The Breakers Yard of the Vanities
Could the Lib Dem surge save the British political class from itself? A healthy dose of mild reform will innoculate the system against real change.
I The Nose
The nose turned up on a barge from North Devon. The first instalment of the Gordon’s supercarrier Queen Elizabeth II. It wasn’t a very big nose, 400 tons, and almost certainly the event was staged for the media: a diplomatic pregnancy. The new 65,000 ton queen was to be glued together at Rosyth, in sight of the eyrie of the Premier at North Queensferry. In the Woody Allen film Sleeper a South American dictator is blown up and our man is asked to clone him from his only surviving bit: his nose. Thus would what the `Broonite Empire State’ be reborn. If this sounds weird, it is.
In the last few weeks, as the writer of Broonland: the Last Days of Gordon Brown (Verso) and MSP on Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, I have dotted about political Britain. Like C P Snow’s Lewis Eliot, for whom he contrived a roving bureaucrat role in World War II science administration, this idiosyncratic progress has traversed the various layers of the political nation, from lunch with Mervyn King in the labyrinth of the Bank of England did he really say `Professor Harvie, we have been expecting you?’, and was there a white cat? to chatting to radio and TV, book-groups and socialist societies, and in so doing meeting my own past: old colleagues from Labour clubs, Fleet Street and Oxbridge high tables: a mahogany Union State long gone.
An interview on Broon with the New Statesman. I canvassed in 1964 an Edinburgh voter with the arresting name of Darthula P Tibbs, who recalled reverencing Great Turnstile from where Kingsley Martin and Richard Crossman had edited the Staggers and Naggers, publishing Shaw and Keynes. Nehru and Mountbatten contributed to its 50 anniversary in 1962: Crossman’s `Charm of Politics’ personified. Now?
A clunker on premiers and the press by Lance Price had to be read and reviewed; its girth expanded as people and events shrank. In 1917 Lloyd George and Northcliffe held the fate of the world in their hands; publicists like John Buchan realised that trade unionists on the Clyde were part of the equation. And now? Now politicians, trade unionists too, to whom you could rarely fit a face? Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party was 800 pages long, with maybe a dozen references to Scotland. `The latest from Hogwarts’, and fascinating doubtless on that level, but life’s too short. Would this stuff register for more than an hour in contemporary Berlin?
II Rot, and again rot
One objective correlative was much humbler, squalid even. Returning to my Welsh house after six weeks away to discover something like scrambled egg issuing from the skirting board in the kitchen. Dry rot wood turning to tissue paper seemed to parallel the condition of Britain. Financial chicanery, political deceit, crap housing bequeathed by an idiot boom, students (pitifully few doing science or languages) listlessly glued to their I-players or shriekingly boozed up, railways semi-functioning then the airports closed. Over lunch at Holyrood Prof John Kay said the bankers had survived their supposed re-education, and bonuses were booming, so the next disaster was on cue. `We’re all against socially useless capitalism’ said the former Tory leadership candidate David Davis at the Banking Commission, `But look who’s financing my party.’ Ashcroft of Belize, Fink of Man, Michael Spencer and his magic currency deals. No wonder Suave Dave was becalmed on 40%. No wonder, given his chance on the TV debate, Clegg morphed from midge to Mighty Atom. Yet the sort of economy that might follow a hung parliament the speculators descending on acollapsing £ would complete the car boot sale of national assets.
`Rome fell, Venice fell, Hindhead’s time shall come.’ Bernard Shaw’s forecast in Heartbreak House (1919) casts back to John Ruskin’s `less-pitied destruction’ of the Empire and to Kipling’s`Recessional’. They imagined not just the decline, but the partition of Britain, going the way of Venice the Serene, or the empires of Sweden and Lithuania. Was 2008-9 not, objectively, both inevitable and a relief? Like that moment in the life of the very old where the brave attempt at coping, `understanding the world’, ends, and the care home doors fold behind?
If power in Britain is literally about power, could the issue be as simple as France capturing the south with EDF’s nuclear stations, while Germany holds the north through its waveturbines? Against them, for the moment, we have the Stevensonian schizos: Dr Broon’s sombre bedside manner when not throwing his interns about, Dave dislimning from Nicebloke at the squash club into the capo of a gang of swivel-eyed Thatcherite revanchistes. Meanwhile investment bankers sell Cadbury to Kraft, restructure Diageo in favour of Formula One and, building on the Ferrovial-BAA triumph, throw another Spaniard into the BA works. Our bill will come in later, after they exit to villas, yachts, supermodel girlfriends, etc. God’s work has been done!
III `There’s the end of ane other auld sang!’
Adam Smith’s `a great deal of ruin in a nation’ meaning the state finance which has underwritten the `moral hazard’ infestation of recent years was tested to death by the outlaw capitalism of the United Kingdom of London after 2002. So where now? The LibDems are the European party, and what alternative to Europe do we now realistically have? Recollect that Splendid Isolation was neither splendid nor even isolated.
The rise of the UK under the Union also implied the rise of a German dynasty: American colonies came and went, but until 1837 the white horse of Hanover was part of the royal arms. The scientists of Goettingen and the brothers Grimm, as well as their friend Walter Scott, were the subjects of George IV.Europe badly wants a new dynamism particularly in the environment and the new `geotechnic age’. But as John Lloyd of the FT reminded me, in a London debate, it will effectively be French or German-led, since Britain’s `success’ in luring foreign direct investment (FDI) long-ago hollowed our own place out.
Further Brown/Cameron divestment would simply complete the process. Consider, however, a `Europe of the nations’ in which `These Islands’ have full representation at EU level. If we grossed up Parliamentary and Council representation through a Confederation of British States, independent EU members but capable of effective joint action, this would be a formidable bloc: rivalling Germany in terms of MEP strength at Strasbourg.
It could also profitably develop expertise in such areas as renewable power and distance learning which could give it a key role in supplying, in the manner of Walter Bagehot and James Bryce, the pragmatic conventions of unity, which Europe so badly needs. Out of the growing constitutional chaos the logic of a popular front against `the malefactors of great wealth’ and a confederal Britain in Europe could again energise the `Tory-Free Scotland’ movement of the 1980s.
The other view, eastwards, from Brown’s Chateau Despair, Dramcarling above North Queensferry, is of Inverkeithing Bay, where in 1949 I saw the battleships Nelson, Rodney and Royal Sovereign being broken up. We couldn’t afford Dreadnoughts then. If we’re to tackle real life-threatening problems, we cannot afford Tridents and Supercarriers now. QED.
Christopher Harvie will be holding a Kirkcaldy launch of Broonland at the old YMCA, Sunday 18 April at 1800. Author’s proceeds – four quid per book sold – to the fund to keep Kishor Dangol (Nepali activist threatened with deportation) in Scotland.