September 20th Afternoon: The Recession Diaries

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pds_going_notsoonenough.JPGGood riddance.  Or as WorldbyStorm writes over at Cedar Lounge Revolution, ‘The PDs get a a four week reprieve.  Then they die.‘  Can’t come soon enough.  The only downside is that we’ll have to endure a plethora of obituaries telling us how the PDs made a difference, how they shaped whole governments regardless of their size, how a tiny party drove the ideology of a nation.  However, when future historians cut through the bilge they will find an opportunistic party that actually free-loaded on what little social democracy there was in this country.  It is an indictment of the quality of political commentary that they have been swept along by the PDs own self-important propaganda.  For the truth is a little more banal, and as uninteresting as the PDS are ( and, thank god, soon to be ‘were’).

A party of fiscal rectitude?  Yeah, right.  The first time they entered government, we witnessed the accelerator being applied to government spending.  During the brief Fianna Fail minority government in 1987-1989, public expenditure was kept low (though the accolades being showered on the ‘tough decisions’at the time are also the stuff of myth which I will develop in a subsequent post).  In the three budgets in that period, current expenditure was kept almost static – from €12.2 billion to 12.4 billion – a minuscule increase of 1.6%.  When the PDs, under former Fianna Failer Des O’Malley, entered Government Buildings, public spending shot up.  Spending over the next three years jumped by €3 billion – a massive 24%.  This was the biggest three-year increase – either in nominal or percentage terms – in the history of the state.

What does this say for the PDs?  Very little.  They were free-loaders.  The change came about because of the personal hammering Charlie Haughey took during the 1989 election campaign (the famous RTE radio phone-in where caller after caller gave out about the state of the healthcare system and Charlie replying he wasn’t aware how bad it was).  So bad was the hammering and the subsequent election result that Fianna Fail jettisoned their most sacred principle – no coalition.  They did the deal with the PDs but were determined never to be caught out again.  They rampled up government spending.  And the PDs went along.

The PDs weren’t so much the party of fiscal rectitude as they were the party of fiscal indifference – best exemplified by Michael McDowell’s comment prior to the last election that stamp duties could be abolished because the Exchequer didn’t need the revenue.  Yes, they could spend with the best of them, they could create screaming headlines on tax – it was all the same to them.  Fiscal rectitude was the handmaiden of vote-getting – and the poor maiden was rarely summoned from her closet.

The party of privatisation?  Oh, yes, they did call for that.  But that’s all they did.  It was Fianna Fail, slip-streaming in the global neo-liberal gale, that did all the privatisation.  Not one major privatisation came through a PD ministry.  It was Fianna Fail, anxious to shed itself of its statist past (they were, after all, the chief architects of public enterprise-building), anxious to show that they, too, were part of the new world order, who drove that agenda, an agenda shared by so many parties, even of the Left (the Democrats dumped the New Deal, Blair dumped Clause 4, the German SPD came late but came with a vengeance with Hartz IV).  So victorious was the neo-liberal agenda that privatisation no longer a pragmatic instrument but proof of one’s identity with a politically-conforming modernity.

The party of low taxes?  The tax cuts came courtesy of a right-wing Fianna Failer – Charlie McCreevey.  The idea that he needed ideological guidance from a small outside force is derisory.  But clearly the PDs whooped it up – wanting more and more.  How was this viable?  It was due to the massive economic growth generated by multi-nationals whose presence here was courtesy of public sector policy – namely, the IDA’s new industrial strategy of picking winners in winning sectors.  That’s hardly an advertisement for the invisible hand of the unregulated market.

And the tax cuts continued to flow – courtesy of Fianna Fail’s speculator-friendly policies.  No one could claim this was a PD invention.  Fianna Fail has been playing that game for a long time – all the way back to TACA.  The PDs participated in the feast, but they didn’t come up with the recipes, never mind cook a single dish.  At best, they brought polemical condiments.

The final argument that’s often used is Mary Harney and her effective privatisation of huge swathes of the health service.  Surely this is proof of their neo-liberal driven agenda which was imposed upon an unwilling Fianna Fail. Oh, I wasn’t aware that Fianna Fail championed a public health-care system in recent times.  They hobbled it so badly in the late 1980s that much subsequent investment was merely a catching up exercise.  They stood over a system that subsidised the wealthy and the insured at the expense of the public – the famous two-tier system.  Harney’s co-locationism was only a logical progression of fundamental Fianna Fail policy and their larger agenda – to reduce the scope of public investment.

But Fianna Fail could play this co-location game like real professionals.  If a constituent complained to the local Fianna Fail TD, s/he could just shrug a shoulders, roll an eye – and blame it on ‘those PDs’. When a new health service came to town they would, of course, take credit – the spirit of de Valera alive and well.  A good puppet-master knows when to let the odd string go this or that way – it’s part of the act.  An act that Fianna Fail has mastered no matter who sits beside them at the cabinet table.

The PDs played at being neo-liberals.  But they hadn’t a patch on the economic conservatives that dominated the Free State – the Ernest Blythes and cutting pensions, or Patrick McGiliigan declaring it wasn’t the job of Government to create jobs (and he was Minister for Industry!).  These were hard men, true men – they practiced tough love without the love.  The PDs, by comparisons, were wimps.

Ultimately, the PDs were runaway strays from the Fianna Fail kennel – a kennel that most will return to.  To overlook this is to overlook the PD dynamic.  For they merely aped their masters.  The Fianna Fail boat has two oars and they can use one or the other or both or neither as it suits them.  They have a strong right-wing, they have a one-nationist Lemassian wing; and both are trotted out and meshed when it suits them.  Many on the Left don’t get Fianna Fail.  They claim the Soldiers of Destiny have no ideology, just a relentless, ultimately pragmatic, pursuit of power but in fact the opposite is true – they are fiercely ideological and more class-conscious then any other major Irish party.  How else could they so expertly balance their broad class alliance for decades – leading all others among the working class, the middle class and farmers?  What other party could so easily move between Labour and the PDs and the Greens (Sinn Fein will be a doddle)?  The Left tries to define Fianna Fail in terms of European cleavages – Lefts and Rights that emerged out of industrialisation.  But Fianna Fail just laughs.  And the Left still don’t get it.

Let’s, at least, get it right with the PDs.  They could call for tax cuts, they could call for privatisation, they could oversee substantial expenditure increases and suck at the taxpayer’s teat (when subsidies were flooding in from the European taxpayer – over €30 billion since 2007 – the PDs stood on no other principle but ‘Please, sir, could I have another’), they could call for swingeing public spending cuts, they could support social partnership – something that hardly features in the neo-liberal lexicon (when in Enterprise, Mary H. brought in the national minimum wage over the screams of the business community).  What’s more they could swing between the two larger parties.  After all, their first electoral outing after they were elected to the Dail saw them in an electoral pact with Fine Gael, and Fine Gael was never off the agenda (surely there’s some kind of lesson here for Labour and the Greens).

In short, the PDs did all the things that Fianna Fail has done so expertly.  Truly, they were their teachers’ students.  Yes, they did split – the political tensions intertwined with Haughey’s polarising personality (was Charlie right-wing?  Centrist?  Corporatist?  Or just plain Bonapartist?).  They split, but as a right-wing Fianna Fail rump, a rump that was always, and still is, happy in Fianna Fail. They split, but like so many teenagers, they never strayed too far.  They kept ringing the parents for money.  And now their crib has collapsed, they’ve lost their jobs, there’s not much of a future in the cold world.  They have no option – they’re returning home.

And when they do, you’ll never be able to spot the difference.

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