Written by PROF. INDERJEET PARMAR
Tuesday, 18 October 2011 04:08
Liam Fox’s resignation has highlighted a deeper corruption in British politics and national life – over and above the goverment’s slavishness towards American power: when free market capitalism becomes national ideology, the so-called drivers of growth and creators of wealth – private businessmen and major corporations – move into the very heart of the state, while practically all other political and social forces are elbowed out. With government and opposition armed with free market ideology, why wouldn’t every problem look like it must have a private, ‘big-monied’ society solution?
It is hardly news to point out that the current British government of ‘liberal-conservatives’ is mired in free markets and corporate wealth, with social backgrounds to match: including premier David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, The Sunday Times counted 18 millionaires in the “austerity cabinet” (Sunday Times, 23.5.10).
The government’s foreign and national security policy is in the hands of a group predominantly educated at exclusive public schools and Oxbridge, with previous careers in the City of London and big business. The Sunday Times calls them the “New Establishment…a new elite… pulling the strings in Britain”.
And they govern as would be expected by any semi-impartial observer – an open door policy for practically anyone in big business to saunter into the most guarded of ministries, including the Ministry of Defence. Today’s Guardian (17.10.11) provides the details on an open secret – that this government is wide open for business and wide shut to practically anyone else. While private corporations were met with by ministers across Whitehall over 1000 times in the 12 months to March 2011, trade union representatives were greeted under 100 times, while charities were entertained 640 times. The message is clear – working class politics (what’s left of it) is out; corporate politics, with charities to look after the social fall out, is in.
In political science’s mainstream, this is known as ‘pluralism’ – where competing interests ensure that no one interest predominates and the political system tends towards ‘balancing’ interests, producing governments that preside over the ‘national’ interest. How precisely do ordinary working people compete with corporate power?
The putative vehicle for the politics of the oppressed has embraced the free market, with some protections, itself, since the advent of New Labour. The last government also featured several millionaires, businessmen, and had cosied up to the City since the mid-1990s, and fetishised the ‘market’ to such a degree that it brought the ‘market’ itself into disrepute.
Ironically, it was a man called (Ralph) Miliband who wrote most cogently on this question, when David (Miliband) was still wearing short trousers, and Ed was yet to be born. In his classic study, The State in Capitalist Society (1969), Miliband argued that British (and Western) political systems were dominated by big business and their supporters who also determined the character of the ‘national’ interest in such a way that it enshrined the interest of big business into its very heart. Consequently, political philosophies and arguments could not be brooked that failed to take into account their impact on ‘business confidence’ and the ‘markets’, international or national.
Analysing the rest of the state, Miliband argued that the civil service, military, judiciary, BBC, among others, were led by (mainly) men drawn from the same elitist social backgrounds as the political elite, further reinforcing the ‘conservative’ character of the British state, and acting as a brake on radical political agendas.
Labour governments in the postwar era were structurally constrained by the character of the British state as well as the generalised power of big business over economic affairs and policy, not to mention ‘popular’ culture and thinking. But Miliband also emphasised that the Labour party was no vehicle for revolutionary transformation but a symptom of the development of capitalist industrialism, seeking concessions from big business and some measure of social protection for workers. In the main, Labour governments managed capitalism rather than damaging or undermining it.
Furthermore, Labour leaders were hardly revolutionary, even in the nationalising phase of 1945-50: Clement Attlee was educated at Haileybury College, an elite public school established by the East India Company to train its servants for service in the empire. Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who had headed the massive Transport and General Workers’ Union since the 1920s, was authentically working class, of course, and offers an excellent example of how such individuals rise to the top of the greasy pole of British politics. He was deeply anti-communist and, like the majority of his party, an imperialist. Where the likes of Churchill openly declared Britain superior to all other races and nations and therefore justified in exploiting and dominating the colonies, Bevin et al wanted to ‘develop’ the ‘backward’ countries for the ‘betterment’ of their peoples. The old imperial ties and connections were maintained, despite (or because of) ‘de-colonisation’, along with Britain’s large, but diminishing, global role.
While the benefits of a welfare state, inaugurated in 1945-50, are undoubted, it remained the case that at a fundamental level, the Labour project was at heart an ameliorative one of reforming capitalism and offering workers social protection from 1930s-style economic crises and deprivations. It did not fundamentally challenge ‘market supremacy’ in economic policy and the distribution of income and wealth.
Hence, we now have a situation where the government and opposition are dominated by rich and exclusively educated individuals, market-oriented in ‘philosophy’, and unrepresentative of the broad mass of British people. They claim to champion ‘new politics’ but are mired in the British aristocracy and the mindsets of the City of London. Like its American counterpart, British politics now features just one ideology – focused on free market economics and regular elections between parties that manage capitalism. There is a Centre, a Right but no Left in British politics.
When Cameron says that Britain is ‘broken’ he means that ordinary people are to blame for moral decline. He should look a bit closer to home – and his offices in Downing Street – to find the real heart of moral corruption in this country.
First Published in USBlog.