Friday, 7 October 2016

Tory Conference

This week apparently saw a sea change in British politics, as the Prime Minister's key note speech  at the Conservative Party Conference heralded a lurch to a more protectionist, older footing of the ideology than the one that has dominated the UK's politics for the past forty years. This 'Mayism' has elements of both the 1950s and the 1930s and shows a clawing back to national borders and to the idea of the nation-state. It is virulently not only anti-EU but apparently anti-globalisation and, opposed to the corporatism that has beset public life at every turn. The day of the 'weightless state', so beloved of Mr. Cameron is apparently over and we are marching towards the safer territory of ,flag, faith, and family'. Mrs. May's ideas seem like a confusing mixture of Left and Right policies, a lurch one way on immigration, and the other on things like executive pay, workers representatives on boards, and most of all on tax evasion on the part of corporations. This is the most surprising aspects of what she said, and the part I'm least convinced will have any substance, simply because six months ago there would have been a lot of hot air about how making large companies and by extension, the rich, pay their taxes would lead to them leaving the UK. At a point in time when there are already Japanese firms warning that Brexit may mean (and at present I think we can infer that 'may' means 'will', here) that they relocate to the EU, it seems almost suicidal to bluster and make threats about tax avoiders being hunted down, even if it is a more just policy to pursue than simply closing our eyes to the problem. For that reason alone, I suspect that these promises were crowd pleasing homilies, probably designed more for the press and the audience at home than the people who actually went to the conference. 

Beyond this 'anti-business' cant, there is nothing new about what May was promising, of course, These are the core ingredients of Conservatism, as baked into the recipe as the desire to maintain the past and keep things as they are, rather than gallivanting off on hair brained schemes like democracy or rights for women. In common wth everything in public life this year it has that feeling of 'marching into the past, while extolling the value of the future'. 

There are certainly some very difficult elements to the policies being proposed, particularly on immigration. With the focus on international students (cracking down on two groups the British seem to hate in one go, immigrants and students), I can only imagine that universities will be looking very hard at how they conduct business in the UK, and would not be at all surprised to see them seek to become more international in the next decade - possibly establishing Chinese and Indian campuses, rather than franchising courses. The truth of Higher Education is that the sector is almost desperately reliant on international student fees, as universities rely on international fees to make up the shortfall between the money they receive from domestic students fees, and what they actually need. I suspect we may see a sharp contraction in the numbers of Higher Education Institutions within the UK, and possibly the growth of 'merged' institutions, to form H.E. Conglomerates. (Also, remember the Knowledge Economy? What happened to that? ) That being said, prediction is an art for idiots, so I may be, and hope, that I'm wrong. In addition, Ms. Rudd's speech did smack of a much greater in state surveillance of foreign nationals, and all I can say is that I hope the same rigour will be applied to groups like Britain First (a member of which began his trial for the murder of Jo Cox this week).

Let's move on to other problems with what's being proposed. The first is that, in many respects, it's nonsense on stilts. Once again, we see people trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Brexit and everything to do with it is just another exercise in nostalgia, and nostalgia is an unhealthy feeling because it means that rather than dealing with reality, we're daydreaming of a better past (not a better future). The other thing is that while Mrs. May's daydream is one of small village life, of grammar schools and the like - almost an updated version of John Major's speech,

"Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist' and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.'"

in other parts of the country, the good times will be interpreted as the times of large heavy industry projects, when the mill or factory employed thousands, days long gone because technology has moved on. Even with the lagging footsteps of British industry, where technological change is resisted in favour of cheap labour, those days will never return. Whichever way you spin it this is the equivalent of Trump's 'Make America Great Again' rhetoric and it is just as empty. 

It also ignores technology's influence, that just as the car and television have killed the good old fashioned 'community', the internet is killing borders, capitalism is killing national identities, just as it has largely killed regional ones - you find the same stores wherever you go. Ironically, it was mentioned at the Conservative conference that we face higher immigration because people have mobile phones and can see what good lives everyone lives in the West. It seems odd that it doesn't show them the amount of hate speech directed against immigrants as well, doesn't it? 

The fact is that technology is a much greater shaper of society than politics or economics could hope to be. I don't see how we can have technology that's forever pushing our borders open, and at the same time hold them firmly shut. It simply makes no sense, especially when there are so many dire warnings about the effect that trying to shut ourselves off from the world will have on the economy. It feels a little too extreme to invoke the Black Shirts but it does feel very much like it's the sort of contradiction that's inherent to that sort of thinking. 

While I don't believe it's sincere, May is at least abandoning some of the ancien regime 'let them eat cake' attitude that has encapsulated the last six or so years. This means that she is at least trying to address normal people, which it never really felt as if Cameron did.  

In closing, while the speeches were pretty, I do think they were filled with nonsense and that we should be wary of the course we're being steered down on as a nation. This sort of future has no future, it isn't fit for purpose. We need new ways to face the challenges that this century will throw at us, and we need them soon. 

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