How different are the auguries for the year ahead from the assurances we were given by ministers this time last year. Then we were assured that the painful medicine the government had prescribed to ensure economic recovery during this parliament would be working a treat by the end of 2011. Chancellor of the Exchequer Osborne, sticking stubbornly to his script, assured us that there was no need for a Plan B, as Austerity Plan A would ensure that there would be no return to recession but, on the contrary, we could expect steady economic growth in 2012 as the private sector picked up the slack shed by a public sector cut to the quick and shedding jobs by the thousand.
The economy has been flat-lining for many months and every reliable source now predicts a double-dip recession for Britain this year. Prime Minister Cameron admits in his New Year message that this will be a “difficult year.” No confident assurances this time promising light at the end of the tunnel any time soon. This will be a very long tunnel. But, he says, the nation has good reason to cheer up because we are going to be entertained this year to an unprecedented succession of circuses. The Tories have a long history of embellishing the reality of economic gloom with pomp and pageantry to distract the masses from the trials and tribulations of real life. No effort and no expense have been spared to try to ensure that the forthcoming Olympic Games live up to the standards set by Athens and Beijing. It is a fortunate chance that the queen’s diamond jubilee falls in June of this year, to be followed by the Olympics at the end of July. This guarantees that the royal razzamatazz, succored by a sycophantic monarchist media, will intensify from now until June and keep rolling through July to merge with the “spirit of the Olympics” and run its course until the end of the games in August.
The cinema may also play into the uplifting mood music. Last year the award winning film The King’s Speech (mocked by some unkind wit as “The King’s Speech Impediment”) helped to keep aloft the media-stoked jubilation around the “fairy tale” royal wedding in April. This week a film – The Iron Lady - about Margaret Thatcher opens in London. According to the critics it is a largely uncritical treatment of its subject, suggesting that, despite her faults, Thatcher deserves to be honored as “great leader” and a courageous woman who successfully resisted a male dominated conservative establishment. This view seems to be endorsed by Meryl Streep, the Hollywood actor who plays Thatcher. Although as a liberal she dislikes Thatcher’s politics, she says she wanted to explore the Iron Lady’s “humanity”. Her performance has been hailed as a tour de force. Streep/Thatcher stares down from ads on every other London bus. This glamorized image is the way her admirers would like to imagine she looked.
It is doubtful if the film will help the Tories to turn Thatcher into a “national treasure” on a par with Churchill, which is what many of them would like to do. But apparently there are moves afoot to give her a state funeral. It seems that Gordon Brown has been involved in discussions with Thatcher and the queen about this. It is more than just an idea. It looks as though there is every intention to go ahead with it whenever it may be that the old lady passes on. If this is a serious proposition, it will be entirely in keeping with the steely determination of the Tory-led government to push through the most right-wing agenda since Thatcher herself was in office. Indeed, in its wanton destruction of public services this government is rampaging where Thatcher feared to tread. In this they are simply in lock-step with a ruling class engaged in carrying through the most extensive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich since Victorian times.
State funerals in Britain are customarily accorded to heads of state, though other “extraordinarily distinguished commoners” may also be honored. During the twentieth century only one such commoner, Sir Winston Churchill, was given a state funeral. By common consent Churchill was “extraordinarily distinguished” mainly because of his wartime leadership between 1940 and 1945. The decision to award him this honor was taken by the Labour government led by Harold Wilson and, whatever view one may take about state funerals, few would deny that Churchill deserved to be honored for his wartime leadership. He certainly led a united country and inspired a national determination to resist Nazi tyranny.
Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive leader of modern times. Nearly two years ago this column reflected that:
“The Thatcher years saw the most bitter class conflicts in Britain. A year long miners’ strike, sparked by the government’s intention to close pits and run down the coal industry, ended in defeat for the miners. This was the showdown that Thatcher had been waiting for. The National Union of Mineworkers was the strongest union in Britain and its back was broken. The defeat of the miners and the passage of punitive anti-trade union laws led to the weakening of the whole labour movement. The bargaining power of labour was drastically reduced in the face of a sustained onslaught which effectively destroyed Britain’s manufacturing base. Swathes of the country’s industrial heartland were laid waste and have never recovered.”
It might be added that she was a leader whose commitment to democracy was skin deep. She regarded the trade union movement as “the enemy within.” Such was her loathing of the left that she denounced Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists. But she was an enthusiastic supporter of General Pinochet and maintained her friendship with him long after she left office. Her sentiments in these matters were shared by some of her ministers. None of this, of course, found its way into the film. The present Tory leadership prefers not to be bothered by such inconvenient facts and will no doubt, when the time comes, choose to extol her role, alongside Reagan, in helping the “free world” to defeat communism.
Just as during the depression of the 1930s, royal circuses – jubilees, funerals, abdication and coronation provided distractions from mass unemployment, hunger marches and looming war clouds, so the coming year and following years offer similar distractions. It is hoped they may cheer up the growing numbers of those who have lost their jobs, those who have been thrown out of their homes, those dependent on food handouts and soup kitchens – or those rather more fortunate who are simply finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. Or perhaps they may provide entertainment if not enlightenment for the one million unemployed young people who have no hope of finding work and those who can no longer afford to go into higher education. At any rate, it is hoped that it will distract them from rioting or joining trade union marches and demonstrations against the cuts.
As the jubilee approaches the mass media will be awash with unctuous drooling about “60 Glorious Years.” Visitors from abroad, here for the Olympics, will be reminded that Elizabeth II is the longest reigning monarch since Victoria (who notched up 63) and that, at present showing, she will soon be the longest ever to reign in Britain. Another way of putting it is that she has the dubious honour of being the longest serving unelected head of state in the world. Behind the razzamatazz of the jubilee some of the more thoughtful constitutional theorists may be wondering whether she may outlive the Union over which she reigns. One of the unintended consequences of the domination of the Westminster parliament by a Tory party solidly rooted in the southern counties of England, is growing support north of the border for the Scottish Nationalists. They now have a solid majority at Holyrood and they are led by the canniest politician in Britain. While at the moment Scottish independence may seem a long way over the horizon, it is not too fanciful to suppose that at some point during these increasingly hard times the Scottish electorate may decide that the only way to break the stranglehold of an elitist English party that has no mandate in Scotland, is to make a clean break of it and opt for independence. Of course, it may not come to that, but for the first time in living memory the possibility of the break-up of the UK is being seriously discussed. Should it come to that, the constitutional implications will be enormous. Institutions and constitutional certainties that have been in place for hundreds of years will be thrown awry. The whole British political system could be derailed. Impossible? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.