Thursday, April 28, 2011

Royal wedding and rude awakening

Even here on the sunny streets of Tallinn in the spring, there is new attention being given to Britain as the Royal Wedding preparations proceed. Such occasions are not quite as unique as the Brits believe- after all there was similar interest in the marriage of the Swedish Crown Princess which took place only a few months ago- but nonetheless there is at least a degree of interest. In fact several of the bars usually patronized by ex-pats will be showing the great occasion and doubtless offering some festive drinks to accompany it. Yet what the Royal Wedding is doing around the world is being presented as a twin story of Royal Joy/Domestic failure and highlighting the current dire situation of the United Kingdom.

The economic crisis- with the UK set to have the third highest deficit in the EU, and with serious fiscal tightening now urgently needed in order to avert a real emergency- attracts attention. Worse is the terrible sense of catastrophic decline. The fact that the UK no longer has an aircraft carrier in her -much diminished- Royal Navy. The serious crisis in British education. The breakdown in public order, fueled by horrific levels of binge drinking. In short, the view of Britain from abroad increasingly resembles that of the Daily Mail.

Of course, even as journalists move on to another story, the fact remains that there are grains of truth and serious problems which the UK now contends with. In fact, I suspect that over the next six months there will be very little cheerful news. The fact is that the UK is not able to recover as fast as was hoped because the manufacturing sector has been so diminished. Although in the US manufacturing, after a long decline, is now recovering, based on a devaluation of the Dollar and a dramatic fall in unit labour costs; in Britain our manufacturing bases is too small to sustain a general recovery. The devaluation of Sterling has not increased competitiveness so much as it has increased inflation. So growth will continue to hampered by the over-reliance on finance and construction. Meanwhile inflation will continue to be a stubborn problem- not quite serious enough to trigger a rise in interest rates, but quite serious enough to undermine the value of the currency and destroy the savings that we need to fund renewed investment.

Without getting a grip on our bloated and inefficient state sector, the future outlook for UK growth is highly uncertain. The UK spends five times more per capita on heath care as Estonia does and it has generally poorer outcomes. It spends substantially more on secondary education, and has lower rates of literacy, lower attainment in numeracy, science and linguistic ability and even in history. The costs of our tax collecting agency gulp down a massive proportion of taxes which are simply administrative expenses- in other words lost to inefficiency. We insist on absurd and expensive compromises- failing to modify our measurement system increases costs since both imperial and metric systems must be catered for. Our public administration is indeed the scandal that the international press is discovering in their articles about the Royal Wedding.

And the root of this growing crisis is a consistent failure of political leadership. Whole generations of our politicians have not been straight with the British people about what the prices of our choices really are. Many if not most politicians don't have enough executive experience to understand the implications of their actions. Yet even worse than this is that the British people themselves- although their anger and contempt for their leaders grows ever louder are not prepared to "throw the bums out". No one even asks why -if Socialism is dead- there is still a Socialist Party contending for power. No one even asks -if privilege is dead- why our Parliament is dominated by ex-public schoolboys. No one asks what the qualifications of our MPs truly are, beyond party hackery. Perhaps this lies in the fact that we do not have an electoral system that offers more than an approximation of how people vote anyway, so most votes are ignored. Yet the Brits seem inert in the face of this, and may well reject the limited change on offer- possibly they understand that it is more of a fix than a solution, but it hardly shows a fighting spirit of reform.

So as the Brits get more bad tempered and fall further behind, then increasingly, they will have to accept that it is their own fault. If they actually want to improve themselves they had better learn that they themselves must take responsibility for what happens on their streets and in their neighbourhoods. If they disapprove of politicians then they have the power to change not only the individuals but those the system that selects them. If they despair of their economy, then they had better work harder themselves. The problems we face are those of a failure to take responsibility for ourselves. That failure could lead to a dramatic crisis all too soon.

An Estonian friend of mine said this week, "All the Brits really need is some massive shock to wake them up, don't they?" She added "In fact, perhaps if Scotland left the UK, that might do it". Leaving aside the fact that there would be no "Brits" if the country broke up, I think with the opinion polls are suggesting that the SNP might be able to get a referendum onto the political agenda we may have a shock.

I have a slight start of recognition, since this Royal Wedding does carry the same fin-de-siecle atmosphere as the celebration of the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty of the Russian Empire in 1912. Despite the huge celebrations and outpourings of loyalty, even contemporary observers proclaimed that all was not well, and indeed, within six years not only the Tsar and Tsaritsa were gone but so was Russia.

After the Scottish elections, we may be about to find out whether independence for Scotland does the same for the United Kingdom.

2 comments:

Dilettante said...

I agree with most of what you say and you're normally bang on the money but you've seriously misjudged Scotland I think. The upcoming Scottish election is not about independence, and if the SNP/Greens do get a referendum through they will near-certainly lose it. Do you have serious evidence to support the idea that the UK will break up?

Cicero said...

The point is not that Scotland is ready to rush out of the Union today. The problem is the referendum creates considerable uncertainty. An independence Yes/No question would probably give 65-35 against as you suggest. However supposing Salmond does a multi-choice? Then the answer could be a lot more ambiguous and you can bet that the SNP would exploit this: demanding more and more in pursuit of a mandate that they could claim showed the Scottish people supporting them. Also to be frank, the moral vacuum that is Scottish Labour has no intellectual coherence in opposing the SNP. At this point the SNP has the only leader the media takes seriously and a far more coherent agenda- they are convincing more and more people that independence would be a positive, rather than, as I fear and expect, an overwhelmingly negative thing.