18.01.05 THE FALL, THE FLOOD, AND THE GARDEN OF EDEN A siren call of political unreality surrounds us at the moment. The latest opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives would lose the next election, even if no one stood against them. The leadership of Michael Howard has not rescued the Tories from the politics of Frankie Howard. By the day, they become more and more of a joke, a party that gives confusion a bad name. This must come as welcome relief for Downing St, where the fear and loathing between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had reached a point where even the most timid of groups (the Parliamentary Labour Party) was demanding they both be sent to their rooms without any supper. Now, we have a Tory MP defecting to Labour, saying that Tony Blair’s party is a comfortable home for any ‘One Nation’ Conservative. You might have hoped that a Party that was once proud to call itself the Labour Party would have shown some embarrassment at such praise. But no, Downing St celebrated and campaign ministers announced this as justification of an election manifesto that would be more ‘New Labour’ than ever – a thin code name for the wholesale transfer of public assets into private hands and the replacement of common services by individual market choices. This is perhaps the greatest self‐delusion of all. The moment of quiet triumphalism has to be punctured by the realities of the world outside Parliament. In simple terms, we are entering an era that has run out of individual market solutions. Of course we can still make personal choices, but events outside our personal control will define the limits of such market choices. When the Asian tsunami swept 200,000 or more to their death it did not ask who was a luxury traveller, who was a back packer, who was a peasant surviving on the hand outs of the rich. No one had enough cash to buy themselves out of its path or divert its course. Rich and poor alike lived in similar proximity to each other in Carlisle, Cumbria. However, two months rainfall in two days sank the city under water. The river Eden could not contain the downpours, burst its bank and plunged 120,000 households into darkness. Fortunately most were able to flee to safety, but the consequential costs will be enormous, and all the most important solutions will be collective. When the garden of Eden floods, you need more than Adam and Eve/Tony and Gordon to turn up with a manifesto for personal hand pumps. The world is giving us a much bigger warning. In the last year there have been a record 10 typhoons in Japan, 4 hurricanes in the Caribbean and the first ever hurricane in South America. Munich Re, the world’s largest re‐insurance company, has just reported to the UN that, in the first 10 months of 2004, climate change crises were responsible for $90 billion damage worldwide. The tsunami will send this figure soaring. The era of personal greed, heralded in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, is spiralling into its own confusion and demise. The idea that we could pillage the planet in pursuit of everlasting, free trade profitability was the ideological equivalent of fool’s gold. We simply stole for today what would have to be paid for tomorrow…and paid for in spades. Every privatisation delivered profits and dividends. Then we discovered that railway dividends were paid for out of track maintenance, gas profits came from abandoning apprenticeships and laying off gas fitters, and electricity infrastructures came a poor second to shareholder demands. Pension funds were ‘liberated’ to chase stock prices into massive over valuation until the bubble finally burst. British workers saw £250 billion wiped out of their pension funds in a single year and in many cases fund managers were able to walk away with what remained; leaving people with next to no pension after 40 years of saving. The free‐trade obsession was sustained by the pursuit of ever cheaper labour costs. Production pushed towards the most vulnerable and exploitable. Marginal lands have been sucked in, over‐farmed, contaminated and spat out when exhausted. So too have been the people who survive on them. Starvation then drives into migration. And though the rich are increasingly dependent on the poor, they live in fear that the poor will eventually want to come and live in the same neighbourhood. Even our own greatest triumphs now seem to threaten us. In the industrial world, life expectations have increased on the back of common improvements in health care and nutrition. One of Britain’s proudest legacies of the last 50 years was a framework of pensions provision that was essentially an act of solidarity from one generation to another. Everyone in work paid National Insurance (NI) and the NI fund then paid the state pension of those who were already old. The apprenticeship system (and long term jobs) tied all of us in as long term contributors, but it also made us eventual beneficiaries. Privatised pensions, and flexible labour markets turned this into an individual free‐for‐all. And the shift into means‐tested entitlements simply fed a belief that we could no longer rely on/believe in each other for a secure future. Now, we tell our kids (and the poor) they are not saving enough to meet tomorrow’s pension needs. They look into our eyes with a mixture of sadness and derision. Saving is for suckers, they tell us. Granddad paid in all his life, then someone stole the pension fund. A mug’s game. And if the bosses don’t steal your pension the Chancellor will. The shift to tax credits means that those with a small works pension lose out most, because of the high marginal tax rates that go along with any means tested system of benefits and pensions. In a myriad of different ways we are all encouraged to cheat on the future because we fear we have squandered it already. Political parties have become worse than most. The Fall – for politicians – has not been from innocence but from faith; faith in each other, in tomorrow, in common provision and interdependence. The real hope, however, is that the tsunami has produced a second seismic shift, at least as profound as the first. In the aftermath of its devastation, public donations outstripped (and shamed) their respective governments. Suddenly we learn, too, that while citizens give cash, governments give promises; promises that invariably go unfulfilled. Not one of the major UN Appeals has seen governments pay in all that they promised. The UN itself has to beg, and wait, for payments while people starve. The aid that governments give then frequently gets skewed to meet the desires of the donor rather than the needs of the receiver. In Afghanistan, less than 20% of the promised aid ever appeared. Of this, 84% has gone to the military coalition and only 3% to reconstruction. The public do not give this way. They give cash. They give unconditionally. And they give immediately. We should empower the UN to do the same. Let countries promise what they like but give the UN the power to treat the promises as drawing rights on the World Bank. Then let the Bank chase the rich nations rather than the poor; leaving citizens and aid agencies to get on with disaster relief, development and sustainability. If the tsunami has reminded us how fragile life is, and how interdependent we all are, then it could have thrown out a political lifeline. Tomorrow offers no individual solutions to all the big challenges the 21st century will throw at us. Solutions (or survival strategies) will be collective, structural and sustainable; the politics of mutuality and interdependence. Do not expect political leaders ‐ arguing over one set of spending cuts or another set of market freedoms ‐ to even recognise this lifeline. But the rest of us can. It is a lifeline of human hands; holding together, not to defeat nature but to survive the crises we have helped create, and (slowly) begin to clean up the mess…together.