Saturday, December 26, 2009

Decade reviewed (5): UK politics

From predictable and apathetic to volatile and polarised- how British politics changed in the last ten years.

Much has been written about the Nineties as the 'consensus decade', the 'end of history' and no major divide within Western politics, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed the Noughties began with one opinion column after another celebrating Middle England, New Labour's 'third way' and the alleged end of class division. More, many questioned whether the Tories' would ever stand a chance of winning again.

The decade started with New Labour displaying their democratic credentials by kicking Ken Livingstone out of the party in the run-up to London's first ever mayoral elections. But Livingstone stuck to his guns, stood as an independent, and secured Tony Blair's first significant humiliation of his career.

The lowest turnout in history at the 2001 general elections was evidence of galloping apathy and disillusion. With barely over half the country bothering to cast a ballot, Tony Blair celebrated his second landslide in a row and, when William Hague stepped down as Tory leader, not many seemed to care. in the leadership race that followed, Michael Portillo missed his chance of a lifetime and lost to lesser-known Iain Duncan Smith.

In the meantime, with the far right showing its ugly rear in the Oldham and Bradford race riots of summer 2001, the country's community relations took the first tangible battering of the decade.

The 9/11 attacks were the undisputed watershed. Affecting everything, from the way we look at national security, through the way we travel, to the notion of multiculturalism, it truly messed up the following few years. Still blown away by the attack, very few questioned Tony Blair's unadulterated support for George W Bush's foreign policy and the ensuing Afghanistan war enjoyed widespread support in both the US and Britain.

Things however, took a different turn in the run-up to the Iraq war. From Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech to the heated debate with France and Germany over the second UN resolution, many will remember the countdown on Hans Blix and his team of weapons inspector amongst claims that Saddam Hussein was '45 minutes' away from doing us over with WMDs.

Amongst the most memorable moments, the 1-million strong anti-war march on 15 February 2003, the biggest demonstration ever in British history. People from all sections of society, regardless of political allegiances, defied the freezing weather to voice their scepticism. Most remarkably, the issue stirred some serious passion amongst people who'd never before expressed an interest in politics.
And yet it was obvious that Tony Blair had obviously made his mind up. A month later, a nail-biting parliamentary vote saw the anti-war MPs narrowly defeated in spite of 112 Labour backbenchers rebelling. Robin Cook's resignation speech was the first ever to receive a standing ovation in the history of the House.

Starting a few days later, the Iraq war marked the beginning of Tony Blair's undoing. The government's handling of the (very) strange death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly and the emerging truth that were no WMDs in Iraq tarnished Blair's reputation forever.

The firefighters' 2-year-long pay dispute (2002-04) came to an end with the adoption of the New Fire and Rescue Services Act, resulting in all ties severed between the Fire Brigade Union and the Labour Party.

In 2004, "Teflon Tony" survived another backbench revolt as he led his party through a spectacular u-turn on tuition fees. A push, a shove and a last-minute whip in the jaffas (i.e. minister Nick Brown defecting back into the government), pushed the price of a single year at one of the country's Universities up to £3,000 (plus booze).

In the meantime, Thatcher's ugliest legacy, the uber homophobic Section 28, was finally scrapped. Like with the repeal in Scotland a few years before, the Conservatives voted compact in favour of upholding discrimination but were resoundingly beaten.

In June the anti-Europe UKIP came third in the European elections. Former TV presenter Robert Kilroy Silk helped raise UKIP's profile but fell out with the leadership within months and branded the party "a joke".

In September, the pro-fox hunting Countryside Alliance clashed with the police on Parliament Square. Some protesters stormed into the House of Commons but failed to stop the government from passing (after years of wrangling) a watered-down Hunting Act.

In the meantime, the Tories elected yet another new leader. With Iain Duncan Smith oozing the charisma of a turnip, the Conservatives showed political acumen by handpicking draculesque Michael Howard, a cabinet member under both Thatcher and Major, a man with "something of the night about him", as their 'new' and 'fresh' leader.

And yet the 2005 general elections turned into another Tory failure. The biggest success came instead from the Liberal Democrats. Thanks to the leadership of Charles Kennedy and their opposition to both the Iraq gamble and tuition fees, they won their biggest share of MPs since 1929. Not enough, however, to stop New Labour from winning a record third election. Tony Blair celebrated by promising to serve a "full term".

The London bombings in July, the biggest terrorist attack in UK history, threatened to be another nail in the coffin for community relations, also reminding the country that, far from increasing security, the Iraq war actually brought terrorism home.
In August, former Foreign Sectretary and Iraq war critic Robin Cook died. The year ended with the Tories appointing -amazingly- their fourth leader of the decade, this time at least opting for a younger option: 39-year-old David Cameron. Also, the first same-sex civil partnership in the UK was celebrated in Belfast: one of New Labour's proudest achievements.

Less than two months later, LibDem leader Charles Kennedy confessed to having an alcohol problem and resigned -its party hasn't fully recovered yet. Also, anti-war MP George Galloway squandered his political capital by appearing on the 2006 edition of Celebrity Big Brother, while a swirl of speculations mounted over Gordon Brown's alleged "coup" to oust Tony Blair and the disgraceful cash-for-honours scandal which resulted in the arrest of Labour's chief fundraiser Lord Levy.

In the meantime, outrage over the Iraq war didn't relent. 2007 turned into the bloodiest year since the invasion and not many shed a tear when Tony Blair, fresh from signing the Trident renewal agreement, finally resigned in June after years of speculation.

Following the initial honeymoon period, new PM Gordon Brown hit a bum note when he dithered over an early election in October 2007. Nick Clegg became the third LibDem leader in two years and the bail out of Northern Rock heralded the worst economic crisis since WWII.

In May 2008 Boris Johnson replaced Ken Livingstone after eight years as London Mayor, confirming suspicions that the pendulum may be swinging towards the Conservatives for the first time in fifteen years.

Nosediving in the opinion polls, Labour found little consolation in the fact that a devastating MPs' expenses scandal hit all political parties. Moats, duck houses, fridge magnets and porn videos were all found amongst the list of stuff subsidised by the oblivious taxpayer. A series of high profile resignations hit the Brown government in June 2009, adding to the biting recession and relentless rise in unemployment.

The 2009 European vote signalled more bad news for Brown. Much was written about the far-right BNP securing two MEPs for the first time in history, a combination of incredibly low turnout and the vicious anti-immigration line adopted by a number of red tops.

Fears of a far-right revival increased in summer, when race riots took place in both Luton and Birmingham during demonstrations organised by a new group called the English Defence League.

In October, a heated debate surrounded the invitation of BNP leader Nick Griffin on BBC Question Time. However, his botched attempts at introducing fascist policies to a wider audience ended up into a major media own goal. In the meantime, the postal strike in Autumn drew comparisons with the 1984 miners' dispute.

The picture at the end of the decade is that of a much more polarised and volatile British politics. On one side, the economy is looking much worse than ten years ago, with unemployment over twice as bad, rampant family debt, businesses going bust and a rising wealth gap. Though the public remains widely suspicious of free market policies and the Conservatives, 13 years in power have obviously taken the sheen off New Labour.

Sceptical though they may be, most Conservative voters seem set to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt, while millions of traditional Labour supporters appear put off by a party that, through their tenure in power, outToried the Tories on too many occasions. The lack of a major option for the progressive vote may ultimately pave the way for the Tories' return to power.

It's interesting that the economic crisis appeared initially to be the perfect scenario for an overhaul of the brand of 'turbocapitalism' that ruled for three decades. However, with leftist parties widely failing to make hay of it, right-wing populism looks like the most likely beneficiary.

The forthcoming general elections will reveal whether the immigration debate that monopolised the second half of the decade will result in significant gains for the far-right and if Labour's haemorrhaging votes will benefit either the LibDems or the Green Party (the latter on course to secure their first MP in history).

Above all, 2010 will soon reveal whether Britain will be under Conservative rule again for the first time since the days of John Major.


Paul said...

Good article with neat points from a left perspective even though I tend to disagree with the latter. I do feel you're making one serious error though Claude. You're giving the BNP far too much credibility. You mention them again and again. Now I don't like them either but is not true to say:
'In the meantime, with the far right showing its ugly rear in the Oldham and Bradford race riots of summer 2001, the country's community relations took the first tangible battering of the decade.'
Doubtless racialist groupings aggravated both situations during the summer of 2001. However they were not responsible. Muslim youths were, also if groups like the NF had been the catalyst, why weren't Hindus, Sikhs, Afro-Caribbean’s and others rioting? The 'Asian' (to utilise the BBC moniker for Muslim) riots of 2001 were perhaps the first indicator that radical Islam was to rear its ugly head during the noughties. It displayed its complete animosity to democracy with the Muhammad cartoons episode. Remember what the response form Jack Straw was? He condemned the publication of the cartoons, yet this was the 21st century and this was an elected politician (Straw). It was this mollycoddling of radical Islam by new Labour, as well as other issues such as the leaching of power to the EU that gave the BNP lizards water for their swamp. You and I may see many things differently, but in the decade's politics, cartoon riots and EU empowerment both were anathema for British democracy.

Oh happy Christmas and New Year folks! Another turkey sandwich beckons.

claude said...

you make some good points. In particular, when you mention the Muhammad cartoon debacle and New Labour's approach, which really was for (substantial?)amounts of Muslims one of the most backward moments, at least PR-wise.

This is what I wrote around the time.

About the Oldham riots, needless to say the causes are (and will always reain) disputed...Events escalated within 24 hours but weren't "politicised" so to speak, until the NF decided to get involved.

Anyway, Paul. Hope you had a good Xmas and also I wish you a happy New Year!