LONDON — There was nothing unusual about this Christmas. Well, snow fell, which hasn’t happened for years and it was hard traveling; but Britain’s transport woes — not enough trains or buses, too many cars — began months ago. Passengers at one airport did riot after waiting four days for a plane, any plane, to take off (the company had run out of de-freezer for its fleet), but that sort of protest is now quite the thing to do.
Christmas sales were up, but there is nothing unusual in that. Nothing unusual in the crowd psychology of “must have, buy now” even if it involves (as it does) trampling someone who’s done you no harm.
No, all is as usual, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown might be biting the shreds of his finger nails (which are usually bitten down to the quick) about this normal frenzy of “must have, buy now.” The more we buy, the less we save and rumors of the impending end of the booming economy in the United States are heightening every ill economic omen. The ratio of savings to spending is going down, there is a shortage of credit, which means inflation — or is it deflation if the U.S. economy ends its boom? The “worst year in a decade” for stock markets has just been announced, which included figures for Britain’s stock market, which was down 10 percent from last year.
However the figures are interpreted, anxiety runs through Labor politicians if the economy shrinks. It isn’t true that any government, however inept or overbearing, can survive if the economic life of its citizens is all right. (Britain’s last prime minister, John Major, presided over the worst collapse of his party in history in 1997, even though the economic indicators were good.) But good figures on employment, housing and trade bathe a government in a rosier glow than if the economy is going to the dogs.
It is far harder for people to know what “good” figures are in the world of global finance, however. The economic indicators, which are about capital flows, capital accumulation, currency sales and exchanges, are meaningless to most of us. They can no longer be quickly translated into “good” (more jobs, more houses, more holidays) or “bad” (no jobs, falling house prices for home-owners). Just as with Brown and the euro, most people think, “we’ll wait and see,” pushing away the thought that something dreadful might happen in 2001.
It’s hard to say that politics carries on a usual. In the high consumption, post-trade union, post-Cold War world, there is no usual politics. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government seems to skate along in part because they are getting some things right, in part because the economy is running well for now, and in part because William Hague, leader of the Conservative opposition, excites almost universal titters and squawks when he speaks.
In this apolitical era, the Conservatives seem to be rummaging in the bag of ancient savage passions to find a flicker of life. They began their march back to ethnic English nationalism with the sustained campaign against all things “European,” and though this does touch a popular nerve — that of xenophobia and loss of British greatness — Tory anti-Europeanism has to lift itself out of the football hooligan chant of “we hate frogs” (as the French are known in the tabloid press). A more thoughtful case about the future of the European Union, with all the details and political comprises that entails, is not a vote-winner.
It is perhaps hopeful for the future of civilization that Hague’s snatching at issues of law and order has not been as successful as he hoped. It is hopeful because underlying much of the rightwing populist discourse on crime is a fear and hatred of working-class youth and, quite particularly, of black youth. Just before Christmas, William Hague attacked the Macpherson report, a long inquiry conducted by judge William Macpherson into why the metropolitan police failed to carry out a proper inquiry into the murder of a black student, Stephen Lawrence, by white racists.
In his speech, Hague said that that, due to the Macpherson report, policemen were too demoralized and afraid to do their job and so crime was going up on city streets. Unsaid — but heard by everyone who listened — was that Hague thought the racist practices of London’s police should not have been exposed and restricted, and without the freedom to intimidate young black men those black men would immediately turn to crime.
Disingenuously, Hague said “I’m a man of principle, speaking honestly about the question of police numbers.” It was disingenuous because the strong emotion of the speech is not judicious discussion of police numbers but injudicious fear and hatred of young black men.
In fact, just about the only issue in politics that does cause excitement is race. The fact that race hatreds and fears are rarely spoken about increases that excitement, boosts it with the tension of the forbidden. It intensifies a feeling, knowingly encouraged by the Conservatives, of a fateful gap between the pieties of the Liberal elite and the reality that “ordinary” people know.
This mix of racism, populist anti-intellectualism and anger at being “neglected” by the elite is in the ancient bag from which Conservatives hope to spark a sustaining flame of political enthusiasm.
There is less fear than there was that racism in Western Europe might be unleashed as a genocidal force. But this confidence — unshaken by genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia — has customarily rested on the security of the liberal state and good economic indicators. Hence the fear that more is at stake than Brown’s finger nails if those economic indicators turn out to be ill omens.
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