The second of my quick looks at the contexts in which 2023 will take place looks at Britain, and it’s not a pretty picture. The UK is trapped in a never-ending cycle of elite control and nothing but nothing seems capable of breaking it. In the context of a global elite which is in its own kind of crisis, this does not offer much hope.
Let me start with why elite rule is the only option the UK has. I’m going to call it the Toynbee Cycle after Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. In the run-up to the 1997 election she was an enthusiastic New Labour fan and would write articles on how the coming regime was going to transform the UK forever.
A few years later the best she could offer was that we should all ‘hold our noses and vote Labour despite how we feel‘ about its betrayals, warmongering and failure to transform the UK. Blair would transform Britain. When he didn’t she said keep voting Blair and we’d get Brown who would transform Britain. When he didn’t she said keep voting Labour because, you know, Tories.
When that didn’t work she started trying to persuade you that actually Labour had transformed Britain (against all the evidence). But when someone came along who genuinely did want to transform Britain (Jeremy Corbyn) she was a leader in the campaign to destroy him.
Having done that and got Starmer she is trying again to persuade us he’ll transform Britain. Just very slowly. So slowly you won’t notice. In another five years she’ll be writing about how you need to hold your nose, accept Wes Streeting privatising the NHS and just keep voting Labour – she’ll fill in her justification later.
I write this not to be horrible about Polly Toynbee (whom I know a little and think is basically well-meaning) but to explain the context in which we should understand the UK. The reason that Toynbee tells herself she is maintaining this consistently-inconsistent position on why you are voting Labour is because of the Overton Window.
If you are not familiar with that concept it is a term for the spectrum of what is considered ‘acceptable, electable politics’ – too far to the right and no-one will vote for you, too far to the left and no-one will vote for you, just in the middle and people will vote for you.
Toynbee believes (almost like a religion) that Labour must enter through the Overton Window and then remodel the house so that the Overton Window is wider. I say ‘like a religion’ because the only person who has widened the Overton Window was the only leader she was active in bringing down, and because the evidence that anyone has ever gone in conservative and come out radical is completely non-existent.
The UK is a fundamental mess of low-productivity, foreign ownership and low pay which makes it structurally uncompetitive
In fact if you were to tell Toynbee that, much more than the vast majority of humanity, she is reinforcing the narrowest possible Overton Window because she believes it to be a window that only opens from the inside, I’m sure she would be horrified. Yet that is her intellectual role in British life, telling you just how much you as a citizen can legitimately ask for.
She has written extensively on how to widen the Overton Window, largely through major structural reform of lobbying, media ownership and voting systems. Yet her enthusiasm is always for those politicians who promise not to make major structural reform. Because the lobbyists and media who she identifies as the gatekeepers can always manipulate the voting system otherwise.
If this all sounds illogical to you, it is. She wants Starmer in so that the UK can finally be reformed, with her first priority being a proportional voting system for Westminster. When Starmer rules out voting reform, she puts up a brief protest then appears only to become even more enthusiastic for Starmer.
Every social reformer in Britain knows we are stuck in this cycle and there is no way out. The UK is designed to be unreformable. The establishment coup against Jeremy Corbyn (do not kid yourself on it was anything other than that) shows either that the UK establishment is too powerful so the UK can’t be reformed, or that the UK population is so conservative only tiny (and reversible) reform is possible.
What is it about the UK that makes its population so conservative? The media. So can we reform media ownership? Nope, because the media will prevent it. Don’t doubt that for a second – look at how the media got caught in the most shocking illegality over phone hacking and still managed to walk away scot-free regulation-wise (with a couple of token sacrifices).
It doesn’t make much difference what happens politically in 2023, the outcomes will be much the same. Starmer and Sunak will set much the same budgets and maintain much the same economic policy. Starmer’s promises of reform are already weak-as-water and these will rapidly be dropped just as Blair’s were in power.
A society rife with major problems trapped by a fragile domestic economy itself trapped by a fragile global economy should concern you
The elite owns Britain, like the elite owns a yacht or a big house. Liberals know it and say we need to work with what elites will permit, the right already is the elite or wants to be, there is no left permitted near any form of power and if it gets anywhere near power it is crushed ruthlessly.
That might be a situation which we could reluctantly put up with if this was 1997. If a reckless banking market could inflate tax revenues through dodgy dealings and the reckoning for this was still ten years away, we could all pretend it was working, like we did in the 2000s. But not a soul thinks this year or any year in the near future is going to see a tax income bonanza.
That in turn is because of two things. First, the UK is a fundamental mess of low-productivity, foreign ownership and low pay which makes it structurally uncompetitive. And second, this is also true of many of the other developed economies. The US is only strong because the Dollar is the de facto global reserve currency. No-one else is thriving.
It may take only one in-country crisis to kick the whole thing off, and there are quite a few candidates to do it. The EU is in an absolute mess (EU evangelists bemuse me – rejoin sure, but pretending that is the heart of our problems? Have they seen Germany, Italy, France, Spain?)
And in a crisis the UK is weaker than most developed economies because so much of our economy is based around financial speculation, an industry sector you don’t want to be reliant on when a crisis kicks off.
There is no way out of the Tonybee Cycle. The UK is every bit as elite-dominated now as it was in the 1950s (in some ways more-so). The only hope of some wriggle-room for social reform would be either a courageous leader (Starmer is certainly not that) or an economic boom. Neither is happening. The public sector budgeting you see now will remain like that for the rest of this decade. If you’re lucky.
A society rife with major problems trapped by a fragile domestic economy itself trapped by a fragile global economy should concern you. That the society in question is immune to structural reform closes off an avenue of escape.
Scotland’s role in this? To try and widen the Overton Window a bit for London liberals who genuinely think it is legitimate for us to get a politics to our right in exchange for them getting a politics to England’s left (even though the evidence for this happening isn’t strong).
The UK is not a vibrant economy or society but is rather in a fundamental mess. There is no option for real change. You are presented repeatedly, over and over again with only two choices, bad or worse. You’re expected to choose bad. Forever.
And that’s the Toynbee Cycle, a cycle which means no matter what happens, 2023 is just going to be more of the same followed by more of the same.
The full series: Part One | Part Three | Part Four