Prediction for 2012 • 18 March 2012 • The SnowBlog
Prediction for 2012
I should warn you: I'm going to talk about politics. And that's not everyone's cup of tea. I think a lot of people like to leave politics to the politicians. We print the books; they run the world. Division of labour. Stick to what you know. It makes sense. Except that every now and again I think we wonder if they're holding up their end of the bargain. You glance up from your work and catch sight of a news article which mentions that the economy is bankrupt but the City is booming and you wonder how that happened. Because just a couple of years ago it was the other way round. Surely the politicians didn't just give all of our money to the banks, did they? I mean they wouldn't do that, would they? Because we'd never stand for it. Unless we already did.
When it comes to trusting those in charge, the problem is that there are some strong temptations in the world of politics. In our world, we're surrounded by books and about the worst thing we might get tempted to do is sneak a couple of copies home. But when you're surrounded by money and power and nuclear launch codes and billionaires wanting favours and foreign leaders proposing alliances and the head of the armed forces wondering where you want your aircraft carriers to be deployed next, the whole thing can go to your head. Plus, as a politician, you can easily fall in with a bad crowd. I suspect a lot of elected leaders meet two sorts of people. Type One are very rich, very powerful, very focussed and very persuasive people who say, "Support me and I'll make this country wealthy and successful. And when you retire I might even make you wealthy and successful too." Many of these people own newspapers or TV companies or run business empires that stretch halfway round the world, or provide the donations that a politician needs to get re-elected. And politicians also meet people of Type Two who are... everyone else. They aren't rich or powerful or focussed or persuasive and they don't know what they want. In fact they are totally inconsequential except for the fact that they vote occasionally. But even when they vote they do so in a sort of misinformed haze with their minds on other things. Clearly they're a low priority but one still needs to keep half an eye on them. Which is why I think most politicians end up doing the following: working hard to please Type One people without making such a mess that the muddled mass of Type Two people actually notices and takes an interest.
I would say that the Noughties ran exactly along those lines. For corporate interests, and for the fabulously wealthy, it was a boom time. For everyone else there was a slow, subtle squeeze, so that most people hardly noticed their living standards were actually slipping slightly instead of rising. We tightened up the rules on what ordinary citizens could do, and we loosened the rules on what companies could do and until the financial crisis hit the whole thing seemed to work. Type One people were very happy with their non-dom status and tax exemptions for their businesses. And Type Two people were busy printing books or watching Escape to the Country and didn't notice.
But it's getting more and more difficult not to notice. In all other areas of our life we can find out everything about everything with almost no effort. If I want to find out when the last dodo died, I bet I can do so in less than 10 seconds. Go! OK, it took six seconds because apparently it's a complicated question (but let's say 1662 for now).
And not only is it easy to find anything out if you have an internet connection, it's easy to spread the word and to give feedback... except in one area of our lives: politics. Consider the fact that you can hardly visit a corporate website without being asked to provide feedback on how the service could be improved, whether the help documents answered your question, whether you're satisfied with the product and how you rate the company's performance. We all know it's easy to connect the customer to the company. But when it comes to politics, governments have to pretend it's still 1970 and pray that we don't notice that the internet connects to Whitehall as well as the West End.
Listen to any politician promoting a war and you'll hear an outpouring of pseudo-earnest rhapsodising on the subject of how much they love democracy. It's their favourite thing, they dream about it and they just can't rest until it's been made available - at gunpoint if necessary - to every oppressed foreigner in every oil-rich nation in the world. But how much effort do politicians put into promoting democracy at home? None. Less than none. They are, in fact, largely against it. A truly democracy-loving nation would probably institute plebiscites or mini-referendums on a regular basis. And it would make it easier for concerned citizens to communicate their thoughts to those in power. But as the internet has connected ordinary people to each other and to businesses, there's been a mysterious lack of 'take up' in the halls of power. In fact, we've clamped down on anyone who's politically active (and who isn't a billionaire). The police and MI5 infiltrate activist groups, even if they're pacifists, they install CCTV in every corner of every public space and they arrest those who march through the streets.
Protest is welcomed provided it's civil and orderly, not too inconvenient, and all its permits are in order. In other words, you are allowed to protest provided you do so in a way that no one will notice.
Well, this week I am reading that the UK government is thinking it will give a tax break to the well-off, while pushing ahead with its plan to axe half a million public sector jobs. It is gearing up to start privatising the NHS (PDF from the BMJ) and it's refusing to acknowledge that its austerity policies are damaging the economy while ignoring mainstream economic thinking about how to get out of a recession.
And the only way for this sort of nonsense to continue, where politicians pay lip service to voters while cutting the legs out from under them, is if we all continue failing to notice just how easy it is to become well-informed about what's going on. That thin meniscus behind which all the grubby deals take place is like a soap bubble that's about to pop. As Wikileaks shovel millions of pages of damning disclosures into the public domain, the amount of effort involved in becoming an 'activist' falls. One well-placed Google search and you're suddenly a member of the resistance.
So my prediction? I think 2012 will be the year that the soap bubble pops and we all find ourselves with an interest in politics again. Because it's easy, because it matters, because we're watching our interests sacrificed right before our eyes and it's actually starting to get difficult to ignore it. It's like we're trying to pay attention to Celebrity Come Dancing while burglars carry our valuables out to their van, and sometimes they block the screen and we have to crane our necks to keep watching the program. I think 2012 will be the year that a lot of people undergo the realisation that the boring stuff they've been leaving to the politicians is actually what they care about most in the world.