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Gordon's Götterdämmerung (March 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

London is full of Munchkins, bred in government thinktanks (on the left) or in PR concerns (on the right)


A small boy is running through the cloisters of a public school. He is scooped up by a Jeffrey Archer lookalike dad and deposited in a car.

Archer lookalike to glossy wife (car meanwhile passing Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, crossing Brunel's Clifton Bridge ... Elgarian music): "Well, Clive and Frank and I have decided. We're going to set up on our own!'"

"Darling, how marvellous!"

More shots of car in stirring landscape. More Elgar.

"Mind you, Sarah, company car will have to go!"

"Oh Jeffrey, you wouldn't!" Closing shot of Renault logo.

This came from the 1980s and the great days of UK commercials. The message bluntly punched across was "Would you dare buy a car produced by such British executives, married to such airheads?"

British cars have long gone, succeeded by a strange interregnum in which "counting the profits and talking the bullshit" went on in the United Kingdom of London, as Larry Elliott of the Guardian called Blair's Britain. With the nationalisation of Northern Rock, the lights are flickering off in the Last Chance Saloon.

What none of us fathomed was just how crooked the whole UKL operation was at its base. ‘Sub-prime credit’ wasn't a minor disorder but, if I read my Financial Times right, a central expedient to keep the ‘house price retail driver’ on the road. It was aided by chance factors, cleverly orchestrated by the general staffs of the financial concerns. Such as the ruthless Chinese drive to industrialisation, extending from dedicated counterfeiting to acquisition of American debt, which the ingenuous Brits saw as cheap frocks and toys. Or the influx of workers from Eastern Europe which lowered labour costs and bailed out (for a time) buy-to-let. It was all built on sand.

Square Mile crookedness is a story as old as the hills: retailed in the City Comedies of Ben Jonson's day. The difference in this case has been that the moral indifference of consumer-driven ‘growth’ has spread into every element of Ukanian civic life: white-van men, venal broadcasters, dim-witted celebs, bent press barons, vacuous shoppers, supermarket tycoons, crooked politicians. The now-endemic breaking of rules runs from Glaxo's fixing of drugs tests and the banks' illegal overdraft charges to universal tax-dodging by non-doms, airline fare-fixing, Tesco schlepping its profits to the Caymans, and BAA-Ferrovial's manic borrowing on a sub-prime asset-base.

Not to speak of the sad grotesques - the boozed-up high streets, the overpaid ‘flannelled fools and muddied oafs’ of the stadiums - that are all that remains of the provincial culture of William Cobbett, John Bright or JB Priestley.

Exuding an apparently dour competence, Gordon Brown was a brilliant front-man for this Magic World. But even he couldn't cover up the fact that the country's anorexic manufacturing and catastrophic balance of payments was being paid for by ‘inward investment’ (another euphemism for being taken over). See BAA, ICI, Scottish & Newcastle, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, etc, etc. PFI put what remained of UK construction and engineering on a spatchcocked life-support system, paid for by passengers and council tax payers.

And the Conservatives? David Cameron is a minor though streetwise Adland figure. The big beasts of international capitalism have long since taken advantage of the magic of the City and exited to villas and yachts and tax havens. What we find in the vacuum are the Munchkins, bred either in the government thinktanks (on the left) or in PR concerns (on the right) whom the super-rich have bankrolled.

So what happens now? The worst has yet to come, as the real grief of the housing bust has yet to reach us. Brown's nationalisation of Northern Rock has been compared to the Wilson government's industrial takeovers in the 1970s. But these were tied up with financing North Sea oil (if the state didn't invest in industry, it would have gone down the Swannee), which would subsequently keep the country afloat. No such luck this time.

The brokers' men are in the building: German and French. Not morally much better than their predecessors, but their economies actually manufacture useful things. They need renewable energy. In Scotland we have it, so we can do deals with them.

My Floating Commonwealth, about the British west coast in the steam age, comes out from Oxford University Press at the end of March. So I know my stuff about the ‘creative chaos’ of capitalism. There's precious little creative in Brown's London, and history will be pitiless about it. Survival will be about technics and cosmopolitanism - in culture and innovation - something currently much more evident in Holyrood than by the Thames. So we must hope.

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