I’ve lately taken to referring to Gordon Brown as “Prime Minister Crackpot”. Part of it is due to his mad insistence on clinging to power when no one believes he can actually accomplish any further good. Beyond this, however, he has shown even greater signs of mental disturbance: for example, he has tried to squash any talk of spending cuts by a future Labour government. He stated in one of his latest clashes during Prime Minister’s Question Time that “investment” would continue to grow, year on year, henceforth and forevermore and in contrast, the Tories would cut spending by ten percent.
Meanwhile, in the real world, his own Cabinet has been saying that “tough decisions” are inevitable. Credit must go to both Alistair Darling, the Chancellor and Hillary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who have been forthright enough to admit that spending restraint is going to have to be in place by 2011 at the latest. Mr. Benn went so far as to state on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions that he was going to have to cut his budget. The Bank of England has sounded similar warnings. The cash bonanza for public services is over.
This is not merely a matter of wishful thinking; some 30% of Britain’s GDP is related to financial services. Because of the country’s over-reliance on this sector, Britain has been one of the worst affected nations by the credit crunch. The OECD thinks we won’t escape the recession any time soon, rather, they predict that the economy in 2009 will shrink by a rate of 4.3%, and that growth will be flat in the subsequent year. Yesterday, official figures for the previous quarter confirmed this is the worst slump in 50 years. Tax receipts, as a result, are way down. The idea that Prime Minister Crackpot’s spending plans are anywhere near realistic is delusion at its purest.
Brown is getting it wrong in other areas. One of the latest acronyms to emerge from what remains of the financial services industry is “BAB” – meaning, “Bonuses Are Back“. One would have thought that after all the turmoil and pain that the nation has been through and is continuing to endure, that there would be a greater sense of humility on the part of those who perpetrated it. No: they want to get back to the status quo ante as soon as possible, and damn the consequences. Brown’s inability to turn the screw on such aspirations is a terrible failure.
But perhaps the most displeasing and unnerving thing he’s done is elevate Lord Mandelson to a role which could almost be described as “co-Prime Minister”. Make no mistake, Mandelson is playing the part of Alan B’stard in this government. By this, I don’t mean the conniving, power-mad Tory MP of the ITV comedy programme produced in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, rather, I mean his New Labour incarnation which made its appearance on stage in 2006. Rik Mayall, as Alan B’Stard, presented himself as the power behind Tony Blair’s throne; he took up residence in the fictional “Number 9 Downing Street” and arranged everything from Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War to the faked kidnapping of Tony Blair, so that by the end he could have himself declared Lord Protector.
I see nothing much different in Mandelson’s present function and job title, which contains 30 words. To recap: he is First Secretary of State, Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, and Secretary of Business, Innovation and Skills. He has more ministers reporting to him (10) than any other Cabinet member. Oh, and as his baronial title makes clear, no one voted for him. Yet, Brown’s dependence on Mandelson is such that the First Secretary is in the habit of dictating Brown’s bedtimes.
Beyond disliking his anti-democratic impulses, my distaste for Mandelson also arises from his lack of regard for education, in particular, the Humanities. According to an article in the Sunday Times:
“Mandelson will be responsible for setting out the terms of reference for a review of student top-up fees. There will be fears that those studying “irrelevant” arts degrees might be forced to pay more than those studying for vocational qualifications that will help business.
David Willetts, the Tory universities spokesman, said: “It is worrying that universities are going to be seen as merely the instruments of business.”
For once, I agree with the Tories. Education and industry can and should help each other, but to somehow reduce education to a subservient role is thoroughly wrong headed. Education is there to train people to think for themselves and yes, business needs thinkers. However, Education does not solely exist to provide vocational training; it is not there to provide a mass of labour to march out to the factories and offices of the United Kingdom to act as mere functionaries of the almighty economy.
As part of my role at my university, I am often called upon to give talks to academics, encouraging them to engage with the outside world, whether that means involving themselves with local government, primary and secondary schools, museums, charities and yes, private companies. Those in the Humanities sometimes are reluctant to take up such activities as they have difficulty seeing the relevance of what they do in regards to the wider public. However, I like to throw the following statement into my talks:
“The credit crunch was caused by a lack of Humanities. Discuss.”
This statement is generally greeted by a mildly nonplussed reaction. However, I then explain: if there had been more people trained to think about ethical frameworks, such as by studying Philosophy, could this not have put a brake on some of the behaviour we’ve seen in the City? If History had been thoroughly poured over and previous crashes, such as the Panic of 1837, were analysed, would we not have seen how outrageous behaviour on the part of banks could lead to disaster and misery and thus been better able to take preventative action? If people had read literature, engaged with cinema in a thoughtful way, and studied the meaning of language, would they not have had an insight into human behaviour that suggests that unpredictability lies at its heart, and that clear communications is an essential art to master? By this point, the room is usually full of nodding heads, and the discussion then proceeds on how to achieve the link between theory and practice. The problem is that Mandelson has already proven himself incapable of seeing this connection and he is the one who determines policy: his emphasis has always been on business and more business, money and more money, without regard to the humanistic foundations that could strengthen society as well as the economy.
That said, Mandelson and Prime Minister Crackpot may not be there for long; their agenda will hopefully be too driven by immediate, tribal concerns to inflict too much long-term damage. The strange thing is, the more fluff they produce for public consumption, the less popular they become. For example, according to the Independent newspaper, only 21 percent of the public trust Labour to make the spending cuts which reality and every objective observer of the British economy says are necessary. This specific distrust speaks of a larger lack of belief in Labour’s ability to make good and wholesome choices, regardless of what they may say. I have to agree. So too do the academics and union people I encounter, all of whom once would have been inclined towards Labour. Mandelson and his puppet in Downing Street may have brief glimpses of sunlight before being made to retire by force, but that day is still coming. As things stand, I don’t believe this ending, thankfully, can now be averted.