Far East model (deregulation, reduced standards, low welfare, low wages, emphasis on individualism).

The current Conservative Government would like to steer the UK in the direction of the US and Singapore models, and are currently taking what steps they can in that direction (examples include – the outsourcing of as many public service contracts to the private sector as possible; an attempt to abandon the EU working time directive; unwillingness to enshrine EU standards and regulations into UK law; taking so-called Henry VIII powers; unwillingness to allow Parliamentary scrutiny of new UK trade deals; Parliament’s Brexit Committee abolished; PMQs turned by the Prime Minister into a farce; BBC weakened; Supreme Court’s powers to be weakened; neonicotinoids permits for sugar beet farms to kill bees). In the future, if Britannia Unchained is anything to go by, de-regulation and loss of rights will accelerate; health, food and environmental standards will be watered down; and democracy will be further weakened.  In May 2016, Patel, then employment minister, remarked: ‘If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation, we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs’.

The Scandinavian Model

The core aspect of the Scandinavian model is that it is a mixed economy which includes the public provision of high-quality public services and social services funded by approximately double the taxes that are paid in the USA; investment in education, childcare, and other services associated with human capital; and strong labour-force protections through unions and the social safety net. There is no minimum wage because unions ensure that wages remain high.

This model emphasizes society-wide risk-sharing and the use of a social safety net to help workers and families adapt to changes in the overall economy brought on by increased global competition for goods and services. These Scandinavian economies have benefited from cultural homogeneity, political freedoms, low levels of corruption, and proportional representation voting systems over many years.

Much of the model is based on how Nordic cultures have developed over recent decades. The citizens have a high degree of trust in their government and a history of working together to reach compromises and address societal challenges through democratic processes. A main feature is centralized coordination of wage negotiation between employers and labour organizations, termed a social partnership, providing a peaceful means to address class conflict between capital and labour. Citizens believe that both public institutions and private companies have their best interests in mind.

As of 2020, all of the Nordic countries rank highly on the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (HDI) and the Global Peace Index as well as being ranked in the top 10 on the World Happiness Report (Nordic Model source – Wikipedia, January 27 2021). These measures show the higher life expectancy and standard of living which can be achieved throughout society in the United Kingdom.

A Clear Strategic Vision is Needed from the Labour Party

Only the Labour Party can offer and deliver to the public an over-arching, comprehensive, strategic vision of this kind for the UK. It remains to be seen whether they wish to or can, but the opportunity is there for them and I believe there is a very strong case to be made for articulating such a vision and that it would be well received. To be ready for presentation at an election in 2024, as a powerful and better alternative to what the Conservative Party would offer, they would need to start now, so the public could get used to the idea, and would not be called upon, as it was in the December 2019 election, to choose between ‘Get Brexit Done’ and a desperate last-minute spending blitz of huge unfunded and un-costed public expenditures, and a rather piecemeal, reactive collection of individual policies, without an over-arching theme, which was the Labour Party offering, and which didn’t inspire confidence.

It would require a mood shift amongst the public, and amongst the media through which such a vision would be filtered and presented. The right-wing press, with its endless jeering and sniping, is a stain on British life and would inevitably cause communication problems. But with a confident, inclusive and honest narrative, Labour should try to appeal to a nation left divided and eviscerated by Covid, Brexit and a decade of Conservatism, with a radical, coherent and transforming vision. Many democratic and media reforms would need to be part of the overall package.

Biden’s message to Americans:
‘Thinking not of power but of possibilities. Not of personal interest but public good’,
would provide an excellent starting point.