Britain’s malaise, a view from the continent

June 5, 2009

paul-taylor— Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

“All political careers end in failure,” the late British Conservative Enoch Powell famously said. And perhaps all political cycles end in scandal.

The outcry in Britain over politicians’ expenses that has claimed ministerial scalps and threatens the survival in office of Prime Minister Gordon Brown reflects more than just anger over taxpayer-funded duck houses.

Parliamentarians have become scapegoats for a deeper malaise combining the twilight of the Labour Party’s long reign, the worst economic slump since the Great Depression and the shaming of the City of London’s financial titans.

This is not to belittle abuses of the public purse by individual lawmakers. But they do not fully explain the nervous breakdown that has gripped Britain in the last month.

Seen from abroad, many Britons seem to feel their country has been politically, financially and morally devalued. It is easier to vent frustration at MPs having their moats or tennis courts cleaned at public expense than to accept that Britain has been on a binge for a decade and faces a long, costly hangover.

Bits are falling off Gordon Brown’s fag-end government in the same way that befell John Major’s hapless last Conservative cabinet in the 1990s and James Callaghan’s washed-up minority Labour administration in the 1970s.

Parties that stay long enough in power get lazy, sleazy and accident-prone. Remember the political funding scandals that tainted the sunset years of Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac in France, and of Helmut Kohl in Germany. Or the “back to basics” sex scandals and bonfire of mad cows that did for Major.

What makes the current mood in Britain particularly toxic is the cocktail of political brown-out and economic distress.

In the last 18 months, house prices have tumbled in a country where home-ownership is central to wealth. The pound has lost a quarter of its value against the euro, as Britons discover when they go abroad. Banks have been nationalised or propped up by the state. Unemployment has surged. Government debt has gone through the roof and taxes are rising.

Britons who own homes, shares and/or private pension savings are worth less and face an enormous bill for the clean-up. Many home-buyers who joined the party late have “negative equity” — they owe more in mortgage than their house is now worth. Consumers are groaning under unsustainable debts.

There is also a dawning awareness that after 25 years of deregulation and fast fortunes, Britain is going to have to do something other than financial capitalism to earn an honest living in the coming years.

Financial Times economic commentator Martin Wolf put it starkly when he wrote that the UK had “a strong comparative advantage in the world’s most irresponsible industry” and needed to diversify away from finance. The bill for rescuing banks will be comparable to the fiscal costs of a big war, he said.

Such introspection does not come easily to a proud old nation fond of lecturing foreigners, especially continental Europeans, on how to run their economies.

The French, Germans and Italians can be forgiven a smirk of “schadenfreude” (pleasure at others’ misfortune) after years of being hectored — not least by Gordon Brown — about economic reform, deregulating financial services and labour markets, privatising pensions and modernising the welfare state. But they should not feel too smug, since most are facing an even deeper recession than Britain this year.

Now that politicians have replaced bankers as public hate figures, it is safer for British party leaders to outbid each other with proposals for reforming parliament than to tell the public the ugly truth. Whoever wins the next election, most Britons will earn less, pay more tax, retire later on a smaller pension and enjoy less public spending on schools, hospitals and transport.

The bankers will cost Britons far more than the politicians. It will make the cost of removing dry rot and changing chandeliers in MPs’ second homes look like small change.
(editing by David Evans)

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