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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Gift of the Gab?

The few students in my generation who learned some German were intrigued to find that Gift in German means poison in English. It is the sort of arcane fact that occurs to one in later life when someone who has made a reputation by oratory overexposes their acquired facility to a degree that becomes damaging. The most conspicuous case in recent British history is Neil Kinnoch who talked Labour out of credibility in the high Thatcher years and then lost the election that followed the fall of the Iron Lady in a single inarticulate wail at a premature celebration rally in Sheffield. In explaining the Tories' surprise victory academic analysts emphasised the fresh simple honest image projected by the new Conservative leader, John Major [hard to believe that now, is it not?]; and the refusal of the Labour shadow  Chancellor, John Smith, to answer any direct question as to what taxes he would impose if he was in a position to do so. Analysts in the saloon bar had not doubt that the 'Welsh windbag' had simply got his cum-uppance. He was rewarded with a role as an EU Commissioner and a peerage, after which he was paid to pose as an elder statesman.

The most remarkable windbag - or oratorical genius, depending on the commentator's point of view - now active in the global political system is the current President of the United States. Obama appeared from nowhere to serve two years on the US Senate and went straight into the race for the Democrat presidential nomination. He talked himself into it, and into the White House, where he has continued to talk with remarkable facility. His many enemies claim that he was not born in the USA, that no school friends have been identified, that his income in significant periods of his life has not been attributable and that his university grades seem to be inaccssible: these and many even more far-fetched accusations have been brushed aside. He talks on: about anything and everything. The less impact his admonitions and assertions have, the more assertively he talks on. Meanwhile the United States has marched steadily towards an economic precipice as the public debt [just of the Federal Government] has reached $15 trillion: fifteen thousand billion. The Democrats have cheered Obama on as his adherents have brought in massively costly schemes for universal medical care and have maintained social welfare spending at the same time as they have approved massive spending plans for infrastructure investments designed to stimulate economic growth. The Republicans have become increasingly intransigent in opposing the government's plans.

American politics have reached a stalemate that is potentially ruinous in the current world context. The European crisis is apparently worsening. The dominance of the west is widely proclaimed. The west is patently incapable of addressing its problems with efficiency and intelligence: and the great stumbling block is democracy. The US Constitution and the people it has placed in office have combined to make a complete impasse. The ambiguities of the Treaties that bind the European Union, and the fudges and half-truths by which they have been implemented, have created a morass through which no known path exists. The USA and Western Europe have proclaimed the advantages of democracy as a universal exemplar for the rest of the world: and it has produced the toxic combination of economic disaster and political impotence. When the causes of this fiasco are analysed it becomes clear that is has obviously been accumulating for at least forty years. The shining success of Canada and Australia is not sufficient to justify democratic economic policy to a sceptical world that is doing better with different political structures.

The reasonably articulate Prime Minister of the United Kingdom made his excuse for his own incomprehension of the surrounding reality at the Confederation of British Industry conference yesterday. He declared that nobody had foreseen in 2010 how bad the economic situation would be in 2011. This was his excuse for the fact that his government could not now meet its schedule for reducing the rate of annual aggregation of national debt. The carefully chosen gang of Economists who staff the shiny new Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that the situation was to be eased by economic growth that is patently not happening. They predicted that the private sector would quickly offset the loss of jobs in the public sector, which has not occurred. Cameron and Osborne [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] have spent a year and a half bumptiously parroting those failed predictions. Their opponents in the Labour Party have also seen 'growth' as the panacea, arguing the absurd might-have-been that more growth would have happened if the government had not made the modest reduction that it has implemented in borrowing. It is more likely that higher borrowing by the British state would have brought forward the date when it has to offer a higher interest rate on its borrowing. Cameron's admission that the economy is not delivering the hoped-for growth is a belated recognition of the cor-blimey-obvious that the people who spend less that they used to in the saloon bar have been saying throughout the wasted year of coalition fudge.

Cameron is wrong to say that the better-informed counter-view to the official line was not available when he came into office. I am an outlier in having made the point in my small corner for more than forty years; but I have never been alone and will soon be in the majority. None of us wants to gloat over the abject national failure that democracy has brought upon us. Democracy is still the least-bad form of government;  but is now in the painful situation that extra-democratic measures may be necessary to address the economic crisis: and that could put the future of the free society in unprecedented danger.

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