This weekend I attended two festivals: Sustainable South Brent, in South Devon, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, near Dorchester. It was also the weekend when we heard policy presentations from the candidates who hope to become the new Tory Prime Minister.
The policy presentations offered the same dreary supposed alternatives that have been laid out before the electors in every election I can remember. The majority of candidates proposed to cut taxes, to give people more money to spend. Rishi Sunak proposed to maintain public spending to support the NHS and social services. Almost nothing was said about the two all-consuming issues facing the world: the rising cost of living, particularly energy and food prices; and the imminence of disastrous climate change, which was also heralded on July 19th by the highest ever recorded UK nighttime temperature. Today the temperature has reached 39 degrees before noon.
For thirty years the dominant political ideology has been to respect the market as a natural phenomenon whose workings will ensure the best of all worlds. Some of the Tory candidates presented themselves as believers in traditional conservative values of low taxation to encourage investment and economic progress. What no-one said is that this neoliberal economic programme has enriched and empowered corporations, their directors and their shareholders and impoverished the mass of people who work for them. Inequality of wealth has increased exponentially over the last three decades. Millions of people in the UK will have to juggle their income to decide whether they can feed themselves or heat their homes in the winter that will follow this ominous summer. This social disaster is mentioned so often in political and media discourse that it now seems an act of nature.
Even Adam Smith feared the social effect of economic change. His many writings – not only The Wealth of Nations but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Philosophical Essays, Lectures on Jurisprudence and many more – were addressed to an educated ruling class who, he hoped, would mitigate the ‘invisible hand of the market’. But who can be heard today pointing out that energy corporations and others are using inflation as a cover for increased profiteering and share buybacks rather than social investment? The power of financial, social and media oligarchies also appears an act of nature.
But acts of nature are themselves the consequence of human choice. Global warming is the direct result of industrialism and industrial agriculture, the burning of fossil fuels and the production of meat. The stall holders and performers at Sustainable South Brent were clear about the need for renewable energy and a move to plant-based food production. South Devon Singers performed a concert of songs composed by their musical director David Haines including the haunting ‘Four Billion Years’, which laments the possible end of life on earth ‘through human apathy’.
At Tolpuddle, the connection between social/economic change and averting disaster was made everywhere. Speaker after speaker denounced the current impoverishment of the working population as the Tolpuddle Martyrs denounced the lowering of agricultural wages.
It seems that the people know the priorities. It’s going to be a long hot summer.