Optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect isn’t always the best response to political defeats or reversals. The refusal to accept adverse circumstances and setbacks might be admirable in some contexts, but it can also indicate a confusion between what is desirable and what is possible, and a kind of blind faith that no matter how badly things are going, they will turn out alright in the end if you just keep plugging away. History has frequently left this belief in tatters.
Last week’s election certainly provided ample grounds for pessimism of the intellect. It produced widespread despair, consternation and anger across the British left – a term I use in the most general sense. Less than a week after taking power, these are some of the proposals that Lord Snooty and his new blue collar pals are preparing.
- New restrictions aimed at curbing ‘extremism’ that are repressive, vague and politically inane. They will allow the state to ‘disrupt’ groups or individuals that undertake harmful activities for the ‘purpose of overthrowing democracy’ in which ‘harmful’ may refer to a risk of public disorder, harrassment, alarm or distress or creating a ‘threat to the functioning of democracy.’
- Restrictions on the right to strike that will require a strike to be supported by 50 percent of all members and forty percent of public sector workers, rather than fifty percent of those who cast a vote – a restriction that will make it all but impossible to go on strike.
- A removal of the ban on using agency workers covering for union members who have gone on strike
- An EU referendum, possibly brought forward to next year.
- Scrapping the Human Rights Act.
- The opening of 500 more free schools
- Lowering the household welfare cap from £26,000 to £23,000
- Imposing taxes on disability allowance
- Scrapping housing benefit for under 21 year olds
- Increasing the bedroom tax.
This is grim stuff, from a government that clearly believes it can do whatever it likes, unencumbered by the loose shackles of coalition or a hung parliament. Nevertheless I would like to suggest a few grains of comfort that we might take from the current situation. Firstly, this a government with a narrow majority, that received only 25 percent of the national vote, that owes its success more to the feebleness and ineffectiveness of the Labour opposition and the vagaries of the British election system than it does to its own political or moral authority.
Some of those who voted Tory may have had a vested interest in doing so. Others may have been conned by smearing and scaremongering about ‘chaos’ and the SNP, or were unimpressed by Ed Miliband, but one thing is clear: the majority of the British population did not vote for this government and they did not vote for these proposals.
Nor is it clear that the government will even be able to implement them. Take the proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act. This is a piece of populist red meat thrown at UKIP, the Tory rightwing and the tabloids, which is based on three essential premises 1) that we British are so innately superior that we don’t need foreigners to tell us anything about human rights 2) that human rights is a nonsense anyway and 3) that we want to be able to deport terrorists and ‘foreign criminals’ without their ‘taking advantage’ of the European Court of Human Rights.
There is no guarantee that the government will be able to push this derogation through parliament. Nor is it clear how a British ‘bill of rights’ would replace the Human Rights Act, without being almost identical to it. In addition the government will generate some powerful opposition, from civil liberties advocates and from within the British legal system.
The referendum on Europe is another red meat proposal aimed at UKIP and the Tory right, which is likely to exacerbate divisions within the Tory party itself and also within the British economic elite and the transnational financial sector on which the UK economy has become dependent.
The government also faces a series of crises, some of which are the result of its own actions. Schools across the country are struggling to cope with reduced budgets, there are not enough teachers in classrooms, and teachers are dropping out of the profession in record numbers. Last year suicide rates in British prisons reached a record high, through a combination of staff cuts and overcrowding that has left some prisons working at double their capacity.
In short, this is an extremist but brittle government with a destructive political agenda that it doesn’t have a popular mandate for, a government whose proposals will inflict massive damage on British society that will harm even some those who voted for it. It’s also a government operating in an inherently unstable economic climate that remains prone to destabilising shocks and crashes. Last but not least, it’s a government that is widely despised, and for good reason, and that loathing is certain to increase in the coming years.
So we do not need to regard the Tories as the ‘natural party of government’. On the contrary, it remains a government that can be opposed and resisted, both inside parliament and outside it.
And when we shake off the dust from last week, that’s what we have to do in every way possible, not because ‘optimism of the will’ ignores political reality, but because the future that this government is preparing is so appalling, disgusting and horrendous on so many levels that despair is a luxury that we simply can’t afford.