There are only three economies in the world – the UK, US and Venezuela.
Or at least, this is what you’d think listening to the recent reaction to Labour’s plans for nationalizing utilities and more worker say in corporate governance. Rather than see these for what they are – steps towards European-style social democracy – many on the right greeted them with shrieks of “Venezuela!!”.
This reflects a longstanding and paradoxical defect in British (English?) political discourse: that although Brexit dominates our politics our knowledge of European polities is near-zero, and certainly not strong enough to form obvious reference points. It’s not just the right that is guilty here. So are leftists. Whenever free marketeers propose reforming the NHS, they immediately invoke images of dystopian American healthcare rather than, say, the Swiss or German systems.
Our ignorance of Europe takes countless very sensible questions off the agenda such as: why is the Finnish education system so good? What can Norway’s experience tell us about the case for a sovereign wealth fund? Why do the Netherlands and Germany have such low youth unemployment? How might we improve vocational education or support SMEs? How best can we design a welfare state that minimizes poverty without greatly diminishing work incentives? And so on.
One of the basic principles of good management is that one should learn from best practice. The absence of Europe from UK politics means we don’t do this. Our political culture imports the worst from corporate management – such as leadershipitis and PR bullshit – but not the best.
This lack of Europe helps entrench another baleful aspect of our political culture, which we saw during the party conference season – an over-valuation of the merits of speeches. This, of course, reflects our backward-looking and anti-historical mythologizing of Churchill as merely a bellicose rhetorician. In this mythology World War II – which is one of the very few referents available to our impoverished political discourse – was won by fine words rather than by collective organization. The gruntwork of good administration and consensus-building are thus under-rated. Our ignorance of Europe means there’s no counterweight to this.
It’s not hard to find the cause here. We are a monoglot nation. My experience of learning French and German consisted largely of being shouted at by lunatics. Whilst good preparation for the world of work, this did not instil me with Europhilia*. And I’m not as atypical as I should be. Even Gordon Brown, one of our most educated politicians of recent times, looked to the US rather than Europe for his influences.
Herein lies another paradox. Whilst the left considers itself internationalist and centrists flatter themselves to be modern sophisticates, it is the nationalist right which in practice does more to resist this. Links between Farage, Le Pen, Orban, Trump and Putin are perhaps stronger than those between their civilized counterparts.
The media, of course, reinforce all this. The issue here is not merely that lies about the EU have suited its agenda for decades. It’s that reasonably good government is not news. There is therefore silence about policy successes on the continent. In this way, as in others, the news creates a bias against understanding.
I suspect that the net effect of the de facto absence of Europe from political debate is to support neoliberalism by creating the impression that the only alternative to it is economic disaster such as Venezuela is enduring. This, though, is a secondary point. What is more certain is that contributes significantly to bad government and silly political debate.
* It was only quite late in life that I learned that the point of learning French was to better understand the songs of Jacques Brel.