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UK election: The end of an era

posted 8 May 2010, 03:52 by Admin uk   [ updated 1 Mar 2011, 07:18 ]
Article by Heiko Khoo, published first on China.org.cn

The British elections produced a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party and Labour the second largest party. The expected rise of the Liberal-Democrats failed to materialise despite opinion poll forecasts. The election marks the end of an era of 13 years of Labour government.

On the plus side, Labour devolved power to Wales and Scotland, and secured an end to violent conflict in Northern Ireland. They introduced tax concessions for working families and significantly increased public spending on healthcare, childcare and education. However, they did this in a happy, upward phase of economic expansion. Tony Blair, who led the Labour party until 2008, attempted to "modernize" the party in a branding campaign that emulated the marketing of soap powder. New Labour replaced Old Labour; socialist ideals of public ownership and egalitarianism were jettisoned in favour of appealing to the aspirations of the middle classes and the interests of the financial elite. The working classes represented by the trade unions remained largely passive throughout Labour's period in office. The economy expanded, employment levels were healthy, and a sense of confidence exuded from the new elite.


The new millennium was used to place Britain at the centre of the new optimism, "Cool Britannia" represented fashion, music, tradition, progress, humanitarianism, modern caring and entrepreneurial capitalism tinged with social democratic welfare values. The era of New Labour was also the era of the Internet as a new mode of communication. Simultaneously we saw the birth of new television formats, aimed at entrancing mass audiences in the voyeuristic observation of peoples behaviour in enclosed and stressful environments. Some were locked in "the Big Brother house", or on a "tropical island", or placed in scenarios where a rich person lives with a poor family. Often the TV audience was asked to "vote for someone" to be kept in, or expelled. This was also the era of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Fantasy worlds gripped the attention of millions, till the attraction of the format wore thin, audiences dwindled, and a new style had to be found.

Britain fought three major wars; Yugoslavia 1999, Afghanistan 2001, and Iraq 2003. The Yugoslav war was the least controversial. It was both an air-war and a media war, in which the British government systematically embellished the tragedy of Kosovo to implicate Yugoslavia in "genocide" and "mass murder". Opposition to the war was muted. A "bad guy" had been beaten, so the ends justified the means in public perception. The war was presented as a new form of humanitarian intervention. Many disagreed, arguing that a NATO "spin machine" was concealing a new form of imperialism.

Internet investments promised untold potential through realising smart ideas. Venture capitalists threw billions at operations that had zero sales and zero assets. The economy wandered into fantasy terrain. The dot com crash in 2000 was followed by a massive expansion of low cost credit, fuelling further investments in mythically valued products. Although the attack on New York in 2001 caused intense anxiety, the US government relaxed credit to sustain confidence and continue the economic boom. The rapid conquest of Kabul and the dazzling technology deployed, seemed to reinforce faith in the leadership of the USA and Britain.

Bank lending lost its connection to real assets. For the much of the general population in Britain, salaries and expenditure were no longer directly correlated. Property ownership seemed to function like a magical cash machine fitted into the walls of your home. People bought houses because prices were rising, prices rose because people bought houses, a perfect bubble was pumped up and floated hypnotically in the air. From morning till night television programmes reinforced the vision that every British subject starts as a property owner, goes on to become a developer, and then flourishes as a speculator. Those who said the king has no clothes were laughed at and disparaged.

The war in Iraq was profoundly unpopular in Britain. Tony Blair faced huge demonstrations in London, one of which was more than a million strong. To neutralise opposition to the impending war, a dazzling array of threats was woven into a plot that linked the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, to Bin Laden and to imaginary chemical, bacteriological, biological and nuclear weapons. When the war broke out, victory appeared to come rapidly and protests dwindled. However, over years, the insurgency in Iraq whittled away at the illusions generated in the first days of conquest. Bombs in London in July 2005 reinforced the sense of failure.

In June 2007, Blair resigned as Prime Minister and anointed Gordon Brown as his successor; in doing so he handed over a poisoned chalice. Brown's reputation was based on his role as finance minister. He tried to appeal to disillusioned Labour party supporters, claiming adherence to "Old Labour" values. But his dour public persona, his unwillingness to call an immediate election, and the economic Tsunami that was the great recession of 2007-9, all conspired to undermined his position. He was never able to produce a genuine smile during his entire tenure as Prime Minister.

When British mortgage lender Northern Rock was found to be insolvent, the wave of property speculation ended as small investors queued up to withdraw their savings. Fearing a run on all banks, Brown nationalised Nothern Rock. Soon afterwards he played a key role in the rescue of the international banking system following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But the public anger caused by the economic collapse meant Brown received no electoral credit for his interventionism.

Then news broke that politicians had been claiming expenses from the taxpayer for such things as pornographic downloads and fictitious housing costs. The public were enraged. An economic era had come to an end, house prices began to fall, salaries and pensions became more important than the resale price of houses, and credit became hard to get. Employment prospects worsened, so people cut back on spending. Television stations ceased commissioning programmes that encouraged everyone to engage in speculative housing investments. The great recession engulfed British life.

The 2010 election campaign appeared at first to take on the character of a television spectacle. The leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats held three debates in a format to designed to suit the era. Endless polls predicted a huge surge in support for the Liberal leader, Nick Clegg. He claimed to represent "change" in the mould of Barack Obama. However, on the day, the electorate voted primarily for the Conservatives or the Labour party. "Old Labour" in the form of urban working class voters, thwarted an outright Conservative victory.

All three parties advocate cutbacks to clear the huge deficit caused by the bailout of the banks. But none has prepared the public psychologically for the scale of cuts in social spending that will be introduced. We will certainly see bitter resistance from public sector trade unions. Despite an "in principle" acceptance of the need for austerity measures, the reality of a fall in living standards over several years means any government will struggle to maintain social peace. Britain is entering an era of austerity, increasing class divisions and social discontent. The era of "Cool Britannia" and the rising middle classes seems like a distant memory.

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