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Britain in decline? Panel discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival

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I’m just back from a fun afternoon at the Oxford Literary Festival, where I had come in as a late substitution at a panel discussion chaired by the legendary Martin Bell, on the theme of “Britain in decline”. Also on the panel was the Booker-shortlisted novelist Andrew O’ Hagan, my fellow Icon-author Kieron O’ Hara, whose book on “Trust” was one of the many influences for “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and the excellent Paul Kingsnorth, with whom I spoke at last year’s Radical Bookfair in Edinburgh.

I’m not convinced that there’s a generalised, across-the-board decline in the UK, and I also think there’s a natural human tendency to believe that things were so much better in the “good old days” even when they weren’t.

But within certain specific areas there are worrying signs of a change for the worse – perhaps most acutely within our political system. Few now doubt that lies were told by the UK government in 2002 and 2003, at the highest level, about the evidence of Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction” . These lies formed the pretext for launching a war which killed hundreds of British soldiers, and thousands of Iraqi civilians – yet there appears to be no mechanism for holding those who misled the country (and its Parliament) personally to account. Worse, the lies have continued – on rendition, on Jack Straw’s complicity in torture in Uzbekistan, and – repeatedly – on official government statistics.

When, earlier this year, Justice Minister Jack Straw announced that he was using his powers to block the release of minutes of the UK cabinet meetings in the run-up to the Iraq war (meetings in which he, as the then-Foreign Secretary, would have featured prominently) – ostensibly on the basis that future cabinet ministers might feel unable to speak openly if they thought that their words might eventually be read by the people who voted for them and paid their salaries – one almost got the sense that he himself didn’t think that anyone would really believe that this was the genuine reason. He was in a position to use his powers to block the release of information that would certainly have embarrassed (and possibly incriminated) him – so naturally he was going to use those powers to cover his back. Once he’d made that the decision, the accompanying lie was perhaps the easiest part – after all he’d had plenty of practice.

While there’s clearly nothing new about politicians behaving dishonestly, back in 2003,  many people went along with what the government was saying about Iraq precisely because they just couldn’t believe that our politicians would lie about something quite so big and important as the circumstances that could lead to a war. Many people I spoke to at the time had the sense that, in our democracy, there were some lines that the political class just wouldn’t cross. What’s worrying is that this feeling now seems to have been replaced with a grudging acceptance that our politicians will routinely lie to us whenever it suits them, and that there’s nothing much we can do about it.

Coupled with this, there seems to be a growing tendency for the government to cite “trump card” excuses, such as “national security” to evade scrutiny of key government decisions or to justify controversial government policies – such as the Attorney General’s decision to halt a criminal investigation into one of Britain’s major arms manufacturers – and a company with links to the Labour party – BAE.

Lastly, and perhaps most worryingly of all, there have been ever-increasing demands by the government for “sweeping powers” – ostensibly to fight terrorism – to lock people up without charge, ban demonstrations, and monitor and record all our email, phone call, and web browsing activities. These demands are almost always made with the assurance that the powers will only be used in rare and exceptional circumstances – but once passed into law they quickly become routine.

This is a problem because the more we chip away at our ability to scrutinise what the government’s up to, and the more arbitrary powers we allow them to wield, the more we create opportunities for corruption and abuse.

At the moment it seems that, too often within our political system, the benefits of lying outweigh the costs, and until that equation changes it seems unlikely that the situation will significantly improve. I made a similar

Kieron O’ Hara talked about the sense of disillusionment over the hopes that were raised when the current Labour government was first elected in 1997, and about the rise of the “database state”, while Paul Kingsnorth discussed the decline of local community institutions and the “blandification” of town centres, although Andrew O’ Hagan also warned against over-generalising beyond specifics, and discussed the pessimistic atmosphere of what he called “declinism” that he’d experienced growing up in Scotland during the 1970s.

On the major points, there was relatively little disagreement voiced between the panel members – though I suspect that this may also have  stemmed from a reluctance to disrupt a good-natured discussion. The audience was more challenging – with one questioner arguing that society’s problems had more to do with a general decline in personal responsibility than the venality of politicians, which is after all nothing new.  Another challenged us to say what, specifically, we proposed could be done about the problems that we had outlined. Andrew O’ Hagan gave a very clear answer, which I felt was among the best of the discussion, arguing that the level of dishonesty and silence-in-the-face-of-dishonesty that we had seen in recent years among government ministers was a significant change from the behaviour of previous regimes, and that one thing we could all do was vow never again to vote for any of the individuals – whose names are well known – who have behaved so disreputably.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 4, 2009 at 7:44 pm

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