Sunday, June 11, 2017

Back in the UK: The Great US/UK/EU Unravel Continues

President Obama spoke in Montreal on June 6.  Though he didn't directly mention it as an anniversary of D-Day, the launching of the massive Allied military campaign to finish the Nazi dominance of Europe, he shaped his address (of 30 minutes, see above) by describing the past 70 years of relative peace, growing prosperity and democracy in the West as first of all a result of what began to be created as a consequence of World War II.  It is possible to think anew and act anew, he said, because that's what we did then.

If you need an immediate sense of the widespread hunger for change in America and England during World War II, click on one of the broadcasts by Norman Corwyn that can be heard on Youtube or elsewhere on the Internet.  It came from the bottom up.

Corwyn's broadcasts on CBS radio were enormously popular. For example, one English officer in a Corwin script insists that after the war “things are never going to be the same as they were...We’ve discovered that the idea of every-man-for-himself, that the old class distinctions have outlived their usefulness...” Ordinary soldiers and their families must insist “on a new life—by demanding that the same tremendous sacrifice and energy, the same resources of men and material that are put into a successful war be put into a successful peace.”

Corwin wrote about “the little guy” in America as well, who proved his mettle and judgment in the war, who could do great things when given the opportunity, and who deserved good housing, health and education.

These sentiments were the underpinning for what wartime and postwar leaders did ("though not without hypocrisy" as President Obama noted in Montreal.) He talked briefly about the establishment of an international order, beginning with the creation of the United Nations, that not only kept the peace (mostly) but increased freedom and quality of life.  The changes were "based not only on power but on principle."

The role of political leadership cannot be underestimated, beginning with FDR but including Europeans whose names are not so familiar here.  But that leadership, which began during the war, not only created new international structures and new national institutions (like democratic governments in the defeated nations of Japan and Germany) but by empowering ordinary people, not only politically but in terms of opportunity, income, health and education.

In the United States, there was the GI Bill of Rights, instituted mostly to provide income for returning soldiers in the period of postwar adjustment.  But it was the less emphasized provision for a period of free higher education that changed everything.  Most soldiers didn't use their free money, but many more than anyone believed possible went to college.  Moreover, the GI Bill was one of the few postwar programs that did not discriminate against minorities.  The GI Bill built the future for millions of Americans.

The US partnered with western European nations in the Marshall Plan that went beyond saving millions from starvation to creating economic stability and paths for growth.  As part of that process, closer relationships among nations resulted in the Common Market and eventually the European Union.

Meanwhile, the hunger for change for ordinary people resulted in the Labour government in the UK immediately after World War II that created the institutions referred to as the welfare state.  Both the US and the UK also did two very important things: first, they supported the growth of labor unions which, for all the corruption that tainted them later, were instrumental in lessening income disparity as well as weakening the rigid class system in England and in growing the middle class in both countries.

Second, they both instituted high rates of taxation on the rich, partly to pay for infrastructure and institutions that served the entire society, and furthered economic prosperity. In the UK, this money paid for National Health and nationalized industries. In the US this money built highways, airports, public utilities and subsidized housing in suburbia and well as the cities.  (It also bought a huge military industrial complex, which nevertheless transformed the US map and provided middle class incomes.) Various expansions of rights (sometimes after conflict, as in the Civil Rights movement) and benefits continued.

But for at least the past 35 years, in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, many of the underpinnings of the middle class expansion and a strong and shared public sector were eroded, weakened and destroyed, along with the public support that sustained them.  It seems the further we get from the time when the rationale for creating them was clear, the less we understand their importance.

The victims of these collapses were persuaded to blame each other, but certainly to find fault with governments and political leadership.  Now we find ourselves in a period of deep confusion and disarray, in both the US and UK.  The recent UK election has created political chaos there.  It seems to have revealed a polarization of left and right as complete as the US version, but because of the parliamentary system, it has risked the possibility that a government cannot be formed.  The Conservatives are in disarray, and need additional minority party help they can barely tolerate and may not get anyway, while Labour and its possible allies don't add up to the majority necessary.

I've listened to a lot of BBC radio lately as well as reading analyses, and it seems nobody can agree what the message of that election is, or why it came out as it did. Was it just a matter of a bad campaigner running a bad campaign, versus a tech-savvy Bernie Sanders type of candidacy that brought out young voters hungry for free college tuition and radical change?  Was it terrorism?  Brexit?  Income inequality?  Nobody knows, especially on Brexit, as neither major party leader mentioned it in the campaign.  Update: Here's a later--and more upbeat-- analysis by John Cassidy that makes the most sense so far: Corbyn changed the dynamic by running against austerity, for taxing the rich to fund public services, and for a less severe break with the EU.

And just as Russia won the US election, some observers say that Russia seems the clear victor in the UK, with the government weakened, negotiations with the EU and consequently the EU itself in disorder, and either a weak Conservative leader or a leftist with a reputation as a pro-Russia EU skeptic (or as they say over there, sceptic.)

From this distance it seems that the UK as well as the US is suffering at a particularly unfortunate time from not having good leaders or even good potential leaders.  Just as it's hard to think of a candidate for President worth voting for who could actually win, it's hard to think of a British leader with the stature to bring together a stable government.

But apart from the acute deficiency in the quality of leaders today (imagine if we'd had them in the 1940s)  this larger context created after World War II and especially its deterioration in the past several decades go a long way in accounting for the mess we're in.      

Update: A more optimistic (if news hooky view) on a resurgent EU here at Politico.

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