So, on May 7th citizens of the UK will be going to cast their ballot to elect who’s going to have the privilege of living at No. 11 for the next five years. As a foreigner living in London, and as a person who doesn’t really have a stake in this (I think my British life experiment is drawing to an end, to be honest), this is an extremely interesting time, an occasion for an insight in the politics of another country. It’s a bit like seeing a football match between two teams that are absolutely irrelevant to you: you can sit down and truly enjoy the match.
With this mind set, then, I can serenely emit my verdict about this electoral campaign, which is: it’s extremely interesting and boring at the same time. And they’re all squabbling about the wrong topics. In the next paragraphs, if you’ll have the patience of putting up with me, I shall delve deeper into it. Let’s start with why these elections are the most interesting since, well, as long as I can remember.
Even the most unaware of the average Joes knows that the British political system had, historically, the same level of entropy and infightings of a religious debate amongst Atheists, or a discussion about football between engineers: there are two parties, Labour and Tories. The Labours are elected by the poor, the Tories by the rich, and they all congregate in a room, the Commons, filled with benches upholstered in hideous, kryptonite-green leather (it’s England after all) and discuss. The other House, the Lords, is full with people with double surnames who don’t get elected and secretly misses the days of fox hunting.
This time, though, it’s different. Neither the Labour or the Tories will be able to get a majority by its own, and striking a deal with the Liberal Democrats, a party as hard to describe as dark matter, isn’t going to help either, or so it seems. To the right of the Tories a new group, the UKIP, has managed to put on respectable-looking clothes to an otherwise xenophobic, racist and – let’s say it – a little bit fascist part of the political spectrum (even though Nigel Farage’s choice of suits and ties remain deeply disputable). The Greens are also up, even though only time will tell for how long and by how much; and, finally, we have localist parties in Wales and Scotland, with the SNP fully recovered from the independence referendum débâcle and ready to be the tip of the scale. European political aficionados are jubilant, for years of British smugness at how Britain stability contrasted with Italy’s multi-party alliances, French mood swings and Ukrainian fight club sessions have now ended.
It is, however, also extremely boring. With the partial exception of Nigel Farage, there isn’t a single politician in the pack that stands out and that, for a land who gave the world Churchill, Disraeli, Maggie Thatcher and countless balls-out (figuratively, obviously) leaders it’s a disgrace. Can you imagine Cameron going to the Commons, grab the fringes of his blazer and hammer out a marvel of a speech, like Winston used to do? Nah. Britain had “This lady’s not for turning” and now it had to make things do with Dolores Umbridge’s lookalike and an idiot who, in the privacy of his £30,000 kitchen, does a sardine sandwich (ugh) whilst a jar of Manuka honey, price £21 at Waitrose, peeks out from the fridge door left cleverly ajar by some spin doctor. Churchill drank one bottle of brandy at lunch, for fuck’s sake. This is, perhaps, part of the reason for the resounding success of the UKIP, despite its amateurish agenda, questionable choice of candidates and mismanagement of EU funds scandals: Nigel Farage doesn’t look as if he’s come out from the same prep school for politically correct politicians, even though there’s no doubt he does.
Finally, my last observation: if you discount the rubbish and look at the main parties’ programmes, they all talk about the wrong things.
Take immigration, for example. If you listen to UKIP, or read the Daily (Hate) Mail, Britain is facing doom at the hand of untold masses queueing up in Calais, IS terrorists, Polish plumbers and, obviously, me. We’re all here to steal the benefits from the British bulldog, nick his job, pocket his silverware and occupy his home. Oh, and while we’re at it, we also like to create traffic jams to stop Nigel being on time.
This is nothing new, it happens all around Europe, and it’s not new that all the other parties are rushing to join the bandwagon, with Mr Cameron making a tough face or Labour’s disastrously hopeless coffee mug, which got an absolute battering by Frankie Boyle recently.
The fact is that immigration is indeed a controversial topic, and one that needs attention, but it isn’t by far the scourge that people assume it is. Immigrants pay more taxes and are generally younger than the average local, hence less likely to be a burden on the state’s health services; additionally, the benefits-for-immigrants issue is quite small and, in fairness, shouldn’t we fit the systems, rather than just talk about the minority who are using its loopholes to their benefit?
The fact is that the elephant in the room is, in my opinion, the economy and the State’s coffers. In my simplistic view a country where everyone has a full wallet is a country where there aren’t problems, and researchers seem to be on my side: countries with a sizeable middle class and low divergence are safer, more stable and prosperous than those with higher inequality. The UK’s GDP is growing, yes, much more than France’s, Italy’s or Germany’s but… Is it all wine and roses? I think not.
To start with, inequality is booming. Income disparity is going through the roof, reaching Dickensian levels. The UK is home to the most billionaires per capita in the world and also shows some shocking statistics for malnutrition and extreme poverty amongst children. The current government had made life easier for wealthy Britons and overseas billionaires, but the trickle-down effect just hasn’t happened (as Nick Hanauer has rightly pointed out, how can anyone expect a single billionaire to consume as much food, clothes, cars, movie tickets or trips to Cornwall as the 1000s people whose wealth, combined, make up his?). Where there’s poverty, there’s unrest. Where there’s inequality, there’s unrest. If I’m poor, I see you’re rich and I don’t see any way of getting at your level, I’m gonna try and snatch it from you. But still, the current government is squeezing on benefits more and more, whilst making life easier for the upper strata of society.
The second bit of the economy that I’m worried about is the State’s coffers. It is hardly deniable that much of Britain’s economy benefitted from the Bank of England’s massive quantitative easing, as well as that the BoE rescue of many beleaguered financial institutions has saved the UK – and the world – from financial meltdown. And that’s great stuff, it’s Keynesian economics at its best – at least the QE bit – and that shit works. Ask anybody on the other side of the Channel that isn’t a German economist, and they’ll agree with you. The problem is, though, the direct result is that the debt is levitating like a soufflé. In 2014, Britain’s deficit-to-GDP ratio was -5.7%. EU’s much maligned stability pact limit is -3%. By comparison, Greece’s ratio is -3.5% and Italy’s is -3.0%.
According to George Osborne’s latest plan, Treasury wants to reach positive accounts (where the State earns more than it spends) by 2018. This means, assuming that the dimension of the State budget remains the same, that it needs £108bn by that date, or £22bn per year at constant rate. This can either be reached through new taxes, or by cutting expenses; to give you an idea, £366 in extra taxes, per year, for every man woman and baby in the country. And yet, despite this enormous task, both major parties are pledging to pump extra funds into a National Health Services which decades of mismanagement have made a tragedy, made of massively paid consultants and falling standards. And new railroads. And homes. And, obviously, we still haven’t got all the money back from the banks we taxpayers have saved. And without increasing taxes.
All this makes me think that, in 2018, Britain’s public debt won’t be under control. This means that, sooner or later, investors will ask Britain for higher interests for the pleasure of buying Britain’s debt, or that Britain will have to pay for more debts, for they’ll be higher. One way or another, the British state will have to pay more of the monies it collects through taxes to re-fund its debt, instead than spending these tax revenues on, say, new hospitals, better schools, railroads (or to fix those bloody signals on the Tube lines). And no one amongst the competing parties seems to have the slightest idea about how to fix this issue, or the balls to even mention it openly.
The more I look at the UK as it approaches the Elections, the more it reminds me of Japan in the early 1990’s or, even worse so, Italy in the same period. A time of carefree spending that has left the following generation with a inheritance of a high costing debt, a debt that is sucking up to 20% of the State’s revenues, a debt that is forcing high taxes on the country’s enterprises and citizens, while roads, schools, hospitals are done on the cheap.
But talking about immigration makes a lot more sense, yes.