Fuel, pasties and pseudo-events

At the time of writing, my Twitter timeline is full of stories of panic buying of fuel, with police apparently advising petrol stations in some counties to close.  All in response to a Government which, in response to a threat of industrial action that has not yet been called, in a dispute over drivers’ heatlh and safety concerns that ACAS is trying hard to mediate, has made apocalyptic noises about fuel shortages and appears to be actively advising car owners to panic buy (although the advice has moved on from yesterday’s irresponsible and possibly illegal advice to motorists to store petrol around their homes in 20ltr jerrycans – advice which may yet prove to have come from the Minister concerned, Francis Maude, not having consulted his butler on what exactly a jerrycan might be).

Meanwhile, following the imposition of VAT on take-away hot food in last week’s Budget, a furore has broken out about pasties – most notably, a claim by the Prime Minister to have recently enjoyed a pasty at an outlet that closed down two years ago.  It’s not a saga that has been without its amusing aspects – a Liberal Democrat Minister joyfully admitting on Radio 4’s Today programme that he had once worked in a pork pie factory takes the episode into realms that transcend satire* – but given that the main theme of the Budget is a further wealth grab by the wealthy at the expense of the poor, it’s pretty footling stuff.

Welcome, then, to coalition Britain – a nation which the OECD has just confirmed is entering a double-dip recession, where the poorest in society are having their living standards cut as a result of austerity economics which, except in terms of enriching the few, simply isn’t working; in which the Treasurer of the ruling political party has just been found out offering access to the Prime Minister for cash; which has just effectively abolished its National Health Service, once seen as the envy of the world, by removing the obligation for the Secretary of State to provide healthcare and introducing the framework for a charging regime.  And the main topics of mainstream political discourse – an imaginary fuel crisis and a bust-up about pasties. It’s like an Ealing Comedy.  Any moment now one expects Margaret Rutherford to appear from the door of No 10, exhorting England to be a nation once more.

The American sociologist Daniel Boorstin developed the theory of pseudo-events – events in which events which serve to do little more than simulate an ideologically-generated reality become more “real” than reality itself.  It is clear that in coalition Britain we are far beyond that.  Faced with a reality that does not conform to the neoliberal narrative, events must be generated, using an ideologically-driven mass media and, recently, a BBC that is looking increasingly compliant in the Tory agenda. And that is what has happened.  Had hapless Ministers been realistic, and not started talking about fuel shortages, the tanker drivers’ dispute would have been quietly resolved.  This intervention raises the stakes for all parties and just causes more problems.  It’s ridiculous.

What it is not, of course, is government.  It’s actually an abandonment of Government – a deliberate abdication of responsibility in order to promote an ideological narrative.  A responsible, adult, empirically-based Government would not have advocated panic-buying, or indulged in idiotic stunts involving pasties. And sooner or later – even with an official opposition that appears to be wholly compliant in the ideological narrative – reality will bite back.  And the result may not be edifying or pretty.

*non-British readers may not be aware that “pork pie” is rhyming slang for a lie.

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