by John Knox
The age of austerity, it seems, is now to be followed by the age of uncertainty. Like a hill walker lost in the mist, we are not quite sure where we are. We know we are at the end of the UK party conference season and half way through the parliamentary term. We know we are heading into the Scottish party conferences and into the great referendum campaign. But we cannot see more than a hundred days ahead and no one knows where all this is leading.
We are, I think, still in shock after falling off the economic cliff in 2008. The latest report from the International Monetary Fund makes frightening reading. Growth forecasts are down again – in the euro zone growth is predicted to be almost down to zero next year, in Britain it’s down to 1.1 per cent.
“We need action to lift the veil of uncertainty,” said the IMF’s managing director Christine Lagarde. Unemployment, she said, was reaching “terrifying and unacceptable levels” and she called on governments to do more to stimulate growth and to give up their strict debt-reduction targets.
It is the same message from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. The manufacturing, retail and tourism industries are all in decline and more than half their members predict a further decline next year.
We face political uncertainty too. The Conservative conference headed off in a wayward and distinctly right-wing direction…..more government cut-backs, attacks on workers’ rights, £10b to be cut from welfare benefits, more anti-EU rhetoric, warnings of troubles in the world economy coming to overwhelm our sceptred isle.
Meanwhile, over at the Labour Conference, Ed Miliband banged the drum for “One Nation” politics but failed to say how we would ever get there. And the Liberal Democrats tried to distance themselves from the Tories but voted through the spending cuts.
In Scotland we have Labour heading into the winter with yet another “review” of policies we all thought they were signed up to….free personal care for everyone, free university education, free bus passes. And we have the SNP preparing for their referendum, the most unsettling policy of all.
To be fair, the SNP are offering leadership, a supposed way out of the mess we are in. They are pointing to an independent, social-democratic Scotland, in Europe and in NATO (if all goes according to plan at the party’s conference in Perth.) And this certainty about the correct road ahead will be to the SNP’s great advantage when it comes to referendum day in 2014.
Unless, of course, the unionist camp can come up with an alternative certainty. But this seems unlikely at this stage. The economy will have to be back in sustained growth by 2014, unemployment will have to come down, public services will have to be in reasonable shape, the pensions issue will need to be resolved and the opposition parties will have to offer a stronger form of devolution. It’s a lot to achieve in two years.
The uncertainty at home is reinforced by the uncertainty abroad. The euro zone is still in crisis five years after the great crash. The USA is going into a close election between very contrasting visions of the future. China is keeping us all guessing about who will be the next Communist Emperor and what his policies will be. Who can say which way Tsar Putin will take the Russian Federation. The Middle East remains a powderkeg. And terrorist attacks could take place just about anywhere.
The slaughter in Syria has shown us how weak the United Nations has become – in just a few short months. It was able to intervene to save the people of Benghazi from Qaddafi’s air force last year but has been unable to do the same for the people of Homs and Aleppo. The UN has also failed to get international agreement on climate change, energy policy and aid for the billion people who still live in earth-scratching poverty.
The certainties of the post-war era have gone – the strong international institutions, the commitment to full employment, the development of the welfare state. Even the smaller certainties of the Thatcher/Reagan era and the Blair/Brown boom have collapsed. Corruption, deception and incompetence in institutions like parliament, the church and professional sport have left us all feeling let down and uncertain which way to turn.
The arrival of the small-screen culture has made things worse with its instant access to news and information and the so-called “wisdom of the crowd.” There are more differing opinions out there – all, it seems, backed up by their own experts.
It is tempting to turn to some sort of philosopher/king, a mahatma, to guide us through these uncertain times. But there is no Gladstone, or Karl Marx, or Roosevelt or Churchill or even Thatcher or Blair with an agenda which captures the mood of the day and turns it into action.
Perhaps the way out of this bog is for our ordinary politicians to be frank about our problems and to give a lead. And the rest of us have to have the restraint not to punish them for it. We all love Boris because -agree with him or not – he speaks his mind. We need more of that.
Joanne Lamont was given credit for opening up a debate about universal benefits but she should also be prepared to give a lead. Which benefit is she thinking of scrapping ? Apparently we will not find out till after the referendum. Alex Salmond wants more economic powers for Scotland but he won’t say if he wants to raise income tax or cut corporation tax.
And we all need to be more realistic. Take economic growth, for instance. It looks like it will be about 1 per cent a year for the next few years, so why are we complaining about a 1 per cent cap on wage rises ? We all know we had too much credit during the boom years, so why are we moaning about the shortage of credit now ?
We all accept that climate change will be catastrophic in the long term, so why are we not prepared to accept a higher tax on carbon ? We are all living longer, so why are not prepared to pay higher contributions towards our pensions ? We know that preventive public spending is better than acute spending, but we still protest about hospital closures ? We know that education is the key to a better way of life but we don’t want to be taxed to pay for it .
And the politicians let us away with such contradictions, in fact they share them. Instead we should be starting to build stepping stones out of this bog of contradiction and uncertainty. Let’s make our systems more robust – energy supplies, rail systems, bank regulations, pension plans, international institutions – even if that means we have to pay more for them. One way to provide stability is to localise our economies and our public services public, so if one area breaks down it can be supported by the others. It may lead to a poorer world but a calmer one.