The Slog tries to discern the Establishment’s aspirations – and finds little in the way of inspiration.
In case you missed it, yesterday’s post outlined why – given the statistics to hand – there might be some things on the horizon to worry about. Today, The Slog addresses a more focused (but equally important) subject: what does the Coalition think about what’s going on….and how things are going?
It’s a valid thing to ask. Last Thursday, Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph wrote a piece of searing intelligence about voters feeling cut off, left out, and generally alienated from contemporary politics. Equally, pretty much since they got into power the Coalition partners have been light on the direction thing. With coalitions, that’s not unusual: too much directional severity annoys the partners. But sometimes, there really is no direction – only power, and the desire to be seen to be doing something.
Recently, I’ve been meandering about and using up what’s left of my Senior Railcard discount to meet with a small selection of those avidly, broadly, or grudgingly in favour of what the Coalition represents. I didn’t speak to anyone in the Opposition, for the simple reason that they’d slag off everything the ConDemned are doing – and that isn’t germaine to what I saw as my task. This was to try and ascertain three main things:
* Do the Coalition’s members and supporters share the public’s anxiety as evidenced in Friday’s Mori poll?
* What if anything do they see themselves as doing, in terms of key priorities?
* At a higher level, how do they feel about the globalist trade and banking systems, and the epoch we’re going through – is it special, is it new, and how is Britain going to sustain itself as we reform, ready to come out the other side?
Although a pro-am journalist these days, my base skill is in qualitative market research interviewing. The first rule of this trade is that respondents should not know the exact objectives of the research; if they do, it will bias their responses. The interviews were thus positioned as chats; however, all the conversations were off the record and not attributable, and I’ve respected that totally. Further, there are no direct quotes, as in some cases that might offer clues as to who they were. What I can tell you is their broad job functions. They comprised a local government officer, a senior civil servant, a local Tory Party opinion leader, one each of the Coalition’s partners, a Lobby journalist, and a politically-connected corporate Conservative donor.
They were all members of what I would call The Establishment – very much so, in fact. And so they represented a group potentially out of touch with ‘ordinary’ people’s fears and desires. Were they?
The Mori Poll was issued after the last interview had been completed. But in general, everyone I spoke to felt that yes, there was a lot to be worried about. And equally, everyone saw the priority as the reduction of Britain’s debt. The ‘marriage of necessity’ seemed (in their minds) to be entirely about sorting out a fiscal emergency, and the ‘duty’ to do the ‘responsible’ thing. There was almost a sense of attaching a vaguely heroic image to what they were doing. And what they were doing was reducing debt. Anything else was for debate later.
The nearer one got to the centre of power, however, the less talk there was about the effect of economic stagnation and fiscal cutting on the ordinary citizen. This wasn’t an uncaring thing – or at least, it didn’t seem so to me. It was more that senior players talked about trade union ‘unrest’, demonstrations, spoiling tactics, ‘dream-world’ economic thinking, and the revitalisation of the small business sector. In short, they talked of groups and tendencies rather than individual lives. Those ‘on the ground’ spoke more in terms of specifics to do with friends, constituents and employees whom they knew would be in difficulties once the effects of the cuts rolled out.
The European Union
But when the discussion moved to the EU as part of the deficit issue, these Coalition supporters were united: the situation in the EU was being played up by the Right – in the Party and the media – and would settle down. Nobody was forthcoming about why it would settle down, although the Lobby journalist thought things would improve once the Germans ‘had got their way’ – as in, running things but without taking on everyone else’s debt folly.
What’s very clear to me from these chats is that Europe in particular has been officially designated a no-go area in terms of public pronouncements by Government ministers and the Coalition Big Game. Privately, pretty much everyone agreed that the situation was being handled badly by the EU’s big players, but other concerns were seen as far more important: the (Tory) Party must not be split, there was nothing to be done anyway, and the last thing they needed was people banging on about huge sums of money ‘heading for Brussels’. That would simply make matters worse in the UK.
All the folks I spoke to saw Britain’s future as inextricably bound up with the EU’s fortunes (an opinion which seemed to me at odds with the Trappist strategy when it came to talking to the media about it) and derided secessionist opinion as everything from foolhardy to naive. When questioned directly as to why, however, again things became muddied very quickly: we would be ‘isolated’, ‘cast adrift’ and so forth.
In answer to a direct question about it, William Hague’s inaudible invisibility was variously described as ‘shrewd’, ‘playing the long game’, ‘the only thing for him to do’. Again, it was obvious that the word had gone out from Number Ten for nobody to offer opinions about the EU: the Party worker openly admitted this. When asked if Hague could at least sound supportive, there was immediate unease; the terror of opening the old Conservative wound is all-too obvious.
This was spun as ‘what would you have William say?’ ie, what on earth good might he do? Although I offered the view that there must surely be terrain somewhere between saying nothing and going native – perhaps even to show signs of gaining the upper hand for Britain – this was seen as ‘naive’, ‘unhelpful’ and ‘playing with fire’.
I must confess to feeling that the sense of ‘Dunkirk heroism’ didn’t sit well with an obviously parochial desire to keep the Tory Right under control.
Nigel Farage’s Party too has become an untopic. None of the political professionals would even be drawn on the subject: did they think Farage a bit of a numptie? Would any Tories defect? Did they see its support growing? All these produced polite smiles and no comments. Supporters on the edge of Coalition support were more forthcoming: UKIP was a threat, without any doubt. It had, they felt, strong support among both Tory and Labour downmarket voters. (I can tell them that, based on my own experiences in Buckingham earlier this year, they’re right).
The broader world view.
The ‘epoch as a whole’ (I used the same phrase with everyone) usually evoked a slightly puzzled look. They wondered out loud whether this really is a new era; most thought it wasn’t. Two of the group waxed lyrical about how ‘safe’ the world is now compared to when they’d been growing up. None of them really thought another global crisis on the scale of 2008 would happen – although the journalist thought there was perhaps a 40% chance of it.
I was taken aback at the unwillingness to discuss macro trends apart from climate change. Such matters were ‘imponderables’, ‘airy-fairy stuff’, ‘something and nothing’. Only the corporate person argued with some passion that Britain should re-engineer its offering to Asia while staying close to Europe. There was an element of what one hears from schoolkids these days when they’re asked about something: “Is it on the syllabus?” As yet, globalism’s fitness or otherwise for purpose isn’t on the syllabus: consequently, the political class aren’t really interested in the topic.
Thus, everyone felt protectionism would be a retrograde step. Again, only the corporate thought it would probably come to pass. Everyone else accepted global mercantilism as a given. The idea that globalism does not represent the future was found laughable: it was an unstoppable force and (by and large) very good for humanity. Currency wars were flatly denied as a form of protectionism – they had been ‘overplayed’. Currency markets would be less volatile once the crisis had passed.
Here the response was quite different. Banker greed was a serious issue and had to be addressed. Regulatory mechanisms were being brought into ensure that ‘such behaviour’ would ‘never be seen again’.
But the banking system was not seen as broken. Once again, alternatives to it were brushed aside as ‘wild thinking’ and ‘ignorant’. Raising the issue of alternatives to bourses as the main source of business capital produced blank looks. Did they think more notice should be taken of the anthropology of business aims, career objectives and market responses? The most senior politician agreed: yes, there were too may blinkered bean-counters. The rest, again, looked blank, followed by doubtful. Apart from one person, those I spoke to hadn’t even heard of the FT’s Deputy Editor, Gillian Tett – a vociferous and lucid proponent of the role of social anthropology in financial matters.
The tuition fees issue was openly admitted to have been a communications disaster for the Coalition, in which media, students and Opposition had gained the high ground undeservedly. I can safely say this was the only time during these soundings that I felt fully in agreement with the opinions being expressed.
Great emphasis was laid upon the ‘irresponsible’ behaviour of the Opposition and students: the cuts were necessary and unavoidable. There was no spontaneous mention of the stupidity 0f pretending that 44% of the population should go to University in the first place: so I prompted on this.
I asked: would it be better to send fewer kids to University? This split the sample right down the middle between two views. One held that yes, that would be better – but not yet: the time wasn’t right. The other flatly opposed the idea: children from all social backgrounds must have an equal chance to get a University education. This was an answer to a question I hadn’t asked.
Was Britain’s poor education something that required a revolutionary, root-and-branch approach? No. Was equality in education a contradiction in terms? Yes, said the journalist. No, said everyone else. The more edgy the questions became, the more politically correct were the responses.
Key services: Welfare, Health, and Policing
The feedback here was the most fascinating I got. Everyone talked with enthusiasm and frankness about getting welfare help to the truly deserving, breaking the dependency culture, and making sure the coming generation has a healthy attitude to getting work. None of this was lip service stuff; also, it was being openly (rather than guardedly) discussed. One got the feeling that this was a labour of love that at last dared to speak its name. Also Ian Duncan-Smith – ‘IDS’ – was put forward as a model of constructive Conservatism. (Interestingly, Duncan-Smith is also one of the few on the Party’s Right to be in the Coalition boat – and making a success of it).
As it happens, I tend to agree with much of the above view. This is more than can be said for my feelings about Andrew Lansley – but when I pointed up the doubtful financial logic of what the Health Minister’s reforms will do, for perhaps the only time in these sessions, there was indignation. This may well reflect the recent nature of the debate, and the ferocity of some of the criticism aimed at it. There is also another possibility: that the Right of the Conservative Party has chosen to ridicule large parts of the Lansley programme, and the faithful are thus feeling tender and closing ranks. My overall impression was one of defensiveness – of loyalty rather than enthusiasm.
When it came to policing, among the professional politicians, the line was clear: we had to make Chief Constables more accountable, they’re a law unto themselves, that’s why we will have elected Police Chiefs. The Lobby Correspondent and the donor, by contrast, were cynical about this idea – and felt strongly that cuts in the Force were a hostage to fortune. The ‘locals’ in the sample looked exasperated: they saw the everyday effects on citizen morale of muddled policing and pc applied to the treatment of people they variously described as hooligans, trouble-makers, and – in one case – ‘feral’.
Discussion about social order generally was an interesting combination of guarded, angry, and fearful. But all these emotions became less marked as one got closer to the Cabinet.
Is any of this surprising?
Most of what I describe above will not come as a revelation to Slog readers. But I think a few things did genuinely surprise me:
1. The lack of interrogation of Coalition policy when it comes to open discussion of events across the Channel. I think there are two contradictory features to this that explain the illogic: first, the very narrow political objective of trying to avoid a split Party; and second, the absolute unity within this group of people behind the idea that our destiny lies in the EU. The result is a hypocrisy that insists the only policy is to do nothing, but such a viewpoint simply doesn’t bear examination: the advantage to be gained should Britain roll its sleeves up and force itself into the Franco-German impasse is obvious.
What’s happening here is a case of He Who Doesn’t Dare loses. My problem remains that I can’t see what there is to lose. Britain both centrally involved in the evolution of the EU and pressing for a restitution of fairness towards us would in theory get a big tick from both LibDem Eurocrats, and diehard anti-EU Tories.
There is also, however, a disturbing alternative way to interpret the Coalition line on Europe: that German and French diplomats have politely (but ever so firmly) told Britain to butt out before they even think about butting in. And if that is the case, then the reality is very clear indeed: this is a trading bloc to which our fortunes should not be hitched under any circumstances.
2. The complete unwillingness to accept that ‘anything has changed really’ – although having seen the abuse of (and cynicism about) the new expenses system, this is something I should’ve been able to extrapolate for myself. Contrary to appearances at times, I do tend to think the best of people until their behaviour proves otherwise.
3. The absence of original, lateral thinking beyond the corporate member of this small cross-section of privileged people. After completing this informal ‘fieldwork’, a massive irony struck me: that here is a Government dominated by a Party that bangs on endlessly about subjecting people to market pressure – and the only person with any original ideas to offer was, indeed, the only one subjected to real market pressure.
How wonderfully amusing it would be to subject politicians to, say, a monthly or quarterly market pressure – rather than just every five years. And how horribly dangerous that would be for stability and liberty. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us: markets do decide when left to themselves….but far too often, they make a catastrophically daft decision.
I’ve been working with politicians, senior corporates, journalists and civil servants in one shape or another for over twenty five years…although much less since taking semi-retirement. Nobody in this sample represented an exception to my general rule about them. That is, they’re a dull, arse-covering lot on the whole: full of self-importance, tending to the pompous, and – above all – incredibly patronising.
I had a chum (sadly no longer with us) who once described politician behaviour while looking for votes at the hustings as “a thinly-disguised display of arrogant subservience”. Even at the age of 62 – and everyone involved in the exercise being younger than me – this remained as true as ever. Those in the elite think they know better, and no amount of politesse (or mountain of contrary evidence) can hide or dilute that self-confidence.
That said, I was of course talking to people who would self-assign as conservative with either a small or capital C. However, my experience of talking to soi-disant liberal-progressive figures in the UK is that an alarming number of them are controlling and ignorant – with a dash of delusional thinking for good measure. Whereas conservatives tend to be tediously pragmatic and unimaginative, those on the Left strike me more and more as tediously polemic, and incapable of assessing consequences. This probably explains why I no longer describe myself in terms of Left and Right.
Importantly – and this is, I fancy, the bottom line – the people I was chatting to could not in any way be described as either visionary or radical. On a scale of inspiration running from1 to 10, none of them got above minus 12.
Let me offer a brief resume of things I think should be on their radar – and clearly aren’t. The danger from minorities who represent a State within a State. The power of an educational Establishment to destroy any aspirations to excellence and freedom of thought. A global banking disaster waiting to happen. Being on an island where the first rule is to reduce dependence on others. Chinese imperialism. A USA unable to score Triple-A any more. The ripples spreading outwards from an epicentre unable to grasp the importance of de-politicised police. The deadly confluence of socio-sexual indiscipline and a media set driven purely by ratings. A trading partner busy drowning in its own hubris. The bitter resentment felt by ordinary people of every political shade about rescuing arrogant Charlies who never seem to learn. An economic mess constantly gauged in terms of the past, although it is unique to the present. A UK banking set horribly exposed to the bad debts of the owners of everything from Russian vodka palaces to Spanish cajas.
And above all, a political class that is more despised than that which preceded Hitler in Weimar Germany.
It is very easy to criticise. But it is also very difficult to give praise where it isn’t due. There is no bravery in the Establishment I met over the last few weeks, only a pragmatic – often oddly distracted – desire to manage cultural cowardice. God knows, I am not a neo-fascist proclaiming the need for guts, discipline and gung-ho: no man of action I.
But the final analysis is what any researcher seeks. And my ultimate observation would be this: nobody ever created a crack team (dedicated to cleaning up the culture) called The Imponderables. Smiling with benign condescension while ever so gently accepting a slide into sufficiency is not the answer to Britain’s woes. One must hope that the Coalition is an interregnum between the old, and something better.