8 April 2013
The Passing of Margaret Thatcher
By Gwynne Dyer
Margaret Thatcher was the woman who began the shift to the right that has affected almost all the countries of the West in the past three decades. She died in London on Monday, 34 years after she became Britain’s first female prime minister and 23 years after she was driven from office, at the age of 87. But it is an open question whether even the crash of 2008 and the ensuing prolonged recession have finally ended the long reign of her ideas in Western politics.
“This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated,” wrote some minion in the personnel department of British chemical giant ICI, rejecting young Margaret Roberts’s application for a job as research chemist in 1948. She was fresh out of Oxford University, 23 years old, brimming with self-confidence, and absolutely full of opinions. She probably frightened the job interviewer half to death.
But she landed a job with a plastics company in Colchester in 1949. She joined the Conservative Party and stood for parliament in the 1950 election (she was the youngest candidate ever), and married businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951. Margaret Thatcher, as she then became, finally made it into parliament in the 1959 election.
She entered the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970 as the “statutory female” (as he gallantly put it). But she had the last laugh in 1975, replacing Heath as party leader after the Conservatives lost the 1974 election. She took a very hard line from the start, both in domestic and in foreign politics. Her open hostility to the Soviet Union led a Soviet newspaper in 1976 to dub her the “Iron Lady”, a title in which she reveled.
Her real impact, however, was in British domestic politics, where she broke the welfare-state consensus that had dominated all the major parties for the previous thirty years. “It is our duty to look after ourselves,” she said, and the political orthodoxy trembled before her onslaught.
An American diplomat in London, in a confidential assessment of the new Conservative leader in 1975, captured the essence of Thatcher’s revolutionary politics. She was, he wrote, the “genuine voice of a beleaguered bourgeoisie, anxious about its eroding economic power and determined to arrest society’s seemingly inexorable trend towards collectivism.”
That was what carried her into office in the 1979 election, and as prime minister she acted on her convictions. After she had fought and won the Falklands War against long odds in 1982 her popularity was unassailable, and she used it to break the power of the trade unions and privatise state-owned industries. More than that, she made free-market ideology for all intents and purposes the state religion.
So it remained for thirty years, long after her harsh and confrontational style had lost her the support even of her own party. She was ousted as Conservative Party leader and prime minister by her own colleagues in 1990, but the Labour governments of 1997-2010 were also in thrall to her ideas. Their influence abroad, particularly in the United States, was equally great.
Yet her greatest contribution to politics, and the foundation of the right’s political success over recent decades, was not ideological but tactical. She was the first politician to grasp the fact that with the decline of the old working class, it had become possible to win elections on a platform that simply ignored the wishes and needs of the poor. There weren’t as many of them as there used to be, and the poorest among them usually failed to vote at all.
This insight was key to the success of President Ronald Reagan in the United States in the 1980s, and to the triumph of conservative parties in many European countries in the same period. It continues to be a major factor in the calculations of parties both on the right and on the left down to the present day: you cannot count on the poor to win an election for you.
Margaret Thatcher was made a baroness after she relinquished her seat in the House of Commons in 1992, and continued to sit in the House of Lords until ill health forced her to withdraw from public life entirely in 2002. In her last years she suffered from dementia, and she finally succumbed to a stroke on Monday.
Her influence lives on, at least for the moment, but it may not last much longer. The powerful middle class on which she founded her political strategy has been hollowed out by the very success of the free-market policies she promoted. Once you allow for the effects of inflation, average middle class income in the United States, for example, has not grown at all in the past three decades.
The time may be coming when gaining the votes of the poor, including the growing numbers of the “new poor”, will once again be essential to win elections.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“An American…collectivism” and “Margaret…Monday”)
12 December 2011
Euro Crisis: Barking Up the Wrong Tree
By Gwynne Dyer
One senior European politician said angrily that British Prime Minister David Cameron was “like a man who comes to a wife-swapping party without his wife,” and there was some truth in that. Britain does not even use the euro currency, shared by 17 of the 27 EU members, but Cameron insisted on being part of the discussion in Brussels about how to save it. And in the end, he vetoed the solution that all the others had agreed on.
It was the eighth crisis summit of the European Union’s leaders this year, and it produced the fourth “comprehensive package” of financial measures to deal with the debt crisis. (The other three have already failed.) And if you judged the importance of the meeting by the scale of the uproar when Britain vetoed the EU treaty that was meant to stop the rot, it must have been a very important summit indeed.
But in fact they were all barking up the wrong tree in Brussels: the financial crisis over the euro will roll on, and the collapse of the common EU currency continues to be a real possibility. What the summit actually showed was how divided, distracted and deluded Europe’s leaders still are.
David Cameron went to Brussels knowing that his partners intended to come up with a treaty that would enshrine new financial rules for EU members, in order to reassure the “markets”, who have been demanding higher and higher interest rates to roll over the debts of EU members. He also knew that the nationalistic, “europhobe” faction in his own Conservative Party would never vote for such a treaty. They want out of the EU, not further in.
The only way out of Cameron’s dilemma, therefore, was to make sure that there would not be such a treaty. His stated reason for vetoing it was to avoid more stringent regulation, and possibly taxation, of the London financial markets, but his real reason was naked self-interest: a new treaty would split his own party and probably destroy his government.
His stated reason was nonsense. Any new financial regulations that would affect the London markets would have to be agreed unanimously by the EU countries at a later date; there was no need to veto the treaty if he just wanted to protect the free-wheeling, “casino” aspect of the London markets that had done so much to precipitate the crisis in the first place. Cameron just needed a cover story.
The other EU members feigned great anger at this, but some of them were secretly quite grateful for Cameron’s bad behaviour. They agreed to adopt the same rules anyway, but to do it outside the legal framework of the EU in order to get around the British veto. This had two great advantages: it meant that no referendums would be necessary – and if these new measures failed to reassure the markets, they could all blame Britain.
What were these fabulous new measures? They were all about “balanced budgets” in the eurozone countries, which would face sanctions if they let their budget deficit exceed 3 percent of GDP. They would even have to submit their national budgets to the European Commission, which would have the power to ask that they be revised.
These are exactly the steps that will be needed if the euro is to have a long-term future: it cannot survive if the countries using it do not have a unified fiscal regime. But the markets don’t give a damn about the long-term future of the euro; they just want to know for sure that they will get back the money they lend to eurozone countries, and until they have that assurance they will demand exorbitant interest rates on their loans.
In this context, the decisions taken in Brussels this week are merely a displacement activity. The bigger EU governments are using the crisis as a pretext to force through centralising measures that they have long wanted to impose on the weaker economies. But they are still not doing what the markets want, which is to take responsibility for the weaker countries’ debts.
Can it really be that simple? Can they really be that irresponsible? Yes, and yes again. Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, explained why this sort of thing happens in politics seventy years ago. “All politics is local,” he said, and that is true in spades in Europe today.
It’s not just David Cameron who is putting his local political interests above the interests of a broader European community. So is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who refuses to allow the EU to make a collective commitment to honour the debts of the weaker members.
That’s the only thing that will calm the markets, but Merkel’s voters are fiercely opposed to hard-working, thrifty Germans covering the debts of lazy, spendthrift Greeks and Italians (as many of them would put it), so she will not permit it. And so the euro crisis rolls on interminably.
But don’t worry: interminably is not the same as forever. Sooner or later there will be a real crash, and all these people will be duly punished for their fecklessness. Unfortunately, everybody else in the EU will be punished too.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It was…indeed”; and “His stated…story”)
10 August 2011
The English Spring
By Gwynne Dyer
“I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment,” said Darcus Howe, a black British journalist, in an interview with BBC television on Tuesday. The revolution has finally arrived: after the “Arab Spring”, here comes the “English Spring”.
And the revolution is going to spread. There’s apparently a “Trinidadian Spring” too (although it’s also possible that Howe only mentioned Port-of-Spain because he grew up in Trinidad). Whatever. In any case, the English Spring is certainly an earth-shaking event.
With London in flames, thousands dead, and the British government trembling before a full-scale insurrection of the masses, the collapse of the entire capitalist order is only moments away. As the Tunisian revolution led to the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and then to a non-violent revolutionary movement in Syria, so the overthrow of the British government will quickly lead to the destruction of the US government and the Chinese Communist regime.
Wait a moment! This just in! London isn’t in flames after all. Some dozens of buildings have been burned in various residential parts of London, but none in the centre. Apart from the original demonstration outside a police station in the London suburb of Tottenham by relatives of a suspected drug dealer who was shot by police on Sunday, it’s opportunistic looters who have been out on the streets, not political protesters.
In the inner London district of Camden Town, for example, the social media on Monday night were full with rumours of local landmarks in flames. However, Tuesday morning revealed that a few phone shops in the high street had been looted overnight, and an iconic (but rather grubby) rock venue called the Electric Ballroom had been vandalised. Nothing else to report.
We in the media love stories of death and destruction, but it turns out that there aren’t thousands of dead either. As of Wednesday, there had been only five deaths that might be linked to the turmoil: three people killed in Birmingham by a speeding car probably driven by looters, one man found shot dead in a car in London for unexplained reasons, and the drug dealer, Mark Duggan, whose death at the hands of the police unleashed these events.
There are certainly questions to be answered about Duggan’s killing (it appears that the gun he was carrying was never fired), and further questions to be asked about the way that the police dealt with his family afterwards. The demonstration outside Tottenham police station was genuinely political, and there are plausible claims that the police response was excessive.
But after that, everything changed. On the second night, there was no rioting, in the sense of demonstrations with a political motive or goal. There was just looting, as disaffected youths from the under-class seized the opportunity to acquire a little property from the rest of the population and damage a lot more. They feel that they have been abandoned by the society, and they are right.
Every post-industrial society has a large and growing minority of permanently unemployed or under-employed people who would once have grown up into the good working-class jobs that no longer exist. They are present in significant numbers in Britain and in France, in the United States and in Russia, even in Japan. It’s those bored and angry youths who are looting in England now.
Some people want to impose an ethnic explanation on this phenomenon. They try to define the looting and violence as a response by underprivileged black youths in Britain (or by underprivileged Muslim youth in the 2005 and 2007 riots in France). But the truth is that rioting and looting have always been equal-opportunity activities in both countries.
In the past thirty years of sporadic rioting and looting in England, every outbreak has included a large, probably majority participation by young whites from the under-class. The same was true of France in 2005 and 2007, where the young “Muslim” rioters were quite happy to be accompanied by their white and Asian friends from the same tower blocks.
For complex cultural reasons, the looters in England are disproportionately Afro-Caribbean youths, but it is not a particularly racist society. Afro-Caribbeans come last in school performance in England, but the children of immigrants from Africa come first. Fifty percent of second-generation Afro-Caribbeans in England end up in inter-racial relationships – but often in relationships with people of the white under-class. No escape there.
The real issue here is class – or to be more precise, the despair of the under-class. Less brutal and insulting behaviour towards the under-class by the police in normal times would reduce the level of resentment and the frequency of rioting and looting, but it wouldn’t stop it.
So there will probably be at least a few days’ more looting in England, until the under-class youths in every city and neighbourhood have had a chance to vent their anger and fill their pockets. And then it will stop. For a while.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 12. (“And…event”; “In the…report”; and “For complex…there”)
27 July 2011
The Christian Threat
By Gwynne Dyer
Three pieces about Muslims in the same paper on the same day (The Independent, 25 July). The first is a local colour piece about how there are a lot more Middle Eastern tourists in London this summer. Why? Because France has banned the “Islamic” veil (or the Babylonian/Roman/Byzantine/Islamic veil, if you want to be precise) that covers the face. So the high-spending female shoppers from the Gulf aren’t going to Paris any more.
So many of them are going to London instead that big London shops like Selfridges and Liberty are reporting a 40-45 percent in international visitors compared to last year. And since Middle Eastern shoppers spend about fifteen times as much as your average British shopper, they are more than welcome even if many of them look a little weird to the average British eye.
Two pages on, a story about how rickets, a bone disease that causes stunted growth and bow legs in children, is making a comeback in Britain. It’s caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, which is produced by sunlight acting on the skin. And it’s Muslims (British Muslims this time), who keep their women indoors or make them cover every bit of skin when they go out, who are the main victims of this disease.
The researcher didn’t actually say that, of course. She said: “You get women living in certain communities that perhaps don’t go out much because of religious, cultural traditions. They’re covered up when they do. They don’t get enough access to sunlight, so they get vitamin D deficient…So (their children will) be presenting with rickets at around 18 months.”
Fair comment, but it’s striking that nowhere in that story does the word “Muslim” appear. It didn’t appear in the first story either. Everybody knows that both stories are about Muslims, but the galumphing etiquette that governs this discourse means that you mustn’t actually say so. It’s a well-meaning but idiotic attempt to compensate for the vicious anti-Muslim rants that you’ll see every day in other parts of the Western media.
And finally, on the letters page, an angry complaint by a British Muslim about the way that Western media jumped to the instant conclusion that the hideous slaughter in Norway was the work of Muslim fanatics. “Now that the architect of the Norwegian massacre turns out to be a blue-eyed, blonde, white, Christian, right-wing fundamentalist,” inquired Dr Shazad Amin, “where have all the so-called experts on “Islamic terrorism” suddenly gone?”
“I look forward to now seeing an equally vigorous explanation of how Norway was “always a key target” for right-wing neo-Nazi groups, supported by a plethora of experts on “Christian terrorism” to explain the theological basis for these attacks.”
If you hold your breath until that happens in the mainstream Western media, you will turn an attractive shade of blue, but we could try to apply the principle here.
Just as Muslims living in northerly climes with weak sunlight suffer rickets because of their clothing preferences, for example, so “Christians” living in countries with strong sunshine suffer very high rates of skin cancer because of their custom of wearing as little clothing as possible.
That is not really accurate, of course, because a majority of the world’s Christians are not white. What’s actually being observed is that people of European descent (most of whom are at least “culturally” Christian) get skin cancer a lot if they live in countries like Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
The fully veiled women shoppers in London are not just generic “Muslims”, either. They are almost all women from the Arabic-speaking countries of the Gulf, home to only a quarter of the world’s Arabs and only about 3 percent of the world’s Muslims.
But this is really just quibbling. The real question is: what can be done about the obsession with “Islamic terrorism” in the Western media, to the virtual exclusion of other kinds of terrorism. It is so strong that even after Anders Behring Breivik claimed responsibility for the Norwegian horrors and explained his (right-wing, Christian fundamentalist) motives, internet posts continued to argue that he was just a tool in the hands of Muslim extremists.
It’s the “hidden hand” theory of politics, and its adherents generally proceed by the logical process that the lawyers refer to as “cui bono”: who benefits from this action? It’s hardly an infallible indicator of who is responsible, because you have to allow for the crazies, and also for those who are miscalculating where their interests really lie. Nevertheless, it’s the methodology that the conspiracy theorists prefer.
So, then, who benefited from Breivik’s actions? Obviously he believed that it would serve his own delusional ideology (which he elucidated in a 1,500-page internet post), but who was really behind it? I’m drifting towards paranoia, I know, but stay with me.
The week before the Norwegian tragedy saw a deluge of revelations of criminality and a firestorm of media criticism about the conduct of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Suddenly, all the media attention has turned to Norway and terrorism, and the Murdochs are off the agenda.
I’m not going to say anything that might get me sued, but if you like a really big conspiracy theory….
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 10 and 11. (“The researcher…months”; and “That…Muslims”)