Britain is experiencing a deep crisis – not only in terms of a collapsing economy – but a political and social crisis affecting its very foundations. The daily revelations in the Daily Telegraph of the misappropriation of public funds and outright corruption amongst MPs of all major parties have caused public outrage at a time of mass redundancies, repossessions and pay cuts. These astounding events mark a sea-change in British society.
The public mood had already been fuelled by the billions of taxpayers' money to bail-out the banks. This had reached huge levels of anger against the likes of Sir Fred Goodwin, the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who was responsible for the sacking of thousands of workers but who walked away with a pension fund of £16 million.
Normally, such corruption in Parliament is kept under wraps for fear of undermining the whole system, but periodically we get a glimpse – a reflection of the underlying crisis of capitalism itself.
Now there is a deluge of non-stop revelations about MPs claiming money for second mortgages, swimming pool maintenance and all manner of luxuries, while they berate the unemployed for scrounging off the state. Government ministers are also involved up to their necks, including Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling. Two Labour Peers are being suspended from the House of Lords for taking money for questions. The mood has now become even uglier at every sordid revelation and the hypocrisy of the establishment and its kept politicians, who are completely out of touch with the way ordinary workers live.
Harriet Harman, leader of the House, pleaded for people not “to feel that all MPs are corrupt and the system is rotten.” But that is the widespread public perception. They see ministers living in grace-and-favour accommodation while claiming for second homes, or using taxpayers' money to profit in the property market, while thousands of family homes are being repossessed.
“The public mood in Britain this week has been beyond extraordinary”, states Matthew Engel in the Financial Times. “The only analogy that springs to mind is with the hysteria that took hold following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 12 years ago.
“Then, the British turned on the royal family for its refusal to join in the display of emotional incontinence that they thought ought to characterise grief. The crowds assembled outside Westminster Abbey for the funeral were so worked up that if Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, had ended his eulogy with a call to arms, I am convinced they would have marched behind him to overthrow the monarchy.” (FT, 16-17 May)
There was an enormous mood in the country surrounding Diana's funeral which took on an anti-establishment character. This served to undermine the monarchy as a reserve weapon of future reaction. There is a similar mood now today, which is being fed by the tabloid press and is serving to undermine the political establishment. The Daily Mail's front page on Friday resembled a Wild West wanted poster, featuring the MPs facing the most damaging allegations. “BRING THEM TO JUSTICE!”, it screamed. Last week, the Sun depicted “snouts-in-the-trough MPs” playing “Mpopoly”. A Sunday paper offered readers a competition to “live free like an MP – all your bills paid for a year!”
Just as the gutter press howled over Diana's death in order to sell more newspapers, so they are whipping up the situation today to build up their falling circulation. But they are unleashing feelings that they will not be able to control – feelings that are taking on a very anti-establishment colour This is not only affecting the working class, but also the middle classes.
As the rich get richer under this New Labour government and working people are facing the brunt of this economic crisis, our Parliamentary representatives have been indulging themselves at taxpayers' expense. Beneath the apparent calm mood on the surface of society, there is burning indignation and anger, which has now burst through over these parliamentary expenses.
On last Thursday's BBC programme Question Time, the angry mood burst out against the MPs on the panel, who were savaged by the audience. They must have thought they were going to be lynched.
Worried by where all this could lead, the Financial Times warned that “the general anger will not dissipate without some kind of catharsis. In 1997, the funeral did its job; it was an end, not a beginning.” Today this is “the scandal at the heart of British politics” and there is no obvious ending in sight.
It is no accident that the three basic pillars of the capitalist establishment are the monarchy, Church of England and Parliament, all of which are in crisis at the present time.
What the ruling class fears is the radical change in the public consciousness. People are completely fed up with the lies and hypocrisy that they have been fed for years. They are saying enough is enough. It is the stuff of revolutions, where small quantitative changes have qualitatively transformed the situation. Today's professional politicians are despised and loathed by ordinary people. The public standing of Parliament, as with the monarchy, is extremely low. They are not trusted. As we have explained, we have entered a new situation of abrupt and sharp changes in the situation, where such revelations can become the catalyst for the general discontent within society.
The politicians – as well as the thinking strategists of capital – are frightened that this affair is dangerously spinning out of control. They tried to first of all blame the administrators for forcing MPs to take the money. They then tried to reform the system, but failed miserably. But whatever they do they will not succeed in regaining the public trust. It is too little, too late. It reflects a much deeper malaise in class society.
Already Ministers’ heads have begun to roll. So serious has it become that the Metropolitan police and Crown Prosecution service has been brought in to establish an “expenses panel” to examine complaints and see whether they merit further investigation. This story could run and run up to the next general election in 2010.
Brown is running to catch up with a situation that is out of control. Cameron is also desperately attempting to seize the initiative, but is blighted by allegations against Tory MPs, one of whom, Douglas Hogg, claimed money to clean out his moat. Others have claimed for tennis courts, swimming pools, paddock, maids and chandeliers, all of which underlines the squirearchy life-style of the Tories. There is now a dash to pay back some of the money, but the damage has been done. Others, like Labour's Shahid Malik, who was forced to resign from the Cabinet, protested “I've done nothing wrong” and the money was “legitimately mine”, but reluctantly agreed to pay the public money to charity.
But that excuse now belongs to another era, which abruptly came to an end when the lid was publicly raised on the scandal. The public standing of MPs is lower than the gutter press.
The mood amongst MPs was shock and fear. Fear that the public will turn on them as individuals and the established parties. One Tory MP was repeatedly in tears at the hostile emails she was getting. One from a constituent said: “Why don't you just commit suicide?”
Nobody knows where the dust will settle. Many MPs will stand down at the next election, fearing the wrath of their electorate. “Why would they bother?” said one party official. “The abuse, the rude comments to their partners and family, the kids being teased, the flak at the village fete.”
“This is the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII,” said one Labour MP. But it is far more serious than that. The whole political establishment is in the dock.
Labour, the party in power with the most sitting MPs is likely to suffer most. It was no accident that the scandal broke at this time in the run up to a general election. The reason for this was to undermine the Labour government and prepare the way for a strong Tory administration. But the plan has back-fired badly, with all MPs tainted, including those from the Tory Party. Even worse, it has brought down the public wrath against the political establishment as a whole. This is very dangerous from the point of view of the ruling class.
The political scandals in Italy in the mid 1990s were to result in the collapse of the Christian Democrats, the main bourgeois party that had ruled the country since the second world war. The crisis was very dangerous at the time as it unleashes uncontrollable forces that threatened the entire political edifice. There were similar dangers in the Dreyfus affair in France at the turn of the 19th century. The exposure of a military cover-up resulted in widespread anger against the military and the establishment, provoking a social crisis. It served to expose the rottenness of the regime and a question mark was placed over the whole capitalist system. Lenin explained that with a bold socialist leadership the situation could have led to revolution.
There is also another angle to the present British scandal. The current economic crisis of capitalism has resulted in huge government borrowing and deficits everywhere, which will need to be paid back and urgently resolved. This will mean in the very near future massive cuts in public expenditure. In Britain, they are talking about an austerity programme that will last more than 20 years! The Tories are already sharpening their axe for their new-found role. In order that these savage cuts in living standards can be introduced, the capitalist class in Britain will require a strong government at the next election. For them, that means a strong Tory government that will do its bidding.
This scandal has made that more difficult for the bourgeois in a key sense. “The media fire-storm engulfing MPs over expenses will make it harder for an incoming Conservative government to impose the required cuts in public spending, senior Tories fear”, explained the Financial Times recently (12/5/09).
“The Tory leader is concerned”, went on the article, “the revelations about his MPs' taxpayer-funded lifestyles will make it more difficult for a Conservative government to justify proposed reforms, such as curbs on benefit claimants, to an increasingly sceptical public.”
“This just makes it harder for politicians to take the tough decisions on public finances we need to take,” said one shadow cabinet minister. “It means we're operating in a more hostile environment.”
This is a major problem for the ruling class. They need to carry through vicious cuts not seen since the 1930s. A strong government will be required to do this work given the massive opposition that will result. But this sleaze scandal has undermined the Tories as well as Labour. The recent Populus poll saw a decline in support for both parties. While the Tories are likely to win the next election given the disillusionment amongst Labour supporters, the authority of Parliament as an institution has been undermined. This will also be the case with a new Tory government, as Cameron realises. It will not have the necessary authority in the eyes of most people, despite it being the elected government.
This will simply serve to galvanise all opposition to the Tory government that will inevitably emerge. This will make their task even harder, as they have realised. This means that the next Tory government will be a government of crisis. Cameron has already made it clear that they will go onto the offensive as soon as they are elected. He stated that Thatcher had made a mistake in delaying her tough measures until 1981, losing two valuable years. But their room for manoeuvre will now be limited given their badly tarnished authority arising from this scandal.
But to press on with their austerity cuts immediately will not save them either. It will push the working class onto the industrial plain and unleash a new stage in the class struggle in Britain. It cannot be ruled out, given the weakness of the next Tory government, that they will be brought down as the Heath government was in 1974. Whatever happens, it will stir up the hatred of the working class and usher in a period of class battles the likes of which we have not seen for decades.
The sleaze will stick, whatever they do. The ruling class can see what the Marxists can see, namely the inevitability of a social explosion in Britain. The crisis today is a harbinger of what is to come but on a far higher level. In this turbulent period that has opened up, the working class will place firmly on the order of the day the socialist transformation of society. That is the real lesson of these unprecedented events.