September 8th, 2005


Why does it always swing on me?

Within the next ten days, the world's second and third richest nations will hold general elections. Japan goes to the polls this Sunday, September 11th, and Germany on the 18th. I can tell you the results already. In Japan, Junichiro Koizumi will win and in Germany Angela Merkel will win. I can tell you this not because I have a crystal ball, or because I'm in tune with the feelings of the citizens of Japan and Germany, or because these people are ahead in the polls. No, I know because this always happens to me. I always arrive in a country with a leftish government, and see a swing to a rightish government.

Now, it may be true that the difference between the "leftish" party and the "rightish" party is not huge, but only a moronic cynic would say it was zero, or that this kind of thing doesn't matter. Of course it matters. It makes a difference to my life. It alters the whole feel of the place where I'm living. It can make the difference between staying and going. Will rents go up in Berlin? Will Hisae have to pay for her education here? Will there be more and more cars on the streets? Will there be war, and will there be terrorist bombs to contend with afterwards?

I always support the leftish party. I have a visceral hatred towards the rightish party and all their arguments. For instance, it gladdens my heart to see wind farms all over Germany. You see them from the plane as you fly in, and you feel you're in a civilised country. About 80% of Germans want nuclear power phased out altogether and alternatives like wind power to be investigated. A similar proportion of Germans were against any German participation in the Iraq war. The rightish candidate, Angela Merkel, knows this, but is, because she's rightish, more likely than Schroeder to want to keep nuclear power and restrict wind farms, or to help the Americans in future wars. She's just careful about the way she phrases these unpopular positions; I watched the TV debate, and of course she was saying "We will consider all forms of electricity generation, but not give undue prominence to things like wind power". But the message was clear. Why will she win, if Germans like things like free education, green power, good public transport, good healthcare? She'll win because people are worried about the high rate of German unemployment and think that Merkel will perk up the economy with her pro-capitalist policies. (The irony is that the "social" German economy is, according to The Economist, suddenly doing much better than Britain's, where Merkel-style deregulation has recently been failing.)

Although, as a socialist, I do believe that history is "progressing leftwards" and that socialism is the inevitable result of the democratic process, there's been a very marked pattern through my life of "temporary" setbacks to this overall and inevitable trend. In 1975 my family came back from Canada to the socialist Britain of Jim Callaghan. Four years later, Britain swung right, electing Margaret Thatcher (and keeping the Conservatives in power for a dismal 19 years). Isn't it funny how "reform" and "liberalisation" have become progressive-sounding buzzwords for people handing social power back to private enterprise, by the way? My view of the "inevitable" movement towards socialism is based on the idea that the tendency of Western societies since the Enlightenment has been to "reform" social practices (to widen suffrage, to eradicate child labour, and so on). But the word "reform", since the end of the 1970s, has come to have a completely different meaning. Now it means to dismantle state control and hand power to private interests. Thus Koizumi's failed attempt to privatize the Japanese Post Office (and his failure is the reason he called the election, so that he can have a second go at it after consolidating his power) is described as "reform". So when did "reform" stop being about governments protecting people from the ravages of unscrupulous bosses and aristocrats, and start being about selling public assets to tycoons and barons? When did "liberalism" start to mean taking the side of the shareholder against the citizen?

In 1994 I moved to France, where Mitterand was still president, still enhancing Paris with grandiose grands projets built with public money. I felt good in Mitterand's France, but within a year he was dead. Within a month of taking office, his rightish successor Chirac announced the resumption of French nuclear tests in the South Pacific — tests which had been halted in 1992 by his leftish predecessor, Mitterrand. In 2000 I moved to Clinton's America. I liked Clinton, but within a year he too was gone, replaced by the vile, criminal, rightish Bush.

Lest the pattern be too neat (Momus swings into leftish state, state swings right), there are anomalies. Anomaly One is that I moved back from Paris to London in 1997 just in time to celebrate what looked like a leftish swing — John Major's Conservative government was pushed out by Tony Blair's New Labour. But who could have known at the time that this too was a swing to the right, a victory for their sort of reformism, not ours? Just how rightish Blair has become is evident in the fact that, should Ken Clarke win the Tory leadership contest, the Conservatives will be to the left of New Labour on many issues. (Clarke was, for instance, against the Iraq war.) So Anomaly One isn't an anomaly at all, just a clever piece of rebranding (Labour used to be leftish, so New Labour winning will look like a swing to the left while actually being a swing to the right). As for Anomaly Two, the fact that I moved to Japan in 2001 just when "new broom" Junichiro Koizumi came along to "reform" the LDP and Japan's "creaky financial system", well, it turned out that Koizumi's brand of reform was of the "shareholder" variety rather than the "citizen" kind. Which is why Japan will swing in a "liberal" direction next week by keeping him in power rather than a liberal one.