A placard placed against a war memorial in central London November 30, 2011. REUTERS/Toby Melville
For American progressives, looking at Britain can sometimes seem like looking in a mirror. The British face essentially the same economic crisis we do. A never-ending recession—and never-ending windfalls for CEOs. Austerity budgets. Rising poverty. Young people without a future. Old people without security.
But this mirror analogy cracks as soon as we start comparing progressive agendas. Some top priorities on America’s progressive to-do list simply don’t show up on the British version. There’s no mystery why: British progressives already have in place a good chunk of what we’re still desperately seeking. A healthcare system that ices out profiteering insurers? Britain has one. Progressive tax rates up to 50 percent on income over $250,000? Check. A financial transactions tax on stock trades? The British even have that, too.
These contrasts should give us pause. If the British are hurting even after achieving so much of what we’re seeking, we’re clearly not seeking enough.
Maybe our transatlantic colleagues can help us here. What are they seeking? Can their visions—and strategies—inform and embolden ours?
I spent some time in London in October—just after Occupy Wall Street launched in Manhattan and just before British Occupiers set up shop at St. Paul’s Cathedral—posing these questions to an array of thoughtful campaigners against Britain’s top 1 percent. I didn’t expect these activists to have any “secret” for plutocracy-busting success. But I was hoping to find some emphasis that I hadn’t expected, and I found plenty.
Take orientation, for instance. Unlike us, British progressives are not looking backward for ideas and inspiration. We do that all the time: contrasting Obama with FDR, demanding new CCCs, coveting New Deal tax rates. Britain has a similar heroic progressive past—the years right after World War II, when the Labour Party, steeled by sacrifice and solidarity, laid the foundation for the modern British welfare state.
Conventional Labour Party politicos still try to “resuscitate that 1945 moment,” notes Neal Lawson, the chair of Compass, Britain’s largest independent progressive pressure group. But British progressives don’t see that moment as a blueprint for the future, because the conditions that made it possible—an economy built on mass manufacturing, a heavily unionized working class, cold war rivalry—no longer exist.
British progressives also have a deeper point to make: the basic blueprint of their heroic past may be inherently flawed. The activists I met, young and old alike, sprinkled their analyses with dismissive—and disconcerting—references to “tax and spend” policies. How could they, I wondered, so casually accept a basic conservative frame? Didn’t they realize they were legitimizing a right-wing epithet?
I eventually caught on. They don’t consider “tax and spend” any sort of social engineering outrage. They simply consider it inadequate to the task of creating the just and sustainable society our future demands. Such policies take the corporate economy as a given—and accept that it will help some and hurt others. The tax-and-spend antidote to this inequality: tax the fortunate to fund programs that boost the disadvantaged.