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Britain’s Versailles moment

The image of Marie Antoinette dressing up and playing shepherdess in the grounds of her Hameau de la Reine folly at Versailles while Paris burned in the distance may owe more to the mythology of the subsequent revolution, but it speaks to an aristocratic elite which had severed all ties to the realities of life for the people they ruled over.  It wasn’t the first time that a schism had opened up between the rulers and the ruled, and it wouldn’t be the last.  As often happens, while history did not repeat, it very definitely rhymed.  There was the same frivolous, partying among a cavalier elite even as the people’s bellies rumbled with hunger.  There was also the same outwardly bombastic but privately weak male ruler, hen pecked by the stronger and more intellectually gifted foreign wife.  And at the end, there was the same inability to do more than party as their respective kingdoms were consumed by the flames of revolt.

While such events are mostly written up around the personalities involved, there were deeper material factors at work.  North-western Europe, for example, had been in the grip of the “little Ice Age” during the ill-fated reign of the Stuarts.  This fed into an energy crisis as timber was consumed both for construction and fuel faster than trees could be grown to replace it.  It also led to the run of poor harvests which all too often led to catastrophe in pre-industrial economies.  It was into this explosive mix that a relatively new printing industry added divisive religious-based propaganda designed to blame collective misfortune on the followers of an opposing creed.  Protestants accused Catholics of committing atrocities.  Catholics accused Protestants of persecution.  Both engaged in the age-old habit of blaming Jews for poisoning wells.  This religious zeal fuelled the murderous thirty-years’ war between 1618 and 1648, which saw as many as eight million deaths.  And while England avoided the war on the continent, the material conditions and the religious fervour brought civil war to the British Isles soon enough.

On a smaller scale, the collapse of the political court of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his politically foreign consort, Princess Nut Nuts, bares many similar – if not quite so apocalyptic – features.  Johnson’s rise to power was based on naked self-interest.  The decision to campaign to leave the European Union was made just hours before the referendum campaign began and was based entirely on whether supporting or opposing the sitting Prime Minister would offer the best route to becoming Prime Minister himself.  Aided by the imbecilic antics of the pro-remain parliamentary bloc, Johnson was able to go to the country in December 2019 with the sole pledge to “get Brexit done.”  The result no doubt exceeded his expectations – Labour’s former industrial red wall (more a neglected ex-industrial wasteland these days) crumbled in the face of an incoherent, scatter-gun opposition campaign.

Johnson’s 80 seat majority ought to have made him invulnerable.  But “getting Brexit done” means so much more than the formality of exiting the European Union.  While the Brexiteer Tories may have imagined that they were resurrecting the glory days of the British Empire, the economic upswing of the 1950s, or at least the electoral success of the Thatcher years, it is doubtful that this is what the majority of leave voters across ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small-town rural Britain had voted for.  But beyond getting a messy exit deal, and a handful of disadvantageous trade agreements, Johnson has been incapable of translating the Brexit and general election mandate into the “taking back control” institutional and economic reforms that the majority of his voter base desires.

For the most part, Johnson’s political luck since the 2019 election has been to be opposed by a Labour leader who has evidently had a charisma by-pass, and a Labour Party devoid of political ideas relevant to the realities of life for millions of British people after more than a decade of austerity and four decades of neoliberal neglect.  Even the ramshackle response to the pandemic went largely unchallenged by an opposition which showed itself to be even more authoritarian and even less economically competent than Johnson’s Tories.  The best Labour could offer was to do the same economy-wrecking things the government was doing, but more, quicker, and for longer.

The lack of opposition though, also speaks to deeper material crises brewing out of sight.  Just as many on the Tory benches were hoping to recreate some past glory, Starmer and his backers are engaged in a similarly doomed attempt to relive the Blair years.  But the oil-based, debt bubble boom conditions which allowed these electoral triumphs have long since faded into the mists of history.  The 2008 crash and the years of austerity which followed, have created a very different socio-economic structure to the one which rallied behind Blair’s “third way” message in 1997.  But a Labour Party which morphed into a party of the metropolitan middle classes is largely both unaware of and indifferent to the plight of the sons and daughters of the Blairite electoral coalition of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Since at least the 1980s, prosperity has been in retreat in Britain.  What I mean by this is that, while official GDP growth may have continued, a growing part of the population has seen its discretionary income shrink, with those at the bottom unable even to cover essentials like food and fuel – hence the massive rise in foodbanks, for example.  In the 1980s, we discussed this problem in terms of a North-South divide, with a dividing line running from the Severn estuary in the southwest to the Humber in the northeast.  It was shorthand, of course.  But it spoke to an earlier divide between the old, coal-powered industries located in the north – coal mining, steel working, ship building, textiles, etc. – and the more recent, southern oil-based industries of the post-war years – aviation, petrochemicals, electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc.  It was largely – though not exclusively – the older, coal-powered industries – mostly nationalised in an attempt to protect employment and maintain critical infrastructure – whose decline exploded in the stagflationary crisis of the 1970s.  The monetarist quack cure – mass unemployment and industrial closure – left scars which continue to fester to this day.  And while Thatcher’s intention may have been to clear out unprofitable industries to provide space for new, leading-edge technology enterprises to take hold, her main achievement was to use the brief – two decade – spurt of North Sea oil growth to underpin a debt-based banking and financial industry which was blown apart by its own internal contradictions in 2008.

The retreat of prosperity continued throughout.  Although its reality was more personal than the division between north and south or even my own contrasting of the still affluent – for now – metropolitan suburbs of the top-tier university towns with ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small-town rural Britain.  Even within the most affluent of university town suburbs you will find miserable souls eking out a living from zero-hours and gig work, supplemented by in-work benefits and occasional visits to food banks.  At the same time, you can find some seriously wealthy individuals residing in some of the most impoverished regions of the UK.  Nevertheless, statistically, the bottom half of the income distribution has been going backward for more than a decade, even as the cost of essentials like food, fuel and energy has been rising far faster than the official inflation rate.  And far fewer of those experiencing declining prosperity live in the leafy suburbs of university cities like Oxford than in ex-industrial towns like Ebbw Vale.

Crucially, the process of decline did not stop just because people voted for Brexit in 2016.  It is just that the political and media elites stopped looking… not that they had been looking too closely to begin with.  Nor did the pandemic reverse the decline, despite the political class claiming that we were all in it together.  Indeed, by severing supply chains, shutting in raw materials production and creating an economic environment hostile to long-term investment in key industries, the response to the pandemic has ensured that a tide of declining prosperity will wash over even the metropolitan middle classes far sooner than might otherwise have been the case, as the retreat of prosperity accelerates.

While there is growing awareness among the political class that we face an imminent “standards of living” crisis – which they still speak about in the third person – there is no sign that they understand the causes or the depths of what is coming.  Indeed, the emerging solution to the gas and electricity component – providing loans to energy companies to keep consumer prices low until the wholesale price of gas falls again – displays a serious lack of awareness of the impossibility of having infinite growth on a finite planet, since one of the main causes of the crisis is that we have used up all of the cheap and easy gas deposits and are now left with only the difficult and expensive ones to sustain us.  And since we wrecked our coal industries and left ourselves entirely dependent upon gas to back up our over-deployment of intermittent wind generation – a process being repeated across the developed world – the wholesale price of gas is going to remain high for as long as it takes for clever people somewhere else to figure out an affordable means of coping with intermittency.

Nor, ironically, is gas our main problem.  Largely hidden from view – although for much the same reason as with gas – the price of oil has been quietly creeping up toward $90 per barrel and looks likely to hit $100 per barrel by the summer, with some analysts forecasting an economy-crushing $200 a barrel in the near future.  Because almost everything in the modern global economy depends upon oil in its manufacture and transportation, coming on top of the eye-watering price increases from disrupted supply chains, the general hike in costs from oil price rises will be far more damaging than simply adding anywhere between .50p and £1.00 to the price of a litre of petrol.

The coming oil shock is no more short-term than the gas and electricity crisis.  It is just that the brief spurt of debt-based growth between 1986 and 2008 helped to take everyone’s eyes off the ball.  And for a political elite which has become bloated with debt-based assets and City of London sinecures it has allowed a near complete divorce from the increasingly difficult daily grind of the majority of the governed.  And it is a consequence of this gulf between government and governed which looks set to bring an end to what looked to be the unassailable rise and rise of Prime Minister Johnson.  For it is only when inequality has become so wide that political leaders come to believe themselves above the laws and rules which govern the little people.  Lockdowns for us, and cheese and wine parties for them.

Johnson’s passing though, does nothing to address a looming crisis as bad as anything seen in the crises of the 1970s or the 1930s.  A crisis that, absent a new and versatile energy-dense replacement for fossil fuels which has yet to be discovered, cannot be reversed.  Millions of British households were already struggling prior to the pandemic, and there is little evidence that things have improved – although various grants and furlough schemes may have prevented things from being even worse.  Johnson and his modern-day Marie Antoinette partying in the grounds of 10 Downing Street while Britain’s economy was metaphorically burning in the distance, may prove to be their downfall.  And the opposition parties may gloat over their pyrrhic victory.  But it is no more than another of history’s Versailles moments… the point when everyone can see for themselves that the governing elite is not only out of touch, but only out for itself.  The true hardship of economic unravelling and political revolt has yet to come.  And while we may hope that it stops short of bloody revolution and complete collapse, we have yet to see any evidence that the ruling elite even begins to understand the process of collapse which is unfolding, still less offers any serious response to it. 

On the bright side, at least guillotines and scaffolds are made from renewable and recycled materials and are entirely powered by renewable energy…

As you made it to the end…

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