The Westminster pantomime is currently happening, but there are potential hazards lurking backstage.
The theater is enveloped in darkness, while the spectators relax in comfortable, crimson chairs. All eyes are fixed on the vibrant stage lights for the traditional event known as the pantomime.
In our midst stands Cinderella, Aladdin, or Peter Pan, caught up in their usual routine and unaware of the villain approaching…
Someone is behind you!
Every winter, the cry echoes throughout the nation. Despite being in the farthest seats, we can still witness the danger, but the celebrities remain unaware and at risk.
Westminster’s panto season falls a little earlier than your local theatre’s. The first half of the bill was this week, with the king’s speech. The actors may change, but it’s always the same props: Black Rod follows the Lord Chamberlain’s wand, and all ends in a squat gold carriage. We get the second half in the autumn statement, in a fortnight’s time: red briefcase, numbers delivered with spurious precision and a sprinkle of jokes (this season’s likely fave: Rachel Reeves’ handiness with cut and paste).
Everything is in the correct position, which is even more reassuring for you. However, this winter, the general public can see major dangers lurking just behind the politicians, as they continue with their daily routines without a care. There is Suella Braverman, engaging in cruel behavior by promising to remove tents from homeless individuals. Just next to her is Rishi Sunak, attempting to pressure the police into banning a demonstration, but ultimately failing – demonstrating with ironic humor that Britain’s small authoritarian figures hold very little power. In this area are the politicians and media elites. Despite the fact that 4,000 children in Gaza have been reduced to nothing but shattered bones due to bombings, they are still consumed with trivial matters such as debating whether the BBC should label Hamas as “terrorists” or adhere to their own editorial code, or if a march for an armistice should be allowed on Armistice Day.
At this moment, a monstrous creature appears on the stage from the right side, bearing three heads to represent the three imminent threats that will disrupt the comfortable complacency of Westminster.
Someone is following you from behind!
The first menace can be spied just beyond the headlines: the breakdown of a 30-year geopolitical order. Since the end of the cold war, America has been the sole superpower and wars have been short and sharp (whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s their aftermaths that have been long and bloody). In Ukraine and Gaza, that is now falling apart.
According to the national security strategy of the White House, the post-cold war era has come to an end and along with it, the dominance of Washington. Fiona Hill, a former Russia expert for the White House, stated earlier this year that the Ukraine war symbolizes the end of pax Americana for everyone to see. It has become a representation of a rebellion by Russia and other nations against the United States. The ongoing conflict in Gaza is also seen as another example of this, as seen in the recent UN vote where 120 countries supported a resolution for an immediate and lasting humanitarian ceasefire. Only 14 countries, including the US and Israel, opposed the resolution.
Westminster has long outsourced its biggest foreign policy decisions to Washington. If Joe Biden demands a “humanitarian pause”, then so too do Sunak and Keir Starmer, however ineffectual everyone knows it will prove. George Bush wanted a “coalition of the willing”, so Tony Blair signed us up. Perhaps that was what those American analysts really meant when they talked of “the end of history”.
However, we have entered a new time period that could be referred to as “the conclusion of the end of history”. Aligning with the United States will be more challenging if it causes conflict with the nations crucial for Brexit Britain’s trade agreements and purchase of football clubs and property in central London. This leaves the UK with two options: either its foreign policy must change, or its economic model will be at risk. This leads us to the next major concern.
The person is following you from behind!
Throughout most of the period known as the “end of history”, there was a belief among financiers that they had an agreement with central banks: when times became difficult, interest rates would be lowered. This occurred after various economic crises such as the emerging markets crisis in the late 1990s, the aftermath of 9/11, and the 2008 banking crash. Each time a major economic issue arose, central bankers responded by injecting money into the system. For the past 15 years, borrowing costs in the UK, Europe, and US have remained at historically low levels. However, in the current state of “the end of the end of history”, interest rates have risen significantly and are expected to stay high for the foreseeable future. This is causing significant financial strain for those with large mortgages in Britain, but it is also leading to disaster for others, such as the US office company WeWork which recently filed for bankruptcy with almost $3 billion in debt. Additionally, local councils in England, from Woking to Birmingham, are announcing that they have run out of funds.
There will be a significant increase in discomfort. Every month, approximately 133,000 households will have their fixed-rate mortgages expire, resulting in higher interest rates and more expensive monthly payments. Recently, Swati Dhingra, a rate-setter for the Bank of England, stated that the economy is already stagnant and only a small portion of the impact of interest rate hikes has affected the economy.
The period of free monetary policy posed a significant threat to the UK, as the economy heavily relies on consumer spending and borrowing. This also proved to be alluring for politicians. George Osborne used the banks’ free money to soften the impact of his austerity measures, while the left argued that the UK should use this cash for productive and progressive purposes. Both sides must now reevaluate their stances.
Someone is following you from behind!
This week, researchers announced that 2023 is expected to be the warmest year ever recorded. British politicians have acknowledged the dangers of the climate crisis, but have mostly ignored the impact it will have on developing countries. They viewed it as a far-off issue, not a pressing one at home. However, we are already experiencing consequences such as food scarcity, heat-related deaths among the elderly, and flooding in our own country.
One instance is used as an illustration. This week, Panama, known for being one of the most rain-drenched locations on the planet, announced that water levels had significantly decreased, resulting in limitations on the number of ships allowed to pass through its renowned canal. Instead of the usual 38 ships per day, there will now only be less than 30, with a decrease in the amount of cargo being transported. Approximately 5% of global trade travels through the Panama Canal, making this significant disturbance likely to lead to a decrease in goods available and an increase in prices.
“The end of history” created a complacent belief in British politics that the future would always mirror the past: there would be no conflicts, wealthy individuals would continue to profit, and prices would always decrease. This small group of islands in the North Sea was considered secure, untouchable, and unchanging. However, the recent end of the illusion of an end of history has shattered these assumptions. Despite this, our politicians remain unchanged. They were raised to admire politicians from the 1990s and to view their time in Westminster as a temporary break before moving on to a lucrative career in podcasts and boardrooms. But if they take a closer look, they will see that the threats to their beliefs and careers are looming right behind them. The show has come to an end.
Aditya Chakrabortty writes for The Guardian as a columnist.