Think the current debacle is bad? Just wait for the double crunch of public spending cuts and devolutionary revolt to come
As any Hay festival regular can attest, the diet here tends to involve one dependable perennial: doom, and lots of it. Ecological collapse has been a regular here since the early noughties; this year, the ongoing economic crisis is inevitably intruding into scores of events (as happened, for example, at Tristram Hunt's brilliant-but-bafflingly small session on Friedrich Engels – peppered with the claim that if the world had moved beyond the "post-89" neoliberal settlement, at least part of Fred'n'Karl's analysis had once again been vindicated).
Then, of course, there is the crisis besetting Westminster, the seemingly inevitable change of government at the next election, and the dread state of the public finances. At his event on Saturday, the Tory politician-turned-international sage Chris Patten – fresh from questioning David Cameron's policies on Europe – talked about China, Obama, and much more besides, but by far his most head-turning mini-speech was about the UK, and the looming austerity that most people have yet to get their heads round. He said this:
"Let's be clear and not political and not dramatic. We come out of this recession 5% poorer, with a fiscal deficit somewhere between 12 and 14% of GDP. And we're going to have to cut public spending – not with great enthusiasm, but because we need money to keep going … We face a fiscal squeeze tighter than under Margaret Thatcher, and that's whoever is in government. You know, I saw Peter Mandelson on television the other night, and he said it was wrong to talk about a period of austerity. And that's entirely inaccurate … I think what's required is a consensus in politics about the tough decisions that are going to have to be taken … everything is going to have to be looked at."
Now, Patten is obviously a painfully centrist operator, whose sense of possibility remains safely contained within polite limits; his is not the kind of politics that would allow for, say, a newly progressive tax system so as to ensure that the post-crash burden is much more equitably shared. But when he warned against public sector strikes and a revival of "arguments from the 60 and 70s", the essential point was made: that even if those fabled green shoots start to appear, there are dangerous, volatile times ahead.
Which takes us to another Hay event an hour earlier, when Radio 4's own James Naughtie and the Welsh broadcaster and writer Patrick Hannan exchanged views about the UK's decade-long history of devolution, the very different politics of Scotland, Wales and England, and the glaring lack of knowledge in the latter about developments in the Celtic countries. It was strange, they agreed, that in large parts of the UK, the political game involves four parties, the terms of debate are radically different, and tensions between Cardiff and Edinburgh and London are a regular part of the plot – and yet, in England, it all barely registered.
"The poor old English don't get it," said Hannan. "They haven't understood it, and the media can't be bothered to tell them."
They duly talked through some of the consequences of devolution, from the Scottish and Welsh experience of a fairer voting system and coalition politics, through rising English resentment, to the question of what, in the public mind, post-devolution Britain actually is (as Hannan put it, "What are British institutions? Where does Britain happen? And how do we find it?"). But when questions were asked from the floor, the biggest issue of all came into play: what might happen in Scotland after the election of a Conservative government in Westminster?
I've written about this before – but with the Labour party perhaps fated to a long and painful spell in opposition, trust in Westminster laid low by the expenses crisis, and Cameron apparently pledged to a particularly swingeing version of the austerity Chris Patten talked about, today's outside chance may well turn into tomorrow's distinct possibility. Just imagine: Cameron moving on the welfare state (his admiration for the Wisconsin model springs to mind), howls of anguish north of the border, and Alex Salmond seizing his chance. It took a little getting out of him, but as Naughtie saw it, the question of Scottish independence could indeed become "a live issue", giving rise to "a real battle – high-octane stuff".
Hannan, as his apparently his way, wanted to pour cold water on all that, though what he said only fed the early summer's sense that British politics is changing faster than anyone understands.
"Nobody knows," he shrugged. They certainly don't.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017