For any interested observer, the election season is always a particularly stark illustration of how British political culture works. All the normal mechanisms for the filtering and framing of issues are suddenly intensified – the “major” issues are presented in stark relief, and everything else is pushed to the margins. This can result in quite bizarre inflation of what are, ultimately, relatively insignificant policy differences, as well as the ignoring of some very big questions.
The issue of public services is one of the most notable. Predictably, Labour have tried to win back core supporters alienated over Iraq by presenting themselves as defenders of the progressive agenda, moving “forward not back”, defending the NHS from erosion by the Conservatives and so on. But in reality, both Labour and Tories have long been singing from the same hymn sheet.
The Tory-spawned “Private Finance Initiative”, wholeheartedly adopted by New Labour ever since they entered government, has lumbered the public purse with billions of pounds worth of inordinately expensive bills (£130bn over the next 25 years, according to the Centre for Policy Studies). The builders of Altcourse prison in Liverpool, for instance, broke even within 3 years – with 22 years’ worth of contract left, all at public expense. In the NHS, Octagon Healthcare is being handsomely reimbursed for its £229m contribution, costing the public five times the cost of construction over 30 years. In the wake of Jamie Oliver’s campaign, South London schools recently“discovered” that they have irreversibly handed over control of menus to subcontractor Scolarest, with the schools liable to pay compensation for any violation of their 25-year contract.
None of this, of course, has become an “election issue”. When Michael Howard proclaims that “public and private sectors can achieve more by working together than by working apart”, it is without acknowledging how many of these reforms have already been adopted, and what a wholesale disaster they have been.
A similar, and consistent, silence is applied to Britain’s major allies around the world – a rather extraordinary exclusion given the huge levels of public scepticism over current British foreign policy. Russian abuses in Chechnya, for instance, have been described as “abysmal” by Human Rights Watch, who have documented widespread looting, physical abuse and extrajudicial executions by Russian security forces. “Enforced disappearances” are now “so widespread and systematic that they constitute crimes against humanity”. Britain, however, refrains from using any influence, diplomatic or otherwise (including its annual aid programme, export credits and substantial trade links) to address this situation, and has rejected calls for a war crimes tribunal as “counter-productive”.
Similarly, while pulling out all the stops to argue for the “moral” war in Iraq, in February 2003 Britain granted Uzbekistan an “open license” to purchase armaments. Uzbekistan currently has between seven and ten thousand political prisoners; according to Human Rights Watch, its police “use electric shock, beatings and rape”, “asphyxiate detainees with plastic bags, sprinkle chlorine in gas masks and shut off the air” and “hang men naked by their wrists and ankles”.
These are just two issues – there are many others – in which business interests, be they defence contractors or construction companies, have a decisive influence on government policy – and the media seems only too happy to look away.