The race for the premiership: high tension, low quality

May 4, 2010

Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

“The most exciting race in years”. “It’s going to go down to the line.” “The old order has truly been upset.”

The General Election or the climax of the premiership season? Blues or Reds? Does it matter? The breathless hype from the media, the whining about unfairness from the also-rans, the ducking and diving, the spin-doctoring and financial shenanigans and, most of all, the breathtaking dishonesty of the main protagonists – they’re all there at the top of English football as much as at the top of (British) politics.

There is one other thing they have in common too. In both cases, the excitement of the climax hides the same dismal reality. In our politics as in our club football, the country is plumbing new depths. The difference is that next year, in all probability, the Premiership will again be the best league in the world, whereas our politics is only going to get worse.

This has been the most dishonest election in postwar British history, possibly the most dishonest ever. Anyone who had slept through the last three years would never suspect that the economy was not still cruising ahead at a 3 percent annual growth rate, with rock-solid financial institutions and a AAA credit rating for its unassailable fiscal strength.

The politicians trade insults accusing each other of having secret plans to act responsibly, while trumpeting their own determination to carry on spending as if the budget deficit were 1.7 billion pounds, the sort of number we were used to before 2008, rather than 100 times as great, as it is in reality.

Cameron in his uninspiring way showed some signs of honesty in the early stages of the campaign, until, like the rugby player he used to be, Gordon Brown tackled him and dragged him down into the mud.

Ever since, like Jim Hacker warned by Sir Humphrey that he was in danger of taking a courageous stance, the Tory leader has refused to give any details of how his government would tackle the deficit. (Ignore talk of efficiency savings. They are to politicians what the tooth-fairy is to savvy kids – they don’t believe in them, but they know it makes sense to keep up the pretence.)

The TV debates have been a disaster – not because they have shaken things up so completely, but because they have reinforced the trend towards personality-driven pretty-boy politics, which is potentially far more damaging for the UK than for the USA, where the phenomenon is already well-established.

In a system like in the U.S., people vote for a ticket containing the names of the contenders for President and Vice-President, whereas British elections are supposed to be about parties and policies.

Unlike a British PM, the U.S. president is not elected by the Congress and, as head of the Executive, stands outside of it (and often at loggerheads with it). By contrast, the UK cabinet is an executive which is supposed to be based in and accountable to the legislature.

The Blair government did much to undermine this model, and to a great extent the TV debates have been the logical extension of the trend. At this rate, we may as well abolish parliament altogether and let the elected leader chose a cabinet of technocrats, managers and a smattering of B or C-list celebs, as they see fit.

This election always looked as though it would produce an upset or two, and my own gloomy forecast was a groundswell of support for the BNP, which seems far less likely now.

In that respect, the rise of Nick Clegg is a more welcome channel for the public’s revulsion from the cynicism of the Labour and Tory leaders – but the fact that the new boy wonder is as willing as the other two to play the game of let’s-pretend makes a BNP bounce even more likely at the next, post-cuts election, whenever that may be.

As the poll results in a recent issue of the Economist make clear, the politicians’ cowardice is rational, since the typical voter is enthusiastic about tackling the deficit only as long as it doesn’t threaten his or her own standard of living. Moreover, the rhetoric of the campaign is geared to encouraging this sort of double think.

For example, the history of the last few years is often presented in debates and campaign speeches as a case of reckless overborrowing by banks, which is absolutely true, and by governments, a fact which is mentioned less frequently, though it is equally true for most Western countries.

But our would-be leaders have taken a vow of silence about reckless overspending by consumers, who are either omitted from the narrative altogether or are simply presented as helpless victims of predatory lenders, for all the world as if the banks and credit card companies forced them at gunpoint to splash out on bigger houses, SUV’s, flat-screen TV’s and long-haul holidays.

Clutching at straws to find something positive in the situation, there may be evidence of some honesty-by-stealth from Cameron in his airy talk of giving control back to ordinary people, putting an end to intrusive government, and so forth. This could well be a case of making a virtue of necessity.

Although a future Tory government, if that is what we get, will have no mandate for imposing widespread cuts, it may at least be able to claim a mandate to dump the problems on ordinary folk.

I still doubt whether that will be enough to head off Greek-style rioting and a French-style groundswell of support for the far right at the next election. As Bank of England Governor Mervyn King was reported as saying, the winners on Thursday could be condemning themselves to decades in opposition – and deservedly so.

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