After Lehman Brothers tumbled, leaders fell like dominoes. Recession unleashed a raging chaos—and its political legacy is only now becoming clearby Tom Clark / July 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Crunch. Crash. Austerity. The saga has dragged on for a decade, and its real victims can be found at a food bank, not strolling out the back door of a parliament building or a presidential palace. But the political destruction left in the path of the economic tornado is remarkable nonetheless.
In Europe’s stricken fringes, premiers fell like dominoes. In Greece, it was Papandreou, Papademos, then Samaras; in Italy, Berlusconi, Monti, Letta, then Renzi. The Portuguese voters meted out electoral hemlock to José Sócrates, while in Ireland Brian Cowen became such poison that he had to quit as Fianna Fáil leader before polling day, a sacrifice which did nothing to put the country in a merciful mood: the dominant party of the Irish Republic since its formation was pushed to the brink of survival. In Greece, the once-mighty social democrats of Pasok tumbled, perhaps irretrievably, over the edge.
The French economy did not take quite the same battering, but its electorate is never slow to vent fury. And indeed, President Nicolas Sarkozy soon enough bit the dust, making way for François Hollande, who duly became so unpopular that it was eventually obvious, even to him, that there was simply no point in running again. When the next elections came, neither the Socialists nor the mainstream Conservatives were on the track in the final sprint to the Élysée, a race between a neo-fascist and a liberal upstart with disdain for the old parties and breathtaking self-belief. The National Assembly is now packed with politically rootless representatives in a new party that bears his initials. Were he not an avowed liberal, we’d be alarmed.
In Britain the big squeeze, and the big disgruntlement that went with it, did for first Gordon Brown, and then in time—and through a referendum—David Cameron too. At first glance, however, our party system may have appeared to have withstood the crisis: in the recent election, the traditional Labour/Conservative duopoly was well-entrenched. But look again—the whole basis of politics has been shaken.
The parliamentary expenses revelations of 2009 were bound to generate headlines, but because all those receipts for moat-clearing and six-packs of sausage rolls emerged at the depth of the downturn, when so many voters were feeling the pinch, there wasn’t just indignation, but real fury. There was also a vague yearning for a cleaner “new politics.” It has continued to this day without ever settling on any firm objectives, beyond the impulse of “out with the old.” Just look back over the 2010s—a decade which still has a quarter to run—and reflect. First Cleggmania, and then the Clegg crash, were both a symptom of a nebulous conviction that things had to change. So, too, was the sudden arrival, and the equally-sudden disappearance, of Ukip as a serious force—not to mention Scotland’s nationalist turn. And indeed, the arrival of a perennial leftist outsider at the top of the Labour Party.