42-days in jail and the 10p tax: the shadows cast by power in an age of consensus politics

The 10p tax furore wasn’t about people paying a new starting rate for income tax; the 42-day pre-charge detention is not about the extension of government powers to hold terrorist suspects without charge. These are synthetic controveries spun from virtual issues. They represent the shadow cast by power in an age of consensus politics. An adversarial political system must have conflict; the heat generated by partisan political conflict has to find a site for its release. And so, like the United States and the Soviet Union in 1970’s and 1980’s, we get proxy wars – conflicts purporting to be about one thing (social justice; the liberty of the individual) which ultimately are about something else altogether.

We know that the controversy about the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax wasn’t about the substantive effects of the policy. A number of tells emphasise how little it had to do with the way in which it would differentially affect the incomes of the affected taxpayers, redistributing money up the income scale from poor to rich. Firstly, the timelines are wrong. Brown announced the measure, perhaps with some want of clarity, in his 2007 budget, but until spring of this year you could fit the vocal critics of the policy into a small, carbon-parsimonious family car. Secondly, the greatest fire came from critics who had never before evinced any great concern for the lack of progressivity in the tax system or for the financial difficulties of this very special group of losers and misfits at the bottom of the income scale. Frequently it came from those who didn’t even oppose the change. And finally, even when the government promised to put everything right – to more than put everything right – by throwing a lot of money vaguely in the general direction of the affected group, thus neutralising the ostensible point of criticism, they were still eviscerated in the media and reviled in the country.

It wasn’t about what it claimed to be about. It was a pseudo-conflict got up because the green leather benches at Westminster happen to face each other like pugilists rather than forming a conciliatory camp-fire semi-circle. So the Conservatives attacked the government because they could, because the tax reform seemed to symbolise a Prime Minister who was willing to jettison his most deeply cherished redistributive principles to woo the Daily Mail, bribe Middle England and trump the Tories. They fought on the issue because it seemed a good place to fight, a battlefield with a favourable geography.

More and more as time goes on the whole 42-day imbroglio comes to take on the profoundest quality of pseudo-reality. Ooh – as you get the real manifestations – whip counts, frenzied newspaper articles, the countdown

More and more as the trappings of a real, substantive political controversy accumulate – the hysterical whipping, the frenzied newspaper articles, the countdown – the 42-day imbroglio comes to seem an ever-more transparent piece of pseudo-reality. The to-ing and fro-ing, the posturing, the hand-wringing, the obsessive recalibration of the legislation all seem to far removed from what the practical combat of terrorism must involve, that it seems almost as if the political world was a great allegory in which everyone had been forbidden from talking or acting literally.

I confess openly that I’ve given up on reading the details of the government’s proposals. The government is clearly determined to get a Bill which will allow them to write 42-days in big letters in the press release, no matter how attenuated and practically worthless it eventually comes to be. The legislation was gratuitous in the first place because of the emergency powers written into other legislation which, under pressing need, would allow the government to do what they are legislating for here; and it doesn’t seem that the police or the security services are especially exercised about getting any new legislatively-backed powers. So to pay too much attention to surface details seems as otiose as sitting down to peruse seriously the Conservative Party manifesto before the General Election in 2001.

The real fight is for the possession of certain narratives and images – for bragging rights in the war of self-presentation.  Brown wishes very conspicuously to demonstrate that he is not a filthy trimmer and triangulator by being seen to do something so objectively senseless that it can only be taken as the expression of deep principle. And he wishes to recast himself, following the somewhat disreputable example of the leaders of the Republican Party, as what I heard somewhat infelicitously described as ‘a security leader.’ I think it would better be described as the Alfred the Great type: the warrior king who will lead his people heroically in the face of a terrifying enemy. The battle that casts this ludicrously embellished shadow then is that between the government which is trying to convince us that the Prime Minister is ‘a security leader’ and the Opposition which is trying to convince us that the Prime Minister is someone who wants desperately to succeed in counterfeiting the appearance of ‘a security leader.’

Why the current predominance of proxy issues when the balance of political power could play itself out just as well through real ones? For a long time there was a historiographical convention – now revised somewhat – that labelled the period from the end of the war until the mid-1970’s as the age of consensus, but ours is a far more compelling candidate for the label. The power struggle has to burst out in these meaningless phantasmagorias because the real dividing lines – of the stark, visceral kind with which politicians can work – just aren’t there. Fiscal policy and public service reform see almost as much disagreement within the major parties as between them; both of the principal parties are environmentalists, tempered only by the need not to impose unpopular costs on the electorate; both are sceptically engaged with Europe; both grovel (understandably) before the American Sun God; both pusillanimously favour a hang ‘em and flog ‘em approach to law and order.

Under such conditions one gets an almost Namierite politics of power in which the real issue is one: who’s in and who’s out. Except that two-and-a-half centuries on from Hanoverian politics one sees more in the way of articulable pretext. But for all that what one is seeing is the direct consequence of structure and power. Seeing as there is an Opposition, it must oppose; and, as dictated by the paradoxical logic of the Security Dilemma, because the Government is threatened, it has to hit back.

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One Response to “42-days in jail and the 10p tax: the shadows cast by power in an age of consensus politics”

  1. stanislav, a young polish plumber Says:

    Thanks for that, beautifully wrought and a pleasure to read; a cooler analysis than most. My own view is that the wildy exaggerated differences – tiny matters of emphases, incremental rates, a drafting faux pas here, an oversight there – stem, as you say, not from any massive ideological disparity but are driven by the members’ needs to be seen to be doing something.

    The rage that these stagey proceedings generate, however, is not virtual; it may be spun and engineered and part of the idea of individual choice which underpins bogus consumerism, but it is genuinely felt and will lead, eventually, to a national recognition that this domination by organised political parties is nineteenth century horseshit or, as the parties themselves would impudently prefer, voter apathy.

    Thanks again

    I will return.

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