Thursday, May 14, 2009

London Calling, Part 1

I'm currently in London, and in between my own lecture commitments and rushing about madly to take in as many art shows and theatrical performances as possible (the subject of my next post), I've been looking for visible signs of the economic downturn on the country Gordon Brown and the Labour Party seem daily to be ceding more and more control of. The latest scandal--which crosses party lines, admittedly--is MPs' gross abuses of their parliamentary expense plans, paying down private mortgages, purchasing flats for their university-age daughters, adorning their bathrooms with gold-plated toilet seats, and the like. And all courtesy of taxpayers' hard-earned quid, as the daily UK tabloids like to remind us. Not the most endearing headlines during a recession.

A recent editorial in the Times actually laid much of the blame for the expenses scandal at the feet of Margaret Thatcher, who instead of raising MPs' quite meager salaries in the recessionary 80s (fearing a similar public outcry), encouraged them to supplement their incomes through Parliament's generous claim process. Indeed, part of the feeding frenzy around the current scandal does seem to be tied to a certain amount of collective, and retrospective, soul-searching on the part of Britons of all political stripes and social classes concerning the 30th anniversary of the Iron Lady's historic ascent to power in 1979. Everyone is assessing her legacy, not least in terms of New Labour's own current crisis of identity as it appears to face imminent defeat in the next general election, and as the internal finger-pointing begins regarding the sacrifice of core Labour principles and policies in the party's adaptation of Thatcher's neo-conservative, winner-takes-all economics into the softer balm of neo-liberalism, where the trickle down effect would seem to have more measurable (and visible) indices. Not that that's much consolation to the millions of unemployed across the UK, and one wonders what the Baroness, in her lucid moments, thinks of Brown--the person who absorbed her lessons only too well--nationalizing the country's banking system. She may not be for turning, but the economic and social revolution she inaugurated sure seems to be.

On this trip I've also been thinking a lot about Thatcher's legacy in relation to local politics in British Columbia. This in part stems from my desolation at the election results this past Tuesday, which saw Campbell and the Liberals being returned to a third consecutive majority. Needless to say, there were no Greens elected, and our own riding of Vancouver-Fairview, having been represented by the NDP since the last election (first by Gregor Robertson, and then by Jenn McGinn, who recently won a by-election following Robertson's departure to run for Mayor of Vancouver), went back to the Liberals this time around. The referendum on the proposed switch to a proportional voting system was also soundly rejected. In other words, same old, same old. While defections from the NDP to the Greens from core voters angry over their stance on the carbon tax (like me) may have had some role to play in key ridings where the Liberals were able to capitalize on a split vote on the left, I see in the maintenance of the status quo of BC's current right-wing agenda, a connection to UK politics past and present via the bloody Olympics.

The historical connection concerns the former Social Credit Party of BC, who modeled their vast privitization of provincial lands in the 1980s directly on the blueprint established by Thatcher. The key moment here was of course the selling of the Expo 86 lands to Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing's Concord Pacific development corporation, which has resulted in a massive change to Vancouver's skyline, and a form of property enclosure that has contributed directly to the social and economic woes of the Downtown East Side. In the wake of the Social Credit's political self-immolation (much like the UK Tories following their forcing of Thatcher to step down as leader), the once negligible Liberals of BC stepped in to fill the void on the province's political right, and with Campbell renewed for a third term as Premier, the province is poised to repeat the mistakes of Expo 86 in relation to the upcoming 2010 Olympics. 

In this context, I won't go on about the beleaguered Athletes' Village yet again--except to say that it provides a further connection to current UK politics. For in The Telegraph the other day (all that was available at the breakfast table where we're staying, I swear) it was announced that the Brown government was poised to raid its contingency coffers yet again to bail out the similarly over-budget and behind schedule Athletes' Village for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. This because, as in Vancouver, the Olympic Development Corporation's private partner was unable to secure further financing in the current economic climate. Moreover, as with Vancouver this past winter, talk was of the British government assuming full control of the project, leaving London taxpayers' on the hook for the whole of the billion-dollar mega-project. 

Despite this, London Mayor Boris Johnson ("a total twat," as our friend Cathy calls him) remains upbeat, stating in a recent Time Out London interview assessing his first year in office that the Olympics will be a success, and that now more than ever the city needs the spin-off projects, development energy, and general goodwill and pride of place that the Games will no doubt bring. 

I wonder if out-of-work punters from Shoreditch feel the same way? I wonder, too, if BC's citizens know what they've gotten themselves in to in re-electing Campbell and cronies? As with the fall-out from the Thatcher years, it may take several decades to answer such questions.


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