Fear the People

Monday, 09 July 2012

Britain’s chattering classes have another scandal about which to obsess. Dirt’s been flung in piles at politicians for fiddling expenses and the ethics of the Press are under investigation.

Now bankers get a second turn as targets; this time for rigging interest rates to fleece the very taxpayers who gave them £124 billion to cover their gambling losses. In parliament “Nu Labour” postured in opposition, dramatically calling for a “Truth and Reconciliation” process to exorcise the demons that have possessed the bankers.

Then of course, the party swiftly signed-up to a government proposal for another cosy and costly “inquiry” to beguile the enemy they both fear most – the people.

While disgraced Barclays CEO Bob Diamond and his henchmen approvingly “fell on their swords”, other stories spoke eloquently of post modern destitution and moral decay. Last year, on a balmy August night, flames lit-up the London skyline. Riots swept swiftly across England rocking the establishment and leaving it clumsily groping for answers. The Guardian reported the police believe a repeat performance is imminent because of ‘worsening social and economic conditions’.

The story drew a flood of responses. Many sparkled with wit, pouncing on hypocrisy. Others cut through the fog of a reconfigured class war. “If a group of powerful (rich) people set out deliberately to create a grossly unequal society whereby a small elite profit from a semi-literate underclass then surely they can imagine the kind of society such a system will create. It will be brutally policed, heavily surveilled, media-controlled, divided and violent, full of squalour and poverty with pockets of heavily protected lavish luxury.”

They chided the establishment’s feigned perplexity about the causes of the riots. “When ordinary people can’t get justice from the government- in pay, conditions, healthcare, welfare, housing, transport, employment…When bankers and corrupt politicians who’ve sold the public down the river are being chauffeured round in limousines and guzzling caviar and Bollinger -at our expense, and when a kid gets jailed for 6mths for a bottle of water…If justice isn’t forthcoming and isn’t seen to be forthcoming in the courts, then it will be sought in the only place left – the streets.”

Alienation is clearly on the rise in UK Plc. “Thatcher said there was no such thing as society and faced a backlash. Thirty years of neo-liberalism have ensured that this statement has become prophetic. Anyone saying that there is no such thing as society these days would be merely stating a fact.”

Midweek and Bob Diamond appears before a Treasury select committee. There is feverish media speculation about why he insists on addressing MPs by their first names.  A story about the South London Trust, which runs three hospitals and is part of the National Health Service, does not attract similar fuss. The trust was told it could be the first NHS service to be declared bankrupt. After paying £535 million back to a private consortium – which invested £210 million building two of its hospitals – the trust still owes the financiers £2 billion. The government guarantees the loan and no haircuts will be taken. The arrangement is part of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a way of funding public infrastructure projects with private capital.

In a piece for “Our Kingdom” financial expert Oliver Huitson says PFI is a scandal, which refuses to break. “The public should be enraged that they are still paying hundreds of billions of pounds for a scheme so riddled with failures in both theory and practice. Parliament knows PFI to be a sham… but will it do anything to halt it?” The short answer is no. The coalition government brought another 60 PFI projects online in its first year in power (2010-11).

By now, the nation has noticed that Marcus Agius heads the Barclays board and earns £750,000 a year, part-time. Mr Agius dutifully resigns to be sensationally promoted to full-time executive chairman a day later. (He remains a senior executive director at the BBC.) We learn Bob Diamond raked in £75m since he joined Barclays in 2005 – despite the banking crisis. In an apparently separate development, Caroline Spelman the Environment Secretary pledges that ‘our forests will stay in public hands.

She’s not doing this off her own bat. That’s the view of the Independent Panel on Forestry; set-up after public outrage stymied the government’s attempts to privatise England’s woodland. Celebrations are not in order. Privatisation is part of the establishment gospel and the forests will inevitably fall to the pirates. In his book “Squandered” David Craig shows how the dogma helped the previous government waste over £1 trillion of taxpayer’s money – much of it captured by private consultants and companies.

It’s not the result of inept administration. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall says the coalition is single-minded about irreversibly transforming the state. “The front-bench ideologues… are saturated in neoliberal ideas and determined to give them legislative effect. As One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest put it: ‘The crazies are in charge of the asylum’.”

Massive public sector redundancies, wage freezes, rising retirement ages, benefit caps, apartheid education, and lifelong debt for students and families are ruthlessly regarded as necessary. So is diminishing the quality of life by “disappearing” public amenities like libraries, parks, swimming pools, youth clubs and community centres. Anyone associated with, relying or dependent on the state and public services is a target – and that includes large numbers of vulnerable children.

The other plank is privatisation; dismantling public ownership on the spurious claim – despite soaring energy, transport and postage costs – that private corporations are economically more efficient. And so the high priests are flogging public assets at bargain prices and gutting services by outsourcing contracts. GPs, grouped into private consortia, will take charge of the £60bn health budget as the nation’s most treasured institution, the NHS is privatised by stealth.

While this was happening, banks cynically fuelled a housing boom and individual debt with ready money, masking the steady fall in real incomes since the mid 70s. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the average adult in the UK now owes £29,500. Collectively personal debt amounts to £1.5 trillion, more than annual GDP, and is expected to rise to well over £2 trillion in the next three years. Britain’s elites exploit a culture of deference, which they manage supremely well. Shock therapy and savage austerity cuts may prove their undoing.

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