The idiocy of the New Catastrophists

The disparity between commentators’ warnings of doom and their proposed social solutions is hilarious.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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You might not know it, but we have just 50 months to pull the Earth back from an irreversible tipping-point that will likely lead to ‘climate disaster’. You might not know it, but the Conservative Party’s desire to repatriate some of the European Union’s criminal justice powers from Brussels to Westminster must beg the question: ‘Why are the Tories so keen to make it easier for gangsters, paedophiles, rapists and murderers to escape British justice by hiding abroad?’ Equally, you might have missed the point that Conservative plans for the National Health Service mean that diabetics ‘risk amputated feet if inexperienced high street commercial clinics treat them, with no knowledge of their history and give no feedback to their doctors [sic]’. And woe betide you if you fail to appreciate that ‘neo-fascist racism’ – that’s the British National Party and the English Defence League – is ‘getting more brazen and popular’, is ‘tolerated by liberals’, and is ‘encouraged by the right-wing political classes and the media’.

Are these the ravings of some far-left group? No. They are recent statements, respectively, by Andrew Simms, leader of the New Economics Foundation, a prestigious green think-tank with charitable status; by Fiona Hall, leader of the Liberal Democrat MEPs in Strasbourg; by Polly Toynbee, chief columnist for the Guardian; and by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a top columnist for the Independent.

These four opinion-formers believe that we are headed, fast, for just about every kind of apocalypse – environmental, criminal, medical and political. And the four all represent mainstream, middle-of-the-road opinion. Yet if they are right, and Conservatism is really bent on sending us all to Hell with great despatch, what are their counter-proposals?

That’s when things grow still more bizarre.

Back in the 1970s, the British far left would ridicule promulgators of this kind of End-of-the-World-is-Nigh stuff as guilty of ‘catastrophism’. But what is interesting about today’s millennarians is that they are not of the far left at all. That species died more than 25 years ago. Instead, our pessimists combine their forebodings of doom with the most abject reformism. And this New Reformism is not the classic, social-democratic reformism of patriotic Old Labour, which hoped that the slow accretion of reforms would one day lead to a New Jerusalem of socialism. No, this New Reformism is satisfied with the teeniest, most incremental tweaks to a system which – to calibrate its misdeeds properly – has brought us serious recession, war after war, and major restrictions on democracy. Socialism is not even the New Reformism’s maximum programme, let alone its minimum one.

So Andrew Simms wants people to drop work for one day a week and take up gardening, so society can ‘reap a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits’, including ‘refamiliarising people with food through growing their own’, fighting ‘depression, dementia, cardiovascular complaints and a huge range of other medical conditions’, restoring attention spans and reducing ‘our carbon footprint’. Helpfully, he adds: ‘If you’re an employer, and think you can do this, get in touch’. Fiona Hall has teamed up with Queen guitarist Brian May to urge an alternative to culling Britain’s badger population ‘in the fight to suppress the spread of fatal disease among cattle’: she wants cows vaccinated. In an article that’s opaque even by her standards, Polly Toynbee advises the Liberal Democrats not to do a ‘double backflip’ and agree to changes in England’s electoral constituency boundaries that would favour the Tories. For her, that’s a red-hot issue, and on a par with what she castigates as ‘lack of rebellion’ from Liberal Democrat leaders Nick Clegg and Vince Cable against the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown offers a radical posture against racism: nationalism. We should recognise, she writes, that Britain is ‘a good country to be black or Asian in, better than all of the rest of Europe’.

Just like shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who argues for £1 billion less in cuts in state expenditure than the Lib-Con coalition government, the New Reformism believes that a truly microscopic bit of fine-tuning is all that’s required to revitalise British society. Subconsciously, too, the New Reformism believes that everyone has forgotten about what New Labour did when in office. It believes, too, that nobody outside the Westminster village needs persuading that Ed Miliband – or a coalition between him and St Vincent Cable of the Lib Dems – is a shining alternative to David Cameron.

The catastrophist reformists love to stigmatise football supporters and the white working class as ‘tribal’ in their culture and their uncouth habits. They likewise condemn those who defended their communities during the summer 2011 riots as guilty of a vigilantism that was ‘tribal’. Yet if anyone is tribal, they are. They live in a dream world of self-congratulation, in which all clear-thinking, rational people will never notice the contradiction between their dark mood and their Sunlight Soap prescriptions. In their world, all men and women of good faith can and must only vote for a party whose membership has fallen from more than 400,000, after New Labour came into power in 1997, to 193,000, at the end of 2010.

Whether it’s a future in which British schoolchildren turn to fascism, or the need to stave off Armageddon through Vince Cable’s ‘mansion tax’ on homes worth more than £2 million, our friends believe that everyone who does not share their assumptions is – how did Gordon Brown describe it? – a ‘bigot’, or part of the ‘forces of Conservatism’. Hinting that a Nazi era is round the corner, they imagine that all sensible (middle-class) People Like Us will rally round against the common enemy, just like they did in the Second World War. Or, they unmask Tory chancellor George Osborne as a rich man who sits in a first-class train seat while holding just a second-class ticket, and imagine that this is a breakthrough for the left.

Their contortions would be tragic if they were not so funny.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester.

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Topics Politics


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