A musician reflects on government

12 May 2010

So we’ve got a new government, and with it a Conservative prime minister, and I’m not as upset as I thought I’d be at the prospect.

I grew up thinking the Tories were evil. I was 9 years old when Margaret Thatcher first got elected, and that election was probably the first time in my life that I became aware of politics, government and a world outside family, friends, school and play. Raised in a Welsh-speaking, left-leaning family in Wales, a country that’s overwhelmingly left-leaning, the years of Conservative rule that followed that election seemed grim indeed. It seemed to me that we were being told that greed was suddenly considered commendable and that society simply couldn’t afford to look after its weaker members with any sort of dignity. It seemed that the right were getting richer and the poor were having a really tough time of it, three million of them unemployed. From a child’s point of view, this seemed so clearly unfair and unjust.

So the joy and hope that I felt when Labour came to power in 1997 was enormous. And they started out so well. They handed control of interest rates – so often used as a crude fix for political/economic problems and used as a subtle manipulator of public opinion: down before an election, up again afterwards – to the Bank of England, who seem to have made a far better job of it ever since.

They initiated devolution in Scotland and Wales – a huge thing to me as a Welshman, knowing my country’s history of 700 years of English rule. Yes, I concede that our new devolved government is far from perfect, and I doubt that Wales will ever become fully independent, or even that it needs to.
However it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

They put money into education and health, sometimes misguidedly and often inefficiently, but the intent was there and the results showed.

Then, eventually, the Labour government did two things that I can’t ever forgive them for.

The first was to take us to war in Iraq. The majority of people in the UK didn’t want us to go to war there, and I honestly don’t believe that the world is a safer place because we did. Quite the opposite in fact. In 2002, Tony Blair was perfectly placed to act as a bridge between the USA and Europe and it was well within his reach and influence to diffuse the situation and soothe the war-mongering voices.

Is it inconceivable that had we focussed our national and international resources on rebuilding Afghanistan and rebuilding goodwill instead of marching to another war, then radical Islam today would have just a tiny fraction of the emotional ammunition that it needs to thrive?

The second thing Labour did was to slowly and subtly whittle away at some of our most fundamental human rights and civil liberties. I’m amazed that I barely noticed at the time and I’m shocked that, as a society, we don’t seem to have realised it and aren’t up in arms screaming about it. Not only did they inflame the international situation instead of soothing it, they then used the fear of the increased threat to pass laws giving powers to arrest us without reason, detain us without charge, monitor all our communications and lay claim over all sorts of data about us. Philip Pullman, the author of Northern Lights and the Dark Matter trilogy, put it far more eloquently than I can. Please read his piece linked here, written early last year:

I don’t remember ever feeling as disempowered, angry and frustrated about Britain’s so-called democracy as I did in the months leading up to this general election. The party that I grew up believing would treat the country fairly and justly had done quite the opposite, and I knew that the party waiting in the wings to take over were no better.

I felt a strange, peaceful resignation too – although I felt that those in power today were way beyond my reach and reproach and were making a monumental mess of things, I reflected that, throughout human history, most people have probably lived relatively powerless lives under corrupt, repressive regimes. The only difference is that I believe I have a say because this is called democracy.

It was with a heavy heart that I felt obliged to vote Labour last Thursday.
I felt so betrayed by them, and yet felt even more strongly that a Conservative government would be worse, that I ended up voting tactically because I live in a marginal constituency. When the results came in I was relieved that there wasn’t a Conservative majority, and was strangely apathetic and uninterested in what kind of government they’d patch together from this hung parliament. I don’t trust any of them, I thought, I may as well leave them to it and get on, live my life, and roll with the occasional punches when they inevitably come my way.

And yet this morning I feel a small, unexpected tingle of optimism.
Actually, this could have turned out a lot worse.

Yes, we have a prime minister that I don’t trust in the slightest, but a Conservative government tempered by the Liberal Democrats is a far less scary prospect than a Conservative government with a big majority. Who knows, they may even do quite well – this is relatively uncharted political territory aftrer all, the first coalition goverment in the UK in 70 years.
And I also take comfort from Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, who said in a private conversation recently that tough budgetary measures would be necessary in the UK, and that these measures would keep whoever wins this election out of power for a whole generation.

If the Lib Dems had done a deal with Labour, giving us a minority government with a clearly unpopular prime minister at the helm, I think it would have done huge long-term damage to both parties, resulting in a Conservative landslide majority at the next general election, and for a few more after that.

So maybe things aren’t as bad as I thought. Perhaps we’ll get an electoral system that more accurately reflects what we want after all. Maybe coalition governments will be more common from now on and maybe they’ll work better than the two lumbering parties of the past generation swapping back and forth. Perhaps Labour will regroup and return with sounder ethics and more backbone.

And maybe, and I can only hope, we’ll come to realise how many of our personal freedoms we’ve lost over the last decade or two and start demanding them back.

Read more from Donal at www.masteringworld.wordpress.com