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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

My Political Birthday

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It is twelve months since the coalition came to power, but on this anniversary, I feel that this also marks my own political coming-of-age, from my more naive kind of adolescence.

My teenage years correspond with the election of New Labour in 1997, the first major political event that I understood would affect me directly. Before then, all the turbulence I had lived through as a younger person - Thatcherism, the collapse of the USSR, Black Wednesday - had been filtered through my family. My abiding memory of the coup against Boris Yeltsin, for example, is not of the event itself. It was of accompanying Granddad to buy a newspaper, something he never ordinarily did. I felt it was important, because he must have done; but I did not discuss the events in Russia in any informed way. I knew of the recession of the early 1990s not through statistics about inflation, but because my dad had bought our family's first computer one week, then was out of a job the next. By contrast, in 1997, I remember sitting on the school bus listening to the news reports on the radio, and knowing that something had happened that would alter my world directly; I also knew that come the next election, I would by then be old enough to vote.

Beginning the New Labour years as a teenager, though, I recognise now that this period corresponded with a kind of idealistic immaturity on my part, lasting until the coalition's election last year. Over the past decade, I shouted at the news on a daily basis, angered by New Labour's failings on the environment, on PFI, on taxation; I blustered at the affected charm of Tony Blair, and the machinations of spin; and, of course, I marched against tuition fees and the Iraq war. There had to be a different way, an alternative, a party that would govern by principles of fairness, not the populism of the focus group.

So when I came of voting age, I turned repeatedly to the Liberal Democrats, with the belief that they were a party founded upon ideals that I agreed with: utilitarian, progressive, secularist. The more academic I became through university, the more I felt their methods were not dissimilar to mine: thinking through the prism of evidence rather than ideology, conscious of history but not blinded by it. The evidence of the present says that our possession of nuclear weapons is no longer necessary, and I welcomed the Liberals' courage in wanting to do away with Trident, rather than maintaining it as the last vestiges of our Imperial prowess. The evidence showed rehabilitation was better than prison, and this is what the Liberal Democrats stood for, not some Tory right-wing fantasy that criminals are somehow genetically different to the rest of society and so should be locked away for a jolly long time. The Liberal Democrats seemed to aim for government by reason, not by retrospect.

Yet throughout this time, for all my loud antagonism to New Labour and preference for the Liberal Democrats, the constant whisper in the background was that no party offered a genuine alternative. I was told that there was no difference between the left and right wing. Every party governs from the centre. The Tories too would have done much the same on Iraq, on fees, on the privatisation of healthcare.

It now appears that the whispers spoke a truth that ran deeper than I then suspected. With the coalition government, it seems that not only are the sides of red and blue actually two shades of grey; the yellow of the liberal Democrats turns out to be politically monochrome as well. This has been the first, nasty lesson I have learnt. In our area last week, there were no elections for local government. Had there been, though, I would certainly not have ticked the Liberal Democrat box as I have in the past, in what I previously considered to be a thoughtful, genuinely alternative vote.

I have learnt more advanced lesson as well. The divisions between the three parties are ideologically and practically very slight. But I reflect now that precisely because of this, I should have read the New Labour years more patiently and moderately than I did, and thought more about some of the subtleties to be found in the ebb and flow of politics within a government's time in office. In a way typical of adolescents, I felt everything during those years of my political maturation must be cast in black and white. PFI in healthcare was a bad thing and should be stopped. Tuition fees were wrong.  School league tables were a farce. Green policies were trumpeted but never implemented. There are some aspects of the New Labour years which, even now, I still see in such absolute terms. With the Gulf War, I was told, I was either with the Blair-Bush axis, or against them. I was and remain against.

But I now recognise that even if the parties themselves had few wholesale ideological differences during the New Labour years, there were still patches and shades where different colours did come through. New Labour did develop the Sure Start programme to help social mobility from a young age, a programme the Conservatives are slowly eroding. PFI may have put the public health system in a devilish relationship with the private sector, but new hospitals did get built. Class sizes did go down, teacher numbers did go up, education did improve. Patients continued to die in hospital corridors, but patients also were increasingly likely to survive cancer and surgery, had to wait less time for a minor hip operation or knee replacement.

As historians will no doubt tell us in hefty books to come, the thirteen years of New Labour's rule were a political epoch. It is one which aptly mirrors my own growth: I began those years as a teenager, I emerged on the cusp of middle age. I realise now, then, that politics is for the long term, and that across that term ideals have to suffer, get bent or twisted. The media, operating on a daily cycle, are always exposing the hypocrisy and failures of the immediate moment; no daily news headline runs with the words, "On sudden reflection, over the last two years..." What matters most in politics, though, is not the disputable headlines of the day-to-day, but the definitive changes of the year-to-year.

This is the lesson I have learnt, then: political patience. Whether my patience will last over the next four years of the coalition so that I emerge ready to vote Liberal again at the next election we will have to wait and see. At this stage I somehow doubt it. Living and working in a university environment, my sector is crumbling into dust under the misguided hammer of the coalition's policies. I doubt that the edifice of higher education will have been sufficiently restored over the next four years, over the long term.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:19 pm


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