It’s now almost eight months since the face of British politics was decisively altered. Yet the full impact of the UK’s 2015 general election has still to be understood by politicians, let alone the voting public.
You might think this is hyperbole. A lot of people said the same thing after the 2010 election, for instance, due to the apparent breakthrough of the Lib Dems as the third party – and the prospect of perpetual coalition government.
But my view is no exaggeration. The reality of the election is this: we have been left with a Conservative Party vulnerable only to its own hubris. The opposition is either disinterested, splintered, or simply invisible.
We are now in a situation where world events threaten to further diminish our ability to discern the dangers of our domestic political environment. The emphasis on responding to recent attacks is understandable, but not at the cost of allowing a majority government to do whatever it wants.
In the immediate aftermath of the election I retained some hope that with such a small majority, a combination of internal squabbling and a united opposition might force the Conservatives to veer away from Austerity Mk II. And for a brief moment in October, this looked like it could yet ensue.
The tax credits issue threatened to throw some light on the punishing and unnecessary way in which George Osborne is planning to slash and burn the welfare state. Had Labour peers sided with their Lib Dem counterparts in the House of Lords, the government could have suffered a decisive defeat. But instead, Labour trimmed their sails just as the wind turned in their favour, adopting a halfway house position that gave Osborne breathing space to come up with a “solution” by the time of his Autumn Statement.
I confidently predict that that solution will be spun as a major climb down on his part, but will give almost no real relief to the people against whom the cuts were targeted.
Of course, since the Lords sent Osborne back to the drawing board, events have moved on rapidly. UK politics, like those of every other Western democracy, are currently dominated by questions of foreign policy, terrorism and conflict.
The irony of this should not be lost on anyone who witnessed as recently as April the major parties of a still-influential nation conniving to pretend that we are serenely unaffected by world events.
While of course we should take every sensible step to respond to terrorist attacks effectively – if, indeed, there is an effective response – the significance of recent events domestically is already plain. A ComRes poll released last night shows a remarkable 70% of voters agreeing with the statement: “We have to accept infringements of privacy on the internet for the sake of fighting terrorism”.
Theresa May has so far declined to force through her new surveillance measures despite this overwhelming public support and the best efforts of arch-authoritarian Andy Burnham to speed her up. But it is a matter of time.
Meanwhile, the same poll showed that public perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn are rapidly worsening in the wake of his post-Paris prevarication. A mere two months after he became leader, he now looks in serious danger of being toppled before next spring’s elections, with MPs and even Shadow Cabinet ministers lining up to criticise and undermine him.
People won’t necessarily thank me for talking about domestic politics in the context of the current debate around our response to Daesh. But it is unavoidably relevant. This Wednesday, George Osborne will be in the House of Commons to deliver his Autumn Statement and the results of his spending review.
His statement will have far more profound effects on our way of life than terrorist attacks ever could, even ones of the same shocking scale as Paris. As I write that sentence, I blanch at a comparison that seems extremely insensitive, but that is the reality we face.
Will Hutton – hardly a raving Marxist, but rather a mainstream, Keynesian social democratic economist who was strongly associated with New Labour – has an extremely powerful article in today’s Observer which urges us to weep for the country we live in. It details the hard facts of Osborne’s plans, and what they could mean. This is the “security” the Conservatives promised the nation in April and May:
the de facto wind-up of the Department for Business as a pro-active department, further shrinkage of the criminal justice system (mitigated by prison sell-offs), local government reduced to a husk and the knell of further education. Meanwhile, the cuts in welfare will hit the wellbeing of millions, including their children. Expect on top a firesale of government assets – from housing associations to Channel 4.
Terrorism is a serious and awful threat to our lives and our way of life. But my point here is that it is emphatically not the greatest threat. We should not – must not – allow attacks like those in Paris and Mali to distract us from what is being done by our own government in the name of “security” – whether economic or military.
In five years’ time, our government may well have helped to wipe Daesh off the face of the earth. I will be the first to celebrate that outcome. But unless there is a serious change in the way our government is scrutinised and held to account by our opposition parties, our media and, most of all, voters themselves, we can expect our country to have been irrevocably damaged in the meantime.
This process can and should start on Wednesday. George Osborne’s statement will be carefully stage managed. As in the summer Budget and as both he and David Cameron did at their party’s conference, he will take great pains to appear ever so reasonable, moderate, even centrist. He has been given space to do so, of course, by articles like Hutton’s (and like this), with their dire warnings of imminent doom.
The presentation will be serious, but with just the right amount of apparent backtracking, alongside some trademark difficult decisions and some patriotic purchases.
The question is whether we have yet learnt not to take him at his word.