This morning I came across this image of the world, sent via Twitter. Yfrog – u6c – Uploaded by tjerubbaal
It intrigued me – it shows areas of the world scaled according to their overall Government debt, and coloured according to the debt as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product. It carried the caption from Twitter user @tjerubbaal “Truly disturbing image: are you paying attention @conservatives, @labour, @libdems? Tinkering won’t work.”
The poster is clearly not making a party political point – not between the three main parties anyway. Which is what intrigues me – because I feel quite strongly that the understanding of this issue, is at the heart of the difference between the Labour party and the Conservative party at the current time.
Forget about whether you understand the diagram or not – it’s not particularly easy to comprehend. Just know this – the debt which the country has taken on really is large – as @tjerubbaal points out – some might say disturbing. There’s no dispute amongst the political parties about that.
You could be forgiven though, if you’ve been reading the popular press, or listening to the Conservative election campaign, that this has come about from some bungling incompetence by Gordon Brown & his chancellor Alistair Darling. You would be wrong. the scale of the debt is intentional – and marks the dividing line between the philosophies of the two major UK parties.
The tradition in recent years among Conservatives has been in favour of light touch Government – ‘small government’ as it’s now being sold. The idea being that the key players in the world’s and the nation’s affairs will effectively manage things with least intervention (interference ?) from outsiders like Governments. The ‘market’ we are told will self regulate – it will have times of lean and times of plenty – in Labour-speak times of boom and of bust. The wise prepare for this, and put by in times of plenty/boom to see them through in the lean/bust years.
This approach carries a certain logical appeal. It has a simplistic fairness, but it is harsh because in lean times, the people who suffer the most are the people who are least able to put aside plenty in the boom years – not the entrepreneurs, landowners, and businessmen – but the workers who work for those people. This was the case in the early 1980′s when Margaret Thatcher argued “There is no alternative !” and allowed market forces to work through the hardship of a recession, meaning millions of people faced mid to long term unemployment.
It also has the disadvantage that, as we have seen recently, the market doesn’t always work well in regulating itself, and there are those operating within the market, who take reckless risks, which put the prosperity of whole nations at risk.
The new Labour approach, under the Blair & Brown government, embraced some aspects of the Conservative free market approach. Labour realised that the nation as whole tended to benefit from being a prosperous trader – but sought to smooth out the cyclical peaks and troughs of a totally free market approach, whilst allowing the market to benefit the economy. (It is a significant shift from a traditional socialist approach).
No return to boom and bust was Gordon Brown’s mantra as chancellor – one which is now often ridiculed.
It was however a highly successful approach – but it fell foul of a factor over which no chancellor can truly have control – the UK economy is not isolated from the World economy. We can dampen the effects of the outside world, we can ignore them for a time, but ultimately we are interdependent with the economies of every other nation, and we are prone to the booms and busts of their economies as well as our own.
As Gordon Brown yesterday acknowledged one of the errors which was made was to grant the financial institutions too much freedom, and provide too little intervention (interference ?) in their affairs. BBC News – Brown admits he made a mistake over bank regulation . The unfettered actions of those institutions then led in large part to the Global recession from which we are now slowly recovering.
For the Conservatives then to blame Gordon Brown for the recession is grossly unfair – in the first place the errors to which he admits, are ones which any Conservative chancellor would have been clamouring for – small Government, free market, and giving business the opportunity to manage its own affairs. These are actually the self same philosophies which the Conservatives wish to re-impose.
Secondly to blame Gordon Brown for the actions of banks, because he didn’t regulate them is akin to blaming householders, who didn’t have the right locks or alarm systems for having their house burgled. Sure they could have made things more difficult for the burglars – but the blame lies with the house breakers. Similarly, whether regulated or not, financial institutions in Britain and around the world, took irresponsible actions which have affected everyone.
Personally though I don’t feel it’s helpful to apportion blame – we are where we are. What is important is how we react to this. This brings us back to the debt which Gordon Brown has incurred.
Margaret Thatcher said “There is no alternative”. (There is no alternative – Wikipedia, )
She was wrong – Gordon Brown has shown this. His actions have been taken to dramatically reduce the impact of the recession, to prevent long term mass unemployment, to keep the economy active, and to put off the difficulties of repaying to a time when the nation will be more easily able to bear it.
The Conservatives still argue that this is wrong. That things should be left to take their course, and massive cuts in public spending should be imposed as soon as possible in order to hasten the economic recovery – but that this is the only way that recovery can happen. The mass unemployment and prolonged economic hard ship for many are seen as the price that has to be paid.
Whilst blaming Gordon Brown for the recession may be unfair, the Conservatives’ criticism of his borrowing to tackle the recession is not without logic. Their policy is philosophically defensible.
It is however a philosophy to which I do not subscribe, and which I feel is morally reprehensible.
So be in no doubt – that huge debt that is illustrated in the diagram in the link above is not there by accident. It’s there because there is an alternative, and that alternative has protected us from the worst ravages of the recession – which may well still come back to bite us if we are foolish enough to elect a Tory government on May 6th.
[ Just as a test I've got Labour's Eddie Izzard election video - let me know if you can't see it ]
As it appears the election will finally be called tomorrow, and the media will be overloading us all with political stories for the next month or so, I’m wondering just how engaged the general public – as opposed to the kind of people like you and me – who write and read political blogs – really ever are about politics.
Clearly some of them always are, and lots of them sometimes are. If politicians could only get their heads around why and when they are, and perhaps just as importantly – why and when they’re not, then we’d have a very different political landscape
One of the recent big events politically on television would appear on the face of it, to have been Channel 4′s “Ask the Chancellors” Televised Debate Ask the Chancellors – 4oD – Channel 4 – featuring real Chancellor Alistair Darling, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, and for the Lib Dems, the man described as the Hung Chancellor, Vince Cable.
It certainly lit up the world of Twitter, and would appear to have been judged a success in terms of people voting on the C4 website and the trending topics on Social networking sites Ask the Chancellors: a success for Channel 4 – Telegraph Blogs , but did it really capture the public imagination ?
Certainly with estimated viewing figures of just 1.7 Million it would seem that it did not. Compare this with the audience of over 8 Million for B N P leader Nick Griffin on Question Time BBC celebrates record ratings for Nick Griffin on Question Time – Times Online . What was it about that programme, which fired up the public so much more for a late night programme featuring a minority group politician, than for a peak time “Big guns” debate ?
When I went into to work the day after the Question Time with Nick Griffin, the whole place was buzzing with talk about the programme – even those who hadn’t seen it, were talking about it.
After the “chancellors”, not a murmur. This despite the economy being probably the key political issue of the day. So why aren’t people interested ?
For me these are difficult questions to answer. What makes it difficult for me peronally, is that, when all said and done I have to confess to being a bit of a political geek. The fact that you’re reading my blog probably indicates that you are too. People like us, look at politics news, and usually see every nuance of every development, and turn it over in our mind, trying to work out what effect it will have on public opinion – our moods soaring with every stirring speech from our chosen parties, and dropping into the slough of despond with each embarrassing faux pas. It’s not easy for people like us to understand the workings of the minds of people like my Mum, who at 72 reads the Daily Mail every day, but claims she only does the crossword, and never reads the articles.
As a ‘political geek’ I’m someone who is often involved in on-line claim and counter-claim regarding political minutiae, and so I wasn’t entirely surprised a couple of weeks ago to be challenged (via Twitter of course) by independent candidate for Luton, and well known purveyor of oddly shaped vegetables Esther Rantzen (Esther4Luton) to watch Channel 4′s Dispatches programme regarding allegations concerning Labour politicians involved in unsavoury activity regarding payment from parliamentary lobbyists. Allegations which I was vociferously sceptical of, prior to seeing the programme.
It was an odd time for me as I was unusually not able to indulge my usual passion for all things politically newsworthy, and spent the best part of a week not really tuning in to Twitter, or the news, or any of my normal sources of information. I didn’t actually ever get to see the programme itself fully either. Instead I just got the background chatter from people I work with, the glimpses of other peoples newspapers on the train. In short I got the man in the street’s version of politics – not the politics wonk’s version. I have to say that the revelations about Stephen Buyers, Patrica Hewitt, Geoff Hoon, and Margaret Moran didn’t register on my radar at all, and when I came to catch up with this at the end of the week, it would appear that Labour’s reaction, had been to condemn the four out of hand, and more or less say – well we wanted rid of them anyway, it’s no big deal. Simples ! as those meerkats annoyingly say.
Except, to be fair to Esther Rantzen, I think she had both me and them bang to rights (I’m talking like Gene Hunt now – I’ll have to watch out). I couldn’t see any saving graces here, and none were offered by the party as far as I can see. The actions of these MPs appear to have been despicable and dishonourable. In other circumstances this could have been very damaging indeed to the Government, and to the Labour Party, and yet – somehow – it hasn’t been.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been inch after column inch of coverage of it in all the papers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon suspended over lobbying allegations – Telegraph . It’s not to say that the opponents of Labour out there in the blogosphere and twittersphere, haven’t gone ballistic over it. But if you ask someone who’s not a political blogger, someone perhaps who thinks Facebook is for looking at their niece’s wedding pictures, and for playing Farmville, ask them what they think about the lobbying allegations; then they’ll more than likely just look blankly at you. Geoff Hoon ? Geoff Who he ?
I don’t understand this. Sometimes the public really do get worked up about political stuff. Remember the #ILoveTheNHS hashtag ? the storm that was created when right wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan described the NHS as 60 year mistake ? It was huge. It was on all the newspapers, everybody heard about it, and it just grew out of nothing.
Except that it didn’t really – it had rumbled on for months with John Prescott amongst others, trying his best to make a story out of this, plugging YouTube videos of Hannan – all to no avail. The story would not run. But then it did. It ran and ran and ran.
I don’t understand it – and for once I’m not offering any answers – just asking the questions. When does politics ever really engage the public ? and Why ?
Maybe we’ll find out over the next few weeks.