Arguably, the most successful soundbite of last year’s EU referendum campaign was “take back control”, used by the Leave team. It was delusional, of course, based upon the ridiculous idea that Little Britain could be master of its own destiny outside the EU. The realpolitik of 21st century capitalism means that the mega-rich and multinational corporations are free to move capital – and jobs – around the globe. This makes pure fantasy the idea that one medium-sized country can be in control. Standing together with like-minded countries in a bloc like the EU gives some chance of the needs of the people winning – sometimes – against the rich, powerful and footloose. On our own, forget it.
But the idea – and the phrase – caught the imagination of many, assuming they didn’t think too deeply about it.
Ironically, one year on from the referendum, the idea of taking back control – in a different sense from before – is really beginning to catch on. And, this time, it’s a development of which I approve. Two recent events best illustrate my point.
The 2017 General Election
Once again, the pollsters got it wrong. The Tories’ loss of overall majority came as a surprise and, this time, a pleasant one for me. (The shocks of 1970, 1992 and 2015 were three times too many for one lifetime!) There genuinely seem to be signs of change. Specifically, I mean signs that more and more voters are seeing the Tories and their austerity agenda in its true colours: as a way of reinforcing the power and wealth of a minority at the expense of everyone else.
People are beginning to see the value of the public sphere: the schools, hospitals, police, firefighters, public infrastructure, clean air, enforcement of reasonable regulations for safety in employment, and many more. It extends to an appreciation of the longer-term strategic view that public ownership can give to areas such as blue-sky R&D and in the energy sector.
For three and a half decades, government and economists have asserted the supremacy of free market fundamentalism. They assert that free markets, unfettered by government interference, will produce the best of all possible outcomes. For the poor, their concerns and fears are vilified or ignored. At long last, an increasing number of people see that assertion for what it is: a lie.
They can see with their own eyes that the average worker is still worse off than before the 2007-8 global financial crash. They can see the rise of low quality, insecure jobs and the sham self-employment. They see ruthless employers increasingly treating their workforce with contempt. Too many people feel they have no control over their lives. Job insecurity means they cannot make sensible plans for the future, about basic matters such as housing and starting a family. For the rich, every whim and opinion is indulged and flattered.
The recent general election result showed that more people have seen through the Tories’ lies. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally gave them a real choice: a chance to get back some control. Emphasis on workers’ rights and the renationalisation of railways and utilities is seen to make sense. Private utilities casually rip off their customers – their nationalised forebears never exploited them in that way.
The Grenfell Tower Tragedy
And then came that most unimaginably awful, utterly avoidable tragedy: the Grenfell Tower fire. Four weeks on, those who have lost their homes and those who have lost loved ones still haven’t had their questions answered. Still the authorities, above all Kensington and Chelsea Council, are failing in their most basic obligations to the residents. Most of the support and help for practical, emotional and psychological issues still seem to be given by volunteers and community organisations. Yet Kensington and Chelsea is the UK’s richest authority, with nearly £300m in its reserves. The total breakdown of trust between the state and the citizens of the area is palpably raw and tragic. The Grenfell residents aren’t being given even the basic answers to help begin a grieving process and to rebuild their lives. The lack of control they have over their present and future lives screams out every minute of every ghastly day.
Out of Control
Whilst in no way comparable, I remember clearly the moment I found out my first wife, in her mid-40s, had been diagnosed with cancer. There was an overwhelming sense that our lives had, very suddenly, got totally out of control. Over the following few days, through our own research and with good support from medical staff answering our many questions, we began to feel better able to cope. The cancer hadn’t gone away, but we had more information to begin to make sense of it all and gain a feeling of control once again.
It would be simply wrong, impertinent and insulting to the Grenfell victims to say I know how they feel. But it is, after all, a defining feature of being human that we try, however inadequately, to empathise with those who are suffering. All I can say with any certainty is that it must be massively, massively worse than what I went through – unimaginably so.
A Turning Point?
It feels like the Grenfell fire and its aftermath is a turning point: I really, really hope it is. Grenfell, or something like it, is what happens after thirty-five years of inhumane economic policy, treating humans simply as economic units. And, as economic units, the rich and powerful are treated with utmost respect; the poor and vulnerable with utmost contempt. I sense that people really have had enough, at last.
The hope now is that we can be led by people with the vision to plot a new path to the future. The Labour Party manifesto for the recent election was a good start. Jeremy Corbyn seems to have found his feet. He clearly recognises that, if everyone is to “take back control” of their lives, most of us, at some time need the state to be there to lend a helping hand. This help takes many forms: benefits, doctors, nurses, firefighters, a decent job with a predictable wage or basic needs like gas and electricity from an organisation that doesn’t try to rip you off all the time.
The Tories won’t get us there. Several members of May’s cabinet are professed admirers of Ayn Rand and have called her most famous novel an “inspiration” – here’s one example. Free Market Fundamentalism, that cruel and heartless creed of greed, is the natural brainchild of Rand’s cold-hearted and false assumptions about human behaviour. It must stop. All the people of Britain, poor and rich, must be given the opportunity to take back control of their lives. Starting now.