IN 2010, Gordon Brown's tongue slipped during Prime Minister's Questions.
He meant to say that his government deserved credit for saving some banks. Instead, he wound up boasting: "We not only saved the world ... " Few failed to laugh at this final, revealing mistake.
It's not so funny now. Brown and others did, in fact, pull the banking system back from the abyss, but for millions the aftermath might as well have been the end of the world. Orthodox, textbook, balance-the-accounts austerity was vented over Europe like a cloud of toxic gas. Lives were destroyed and are still being destroyed.
The joke used to run that the revolutionary left wanted to see blood on the streets, just as long as it wasn't their own. The same could be said of the European political elite. Like the London Coalition Government, they can't stop saying how much they feel your pain. But sharing it, halting it, beginning to recognise that it might even be futile? That would mean admitting they were wrong.
There is evidence enough to show that relentless austerity is the economic equivalent of mediaeval blood-letting, and about as useful. With Britain back in recession, the supply of excuses is running low. The prospect before us is of an ever-postponed recovery. Even the Coalition admits, in essence, that it sticks to its course because bond markets matter more than a million young unemployed. But stick to its course it does.
The tricky part for evangelists of austerity is that every now and then, if only for form's sake, people have to be allowed to vote. In normal times, this doesn't matter much. The revolving door spins, the labels change, differences in emphasis are presented as fundamental disagreements. Policy remains in essence the same. Brown's government, had it survived, would also have embarked on wholesale spending cuts, but proceeded with slightly less haste and – perhaps – with a little more compassion.
Hard times concentrate minds. Voters tend to conclude that those who sought political responsibility must take responsibility. In Europe, in Greece and Italy, "national unity" coalitions led by technocrats – bankers, it so happens – were created as an expedient to keep a lid on such unsavoury opinions. They were also supposed to distract the countries suffering most from noticing that austerity was a policy Made in Germany and imposed at the behest of Angela Merkel's government.
Her wing of the elite, famously, "doesn't read Keynes". The jest is supposed to explain that orthodox German economists disdain the belief of John Maynard Keynes that the very worst time to cut public spending is in the pit of a recession. But Germany is the eurozone's biggest, most powerful member. What Germany wants, Germany tends to get.
You can't stop people voting, however (not yet, at any rate). You can't stop them from deciding on "none of the above" where familiar faces are concerned. France and Serbia will choose a president today and Greece will choose a government. Italy is meanwhile bracing itself for harsh medicine from the technocratic (and unelected) Mario Monti. In each country voters are broke, disgusted, distrustful and bent on change. No-one is quite sure what that means, least of all the voters.
The less-complicated case is that of France. At the time of writing the polls still say the game is up for Nicolas Sarkozy, Merkel's ally and the candidate she made the mistake – or so it would seem – of endorsing. Personally, I wouldn't count Sarko out until every last vote had been counted, but everything depends on whether the six million or so who supported Marine Le Pen's Front National would really rather have the socialist Francois Hollande than stomach the man who wasn't quite right-wing enough.
If the polls are correct, however, the French left will be back in the Elysee Palace. If the polls are correct, in fact, and if Hollande means half of what he says, Merkel has a fight on her hands. The consequences for our own dear coalition could be interesting, too. Rather than running with the austerity pack, they could find themselves an eccentric minority.
The French Socialist Party's candidate says he intends to renegotiate the so-called eurozone fiscal pact cobbled together by Merkel and Sarkozy. The German chancellor has already countered that the issue cannot – she means will not – be reopened. Hollande wants to turn the efforts of Europe and the European Central Bank towards growth and job creation. Merkel continues to say that austerity is the only route to economic health. The Franco-German axis is about to slip a gear. In the short term, that could seem like a sideshow if Greek voters behave as predicted. The civilised habit of banning polls in the last fortnight before elections means that no predictions are secure. Nevertheless, it seems likely that three parties liable to be defined as hard left in the British media glossary – Syriza, the Communists and the Democratic Left – could pick up anywhere between 30% and 40% of the vote. Conservative and neo-fascist parties are also doing well, in the latter case alarmingly so.
The upshot is that the old duopoly of Pasok (leftish) and New Democracy (rightwards), the epitome of a chummy elite, are in trouble. Both ran the country into the ground. New Democracy stuck a cherry on the mess by lying about the public finances. One or other is still liable to be the biggest single party – and rewarded, for peculiar Greek reasons, with a bonus 50 seats – but neither is likely to gain enough support to resume their patriotic coalition. Then what?
NO-ONE knows. Or rather, no-one knows much beyond a single fact: voters have had enough. In Greece, the economic statistics are reflected in rising rates of suicide, homelessness, emigration and street crime. The established politicians are not believed; their panaceas are not trusted. There is a belief, as in Italy, that simple corruption explains as much as any economic theory. As in Britain, few are gullible enough to believe that "we are all in this together".
The idea that the growing rebellion against Europe's elites is a left-wing phenomenon is comforting, but false. Le Pen convinced those millions of voters of two things: immigrants are to blame and the euro must be abandoned. Similar sentiments are being heard across the Continent: foreigners and "Europe" are the villains. Serbia's elections turn on the same manipulated fears.
That battered country has big debts, too, and has one in four of its adults out of work. Across Europe official unemployment is touching 11%; youth unemployment in Spain is 52%.
Anyone still talking blithely about "democratic institutions" knows no history. The bankers's prescriptions for a banking crisis have begun to dominate elections. The response might lead to a return to sanity; for some it could be the harbinger of something worse.
And for us? There are minor themes and major themes. Of the former, Tory fears over UKIP's rise in England have become blackly comical. The "UK" party that does not exist in Scotland is another populist mob obsessed with immigration and "Europe". How do we think the Tories will react to that?
Their instinct will be to lurch to the right. Their problem, amply demonstrated by local election results in England, is that the mass of ordinary voters are not about to be placated by populism.
Unemployment in the UK is forecast to top 9% in the months ahead. Incomes are falling and prices are rising while austerity sounds to many ears like glib nonsense. The LibDems are flirting with eradication and the Tories are running out of human shields. Where can you hide when you say there is no alternative?
So why won't Labour stop pointing out the obvious about the Coalition's policies and begin to say what should be done instead?
The SNP have plenty of ideas, but no power to put them in motion. Labour, in contrast, now have no reason to hesitate. We can't all apply for French citizenship.
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