Thursday, 16 February 2017

Historical turning point - which way now?

The world I was born into was created in late July 1945, in the wake of the Labour Party's victory in the UK general election. It was an unexpected victory; Winston Churchill, who had led the nation to defeat the Nazis, was beaten with a 12% swing to Labour - the largest ever swing in a UK general election. This was a dramatic political turnaround, a clear rejection of the pre-war order. What followed was the creation of the welfare state, the National Health Service and increasing trade union power. Social democracy became the norm across most of western world. In the post-war order, social justice rolled forward as the European empires relinquished their grip on their colonies, and the US abandoned racial segregation. Inequality between the rich and the poor fell to the lowest levels in history.

This model was to continue in the West until May 1979 when Margaret Thatcher won the general election with an 8% swing to the Conservatives. In the 34 years between 1945 and 1979, regardless of who was in power - Conservatives or Labour - the post-war consensus endure, the Conservatives did not turn back any of the major reforms implemented by Labour. The NHS was not dismantled in 1955, comprehensive education was not abolished in 1970.

Between 1945 and 1979, social change was accelerating and society was becoming more equal. The working man never 'ad it so good. The consumer, however, was not getting such a good deal. Strikes were commonplace, good products were expensive, cheap products were shoddy. People in the UK wanted a change. People in the US wanted one too; Ronald Reagan was elected in November 1980.

The age of Thatcher and Reagan was the counter-revolution, a radical change of direction from that cosy world created after WW2. Emphasis was on the supply side of the economy, monetarism - benefiting the consumer rather than the worker, rewarding initiative. Inflation and the unions were beaten. The Thatcher and Reagan counter-revolution was not to be undone by their successors. The Conservatives' 18 years in power was followed by 13 years during which Labour's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did little to reverse the changing tide that 1980 ushered in. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, eight years of Bill Clinton likewise did not see the undoing of Reagan's legacy. These were years when Information Technology began to spread into the workplace, and low value-added manufacturing began moving offshore.

Consumers benefited as prices came down and quality rose. In 1976, a portable music centre consisting of turntable, cassette player and radio cost £100. Last week I saw a similar concept - a turntable for vinyl records that could not only play them but convert them to digital files via a USB port - for £100. Yet with IT and offshoring killing many jobs, pushing many less-skilled people into lower-paid service sector work, there was a mounting sense that the unfettered economic liberalism that Thatcher and Reagan brought about in 1980 was not a success for all.

A generally confused electorate in Britain voted for Brexit last June; an even more confused electorate in America voted for Trump four months later. 2016 is as much a turning point in history as 1980, 1945, 1933 and 1914.

What happens next? Putin holds the cards. Unable to do anything positive with Russia (build infrastructure, build a civil society based on trust, build a solid entrepreneurial middle class, build an innovative economy) the only way he can hold his head above water is to pull other countries down to Russia's level by sowing dissent, doubt and discord, by fracturing alliances and societies, and doing this with the most modern of weapons - information technology.

The war that Putin is waging on eastern Ukraine is killing people and destroying property. Yet in almost three years, Russia has failed to prise apart the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts from Ukraine as it did with Crimea. By any 20th Century measure, it's a war that's not going well for Russia. But the war that Putin is waging on the West is far more successful. Deniable, well-hidden. Just remember at the beginning of 2015, Russian jokes were about Putin's 3 x 63 - he'd be 63 that year, oil would fall to $63 a barrel and there'd be 63 roubles to the dollar. It all came to pass - and worse (oil fell below $30 and a dollar cost as much as 78 roubles), yet Putin is stronger than ever.

What next? The French and Germans are both reporting suspected Russian interference in their respective elections, with Putin's game plan to install a pliant leader that would help fracture the EU and NATO. If Putin can pull these off, the gains made by the Western world, in terms of liberty, civil rights, prosperity and prospects benefiting the vast majority of its citizens - will be under intense threat.

This time last year:
Coincidence and consciousness 

This time three years ago years ago:
North-east of Warsaw West revisited

This time four years ago:
Looking for answers

This time five years ago:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time seven years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time nine years ago:
Okęcie dusk

2 comments:

whitehorsepilgrim said...

There have been gradual changes too, trends that the beneficiaries would prefer to keep below the radar, moreover changes that have fuelled step changes in opinion and voting. It is significant that the proportion of US wealth held by the richest 5% has tripled since the 1970s. Many people have seen no real increase in income despite manifest economic growth. Hence the frustration, and voting that might seem irrational. Is the populace confused? Yes. Have they picked the right target? No, because they aren't offered a choice that would help them.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ WHP

Excellent, pithy comment. I cannot dispute a single word above, despite our (slight) ideological differences. A seismic shift has taken place, pushing the middle ground together against extremes from all sides.