Saturday, 11 October 2014

Political turmoil, independence debates and a big disease with a little name

The nights are drawing in, the leaves have turned and there is a definite nip in the air, autumn is here and therefore this is a good time to sit back and take a look at some of the events that have interested, amused and occasionally scared us over the past few months.

The other season that starts when the leaves turn is the party conference season, I’ve largely given up on these as meaningful political events since they have long since come to resemble an awkward hybrid stitched together out of a trade fair and a revivalist meeting. Next year being an election year should have given this year’s offering a little more oomph, but it didn’t, they were, alas, as tepid as ever.

For the record what little insight they offered can be summed up fairly succinctly. Labour dropped the ball, again, spending all week waffling around the edges of policies they don’t actually have. Ed Milliband’s big speech was by turns dull and then disastrous, any credibility he had gained at the start of the week by calling for the minimum wage to be raised was blown away by his forgetting to mention the economy in his speech. Open mouth, insert foot; watch your party’s chances of winning the next election vanish.

The Tories played squarely to their core vote promising more austerity and benefit cuts along with a tax cut for anyone earning over forty thousand a year. As ever David Cameron made the best conference speech, not a surprise really since he is the only one of the three main party leaders who can do that sort of thing with any level of ability. The right wing media, which is most of the media of course, lapped it up though I’m not at all sure his message of playing to the base instinct of the electorate and letting the consequences for society go hang plays all that well outside the Westminster bubble.

The Liberal Democrats made a lot of noise and even bit the Tory hand that has fed them governmental titbits for the past five years. Listening to them you couldn’t help feeling they were whistling in the graveyard, mostly to keep up their own spirits because the wider public aren’t that interested.

As a curtain raiser for the forthcoming election all three party conferences were a total dud, none of the three main political parties inspire much in the way of confidence, mostly because they lack both policies and a vision for the sort of country they want Britain to be.

Perhaps that explains the rise and rise of UKIP as a political force, they have had strong showings in the recent European and local elections and the day before I wrote this article won their first seat at Westminster in the Clacton by-election. They are certainly attractive to disgruntled Tory voters and are starting to make inroads into Labour’s neglected northern heartlands.

There is a possibility that they have peaked too soon and won’t be able to maintain their current momentum; it is also notable that aside from leader Nigel Farage the party lacks any figures with much in the way of talent or charisma. It is also certain that once in office, at any level, UKIP will find it harder to be distinctive when weighted down by the demands of day to day politics.

For now though they are managing to connect with the public, largely through trading on their collective anxieties and distrust of the political elite, in a way the three main parties just can’t. That might not give Nigel Farage the keys to Downing Street next May, but it could make his party a major player in a future coalition government.

The independence referendum in Scotland offered a more positive and hopeful vision of what politics could be like. Ultimately Alex Salmond wasn’t able to seal the deal for the ‘yes’ campaign, but he did manage to instigate an open, constructive and mostly temperate debate about what sort of country Scotland wants to be, best of all the debate was driven by the Scottish people and not the political establishment.

This gave the political elite another unwelcome shock and although the union has survived they have been forced to promise greater devolution of power to Edinburgh and may have to open discussions about giving other parts of the UK more autonomy. In recent weeks there have been some attempts to slow the process of devolving power away from the centre down and return to business as usual, this is a grave mistake, the old way of doing things no longer works and now the democratic genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back in again.

Ukraine and the violent separation of Crimea from the rest of the country showed what happens when a people seek independence by any other than democratic means, chaos, bloodshed and suffering. It also demonstrated the impotence of the EU and the United States in the face of a newly emboldened Russia determined to support the claims of the Crimean separatists, despite shrill protests both backed down meaning that when or if the times comes when there is no way to avoid standing up to Mr Putin the consequences of doing so will be all the worse.

The impotence of the EU and America over Ukraine may explain why there has been such enthusiasm for military action against Islamic State forces based in Syria. As the jet fighters scream through the air and the politicians promise it will all be over by Christmas and with no casualties too I am put in mind of the advice wise old doctors used to give to their eager interns, don’t just do something; stand there.

At the moment we seem to be doing all the wrong things and in an unholy rush too. It is by no means clear that the people we are supporting are any better than IS, just different, it is also a fallacy to think we can get away without putting troops on the ground and when we do being prepared to take substantial casualties.

Anyway all the above might not matter if Ebola, to quote the eighties Prince song a big disease with a little name, takes hold. There seems to be a worrying touch of complacency to the West’s response to what is seen as an African problem. We are told repeatedly that the disease will be easily contained by our more developed health services; I’m not so sure, the more complex a system is the more prone it is to breaking down.

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