The death of the great British dream

April 28, 2009 at 3:02 pm (capitalism, capitalist crisis, labour party, literature, Max Dunbar)

morverncallarr2ukThere is understandable cynicism about the wisdom of continuing to pay your Labour party subs in this day and age but I looked at the budget last week and thought, hey, erm… isn’t this sort of good? 50% top rate, massive public spending? It would have been so easy and acceptable for the government to do an austerity budget like everyone predicted. Cut public spending, cut taxes for the rich to bribe the non-doms to stay in the country, the basic continuation of doctrinaire capitalist policies and, oh, here’s another trillion or so for the banks. Credit would have been given, talk of a Labour recovery in the Street of Shame, approving noises about ‘hard decisions’ mumbled in the cities and shires.

Instead the Tory press has been sent into a stampeding frenzy because they believe that the rich will bail out if asked to contribute a fair proportion of their income. The wealthy are supposed to be able to keep all the money they make on the off chance that, just maybe, and by some unknown alchemy, the rest of us will somehow benefit. Well, we tried that for thirty years and look what happened. For its multitude of faults Labour does seem to recognise that the era of ideologically pure monetarism is over. So what if the billionaires leave? Let them go. Door’s there. Give the rest of us a chance at wealth creation.

I think history will credit this budget. I’m not sure that the election is a foregone conclusion. Cameron’s party is seen as too nebulous and liberal in its politics, its leader too much of a part of the old political class, to offer a real alternative for the raging grassroots. I think more and more opposition votes will go to the far right. Still, my predictions are generally wrong.

The crash was not just the end of the great game. It was also the end of innocence. In Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, the protagonist’s father, a train driver and trade unionist, explains the true facts of life, work and money:

The hidden fact of our world is that theres no point having desire unless youve money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams. You get told if you work hard you get money but most work hard and end up with nothing. I wouldnt mind if it was shown as the lottery it is but oh no. The law as brute force has to be worshipped as virtue. Theres no freedom, no liberty; theres just money.

This is the thing. For the market to work, for ‘confidence’ to remain at acceptable levels, people have to deny these essential facts, every time they get up in the morning. The lover of life can work hard all week for his weekend but in the long term the dream must be bought into. And it has never been harder to sustain this fragile delusion. Why pay for a house for twenty years when the bubble is going to burst and leave your time and money worthless? Why have children when they will likely have to stay at home until well into their twenties? Why work for half a century when your pension fund is going to get pissed away on the stock exchange? It doesn’t help when people protesting this state of affairs are clubbed down in the street.

Awakening from this broken dream will be the first tentative steps towards a better world.


  1. Sue R said,

    You really are a naif, Max. Have you ever heard of political calculation?

  2. voltairespriest said,

    I’m not terribly sure what you’re actually saying here, Max. You start by saying that the budget is quite good (a point I’d disagree with), but then go on to say that the recession which has been a consequence at least in part of governments’ obsession with markets has shaken us all down, and that therefore a change is gonna come.

    I’m not sure that either is correct: Peter Mandelson is amongst those who’ve strongly defended the 50% rate, and I don’t think either of us believe that he’s a newly-minted socialist. Further, I don’t think that a small tax rise on a tiny percentage of the population who earn what really is a huge salary, amounts to any kind of born-again commitment to social-democratic redistribution through the tax system. It’s just gesture politics. And with regard to the system overall, I don’t think it’ll collapse over this recession: people will tighten their belts for a time, and then head off to buy stuff again – as they always do.

    The real question is whether it shakes the now-misplaced commitment to the Labour Party of those who really do believe in radical progressive reform of the system. If that comes out of this, then at least people will have acknowledged a reality which they didn’t prior to it happening.

  3. maxdunbar said,

    I think there has been a big change in that unregulated freemarket capitalism has been shown for the sham it is. I’m not saying revolution is around the corner but I think there is going to be a shift towards more Keynesian style economics. The Budget was not perfect but it was a step in the right direction.

  4. Matt said,

    “The Budget was not perfect but it was a step in the right direction.”

    Max, that’s like me announcing my intention to walk to Italy and then only going to the end of the street.

  5. maxdunbar said,

    Okay. I think the Budget was good, but not good enough.

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