Coalition of the Daleks

Could Barry Letts, Louis Marks and Terrance Dicks predict the future?

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“It is agreed then. Join us and you can have a referendum on AV.”

Recently I was watching a rather excellent documentary on the DVD of Doctor Who story The Happiness Patrol, which examined the many, none too subtle references to contemporary politics in various Doctor Who stories. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the planet Peladon’s divisive attempt to join the Galactic Federation is actually a comment on the UK’s entry to the Common Market. Or that the environment-trashing, brainwashing global corporation imaginatively named ‘Global Chemicals’ is one in a long line of protests against profit-driven multinationals. And somehow, until a couple of years ago, it seemed that few people had realised that the villain of The Happiness Patrol itself, the tyrannical dictator Helen A was actually a thinly veiled caricature of then current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, Doctor Who has frequently ‘commented’ (usually from a fairly liberal, inclusive perspective) on contemporary politics. But it dawned on me recently, while watching the nifty ‘new’ version of 1972 story Day of the Daleks (now with added CG explosions) that this story achieves a rather peculiar feat in managing to satirise events that, for the writers, would be far in the future. For rewatching the story for the first time in years, it swiftly became abundantly clear that the nightmare future visited by the Doctor and Jo, while it purports to be Earth in the 22nd century, is actually the United Kingdom in 2012.

Before I elucidate on this unlikely assertion, here’s a brief summary of the plot for those unfamiliar with this classic. It’s your basic Terminator-style time paradox story, in which rebels from the dystopian, Dalek-dominated future are trying to change history so that the series of wars which allowed the Daleks to invade never occur. To do this, they must assassinate the man they believe to be responsible, a British diplomat called Reginald Styles who, they believe, started the wars by blowing up a global peace conference.

With World War 3 looming (as it did most weeks in early 70s Who), security arrangements for the conference have been put in the hands of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. This is a rather baffling decision given what happened when they were in charge of security at a peace conference the year before; that didn’t go well, resulting in the deaths of US and Chinese delegates and the theft of a nerve gas missile. Still, somehow this has escaped parliamentary scrutiny, and their involvement means that when time-travelling ghosts from the future try to assassinate the bloke in charge, naturally the Doctor, currently in his frilly-shirted, gentleman’s club incarnation, is summoned to investigate.

The Doctor is sceptical of the guerillas’ assertion that Styles is about to blow up his own peace conference, and rightly so. After both he and Jo, by convoluted means, travel to the Dalek-occupied future Earth, he realises that it’s a bomb planted by the guerillas themselves that killed all the delegates – in typical time paradox fashion, they actually caused the whole mess by trying to stop it happening. Fortunately, the Doctor is a Time Lord, and he can sort out the mess – but not before clobbering and shooting a surprising amount of people for a character who’s supposed to be opposed to violence.

So far, so standard-Who, you may be thinking. And yet, looking at the social conditions and power structures in this nightmare future, I found myself rubbing my eyes in astonishment and wondering at the remarkable precognitive powers of writer Louis Marks, script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts. For clearly, this little science fiction story from 1972 was intended to be a savage satire of British politics in 2012.

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Let’s start with the Daleks. They are, quite obviously, meant to represent the Conservatives. “Ah, that’s too easy,” you may say, “you’re just assigning them that role because you see the Conservatives as villains!” But no, let’s look at what they’re actually doing in this story. For a start, the populace of Earth is only valuable to them as an expendable workforce to obtain commodities. All right, they’re concerned with minerals rather then hedge fund derivatives, but hey, maybe the writer’s crystal ball wasn’t perfect…

More telling is their attitude to workers’ rights in order to achieve the production of these resources. We see underpaid (well, not paid at all – they must have got rid of the minimum wage), rag-clad workers toiling away in factories (well, concrete car parks meant to look like factories) under the relentless whips of security forces who clearly aren’t going to put up with industrial action.

Later, in a meeting with human ‘superior slave’ the Controller, their comments clearly indicate their feelings not just on workers’ rights but on healthcare. Protesting that an increase in production targets is impossible, the Controller declares “But that’s impossible! If we push the workers any further, they will die!” To which the Daleks, with the kind of remorseless logic favoured by the CBI, respond, “Only the weak will die. Inefficient workers slow down production.” And I bet they’re not allowed industrial tribunals either.

As if their philosophy on productivity at the expense of workers’ wellbeing wasn’t enough to cement them in the viewers’ minds as Cameron, Osborne and co, there’s the little matter of their security arrangements. Clearly, Skaro’s public spending in this area is too high, so Dalek security requirements have been privatised and outsourced to what’s plainly the lowest bidder – the incoherent and frankly inept Ogrons, a race of gorilla-like thugs for whom the word “complications” is too complicated to pronounce.

So OK, the Daleks here do seem to be a kind of extreme satire of the Conservative ideology generally. But what makes the story specifically about 2012, and the Tory-LibDem coalition?  That’s where it gets interesting, with the denial-prone, conscience-stricken character of the Controller, a man who bows to the Daleks yet somehow thinks he’s wringing concessions from them. It’s now quite clear that he’s meant to be Nick Clegg.

Just like Clegg, he does dare to argue with the Cons- um, Daleks, and just like Clegg he backs down when it’s clear they’re not listening to a word he’s saying. Yet he’s somehow convinced himself that he’s a moderating force, and that the Daleks’ portrayal of the rebels as “cruel and ruthless fanatics” is accurate – perhaps in an earlier draft, they were also considered to be “terrorist paedophiles”.

Still, again like Clegg, he does do some good. He convinces the Daleks not to kill the Doctor, after all, and tries to persuade the recalcitrant Time Lord that he should help the regime rather than die. But the Doctor’s quite unconvinced that any good the Controller is doing justifies his culpability in doing his masters’ bidding. After all, it looks a bit dubious that he’s quaffing wine with them while the masses toil in starvation.

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Trying to justify his role in the state of affairs, the Controller parrots the usual Conservative homilies, with a look in his eye that suggests he’s not even convincing himself (just like Clegg at a press conference). “There will always be people who need discipline, Doctor,” he states hollowly, before asserting that, “this planet has never been more efficiently, more economically run. People have never been happier or more prosperous.” For a denial of what’s actually going on outside his little bubble, that’s right up there with Danny Alexander insisting that George Osborne’s austerity policies aren’t affecting people’s quality of life.

Later, in the face of the Doctor’s contempt for him (“They tolerate you as long as you’re useful to them.”), the Controller gets defensive. By the time he blurts, “We have helped make things better for the others. We have gained concessions!”, I was half expecting him to follow it up by telling the Doctor that he’d raised the income tax threshold as if that somehow made up for all that nuclear armageddon.

So that’s the Tories and the Lib Dems represented. But where in this incisive political satire are the Labour Party? The obvious candidates to represent them are the guerillas, yet at first glance, that seems a bit unconvincing. OK, butch female strike leader Anat could conceivably be an analogue for deputy leader Harriet Harman, but who’s meant to be the charisma-free school prefect that is Ed Miliband? Surely not the guerillas’ leader, the thrillingly virile Man With the Porn Star Moustache?

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And yet, if you look closer, the guerillas do share one defining factor with the Labour Party – as an Opposition, they’re completely crap. Not only do they expend a great deal of effort to try and kill the wrong man, most tellingly of all, they’re actually responsible for the whole nightmare situation themselves. Next time Miliband/Man With the Porn Star Moustache lays into the injustice of the ‘oppressors’, he might want to concede the role he played in putting them there – at least in Labour’s case, with a series of unjustified wars similar to the ones that began after the destruction of Styles’ press conference.

The only loose end that leaves is the Doctor himself – where does he stand in all this? The Doctor’s personal political leanings have always seemed a bit fluid, albeit generally biased towards acceptance, tolerance and fairness. Troughton, Tom Baker and McCoy have more than a hint of the anarchist about them, while Hartnell and particularly Pertwee (who hangs out in posh clubs with the likes of Lord ‘Tubby’ Rowlands) seem very much to be Establishment figures.

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There’s a lovely scene in an old Paul Cornell novel in which both the ever-conservative Brigadier and a young anarchist both firmly assert that the Doctor represents their own values. The implication is clear – there can be good in any political leaning, and the Doctor embodies that.

It follows that, in Day of the Daleks, he saves the day precisely because he’s actually apolitical. He’s able to rise above the petty tribal bickering of the factions in Earth’s devastated future and consequently he’s the only one who can see how to untangle the whole convoluted mess. We could do with some thinking like that in the UK right now, rather than the knee jerk tribalism that causes every party to attack the policies of every other simply because they are Other instead of rationally analysing how worthwhile the proposals are.

So, it’s clear from all this that not only were Marks, Dicks and Letts remarkably prescient, they were also masters of political satire with a very clear message to send in this story. Who would ever have thought that what seems like a simple, clunky BBC sci fi show from the early 70s would actually be such a biting, angry satire about the future of the United Kingdom? Unless of course I’m reading slightly too much into it…

W(h)ither the Lib Dems?

Some musings on the state of the party I voted for last time…

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What have the Lib Dems ever done for us?

“What have the Lib Dems ever done for us?”, asks Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Pack, rhetorically, before going on to provide a helpful infographic to illustrate just that. It’s a useful data point, because the Lib Dems are not getting this information across very well to their public. For most, they’re simply the junior partners in a nakedly ideological right wing Tory government, haplessly propping up a Conservative Party eager to push through reforms that even Margaret Thatcher would have considered a little extreme.

So, what have the Lib Dems done for us? I mean, as distinct from their multi-millionaire, public school-educated plutocrat counterparts in the Tories (never mind that that’s a fair description of Nick Clegg too)? Turns out there’s a fair bit of stuff that the centre left might approve of, actually. The only trouble is, does it serve to counterbalance the right wing extremes of their Coalition partners? And is it as good as it seems at face value? As good as these measures may seem, it appears that they’re always trumped by Tory policies making the lives of ordinary people worse.

The Lib Dems have indeed lowered the income tax burden for the lower paid, with their pledge to gradually move the tax threshold so that those on less than £10,000 a year will pay no income tax. There are even thoughts about making this threshold higher. Well done, those Lib Dems; it’s hard to find anything wrong with that (though in the interests of objectivity, I’ll have a go).

It is worth bearing in mind that all those low earners may well see many of those benefits disappear in a puff of VAT, as they’re the ones most likely to have been hit hard by George Osborne’s early decision to raise it to 20%. And if that won’t do it, the ever increasing taxes and duty on fuel should, with another 3p per litre duty rise due in August. Not to mention the rising costs of TV licenses and phone bills – though if we listen to Edwina Currie’s views, the poor have no right to such remarkable luxuries.

The Lib Dems have also prevented the Tories from abolishing the top (50%) rate of income tax, and lowering inheritance tax for those poor deprived individuals whose deceased relatives leave them enormous houses. Raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1million was a key Tory manifesto pledge, and abandoning it for the sake of a coalition agreement must have hurt. But a loss of face for David Cameron does not, per se, make low and middle earners’ lives better – they’re unlikely to inherit a mansion.

And as to the 50% tax rate, the Lib Dems are already in the process of negotiations for it to be dropped. To give them their due, it’s looking like the trade-off will be for Vince Cable’s treasured ‘mansion tax’ – a 20% tax on all property worth over £2million. This is an excellent idea, as it’s hard to avoid tax by moving your house to the Cayman Islands. Trouble is, it stands a whelk’s chance in a supernova of getting past Cameron and Osborne (even though, reportedly, Osborne isn’t as opposed to it as Cameron is).

Taxing property is anathema to Tories, and immediately the big guns (well, Jacob Rees-Mogg) have been wheeled out to outline horror scenarios of little old ladies chucked out of houses they’ve owned for decades because the house is their only asset and they can’t afford to pay the tax. As so often with criticism of Lib Dem policies, this is plain wrong – the proposal is for 20% to be levied on the value of properties once they exceed £2million. In other words, if your house is worth £2,000,001, you’ll pay a 20% levy on that excessive £1. And so on (see p14 of the Lib Dem manifesto).

Good though that sounds, apart from the difficulty (well, impossibility) of getting the policy past a party who value untaxed property slightly more than human life, it would depend on getting decent valuations of houses across the country, which hasn’t been done since Council Tax was introduced in the early 90s. As this would inevitably result in almost everyone’s Council Tax bill getting higher, no government wanting to get re-elected is ever likely to do it – a shame, as reforming Council Tax to make it more progressive would be a pretty good alternative to the mansion tax.

Recognising the impossibility of this, Nick Clegg rather surprised everyone at the Lib Dem spring conference by independently wheeling out his plan for a ‘tycoon tax’. Certainly Vince Cable must have been surprised at this sudden proposal to ensure a minimum rate of tax to be paid by ‘tycoons’ – say, perhaps 30%.

It sounds good – although the fact that 30% is an acceptable ‘minimum’ is a revealing indicator of just how little tax the hyper-wealthy currently pay. But in practice, surely it’s even more unworkable than the mansion tax. After all, there are so many loopholes for tax right now that it’s easy to make it look like your income is far lower than it is, if you’re in that hyper-wealthy 1%. And if your income appears lower than it really is, how will paying 30% of a spuriously low figure hurt?

Other laudable Lib Dem policies include:

Put like that, I realise it sounds like I’m determined to find the cloud in the Lib Dem silver lining. The Lib Dems undoubtedly have good intentions; though so did Neville Chamberlain (am I exempt from Godwin’s Law if I don’t mention the feller he was appeasing?). These are the kind of policies I could happily support, and perhaps I’m unduly pessimistic about the positive impact they’ll have. Trouble is, does that offset the genuinely nasty bits of Tory legislation currently being hustled through Parliament with the Lib Dems’ apparent support?

Playing doctors and nurses at conference

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Andrew Lansley’s shambolic NHS reform bill is a very good example. This is a bill, it seems, which almost nobody wants – a huge proportion of the medical profession, the public in general, more than a few Tories and even the Daily Telegraph want it dropped.

It’s hard for those of a centre-left bent to defend this bill. True, the claims that it will reduce the NHS to a US-style insurance based private system are largely hysterical hyperbole; but even with the amendments proposed by last spring’s Lib Dem conference, and the House of Lords, it will permit hospitals to gain up to 49% of their income from private healthcare. This is massively worse than the 2006 Labour bill which allowed market forces in in the first place; that, at least, banned private income from exceeding 2003 levels, apparently an average proportion of 2%.

Critics of the bill are regularly countered with the accusation that they “don’t understand it”. And yet it’s hard to see how so many august medical bodies, journalists and legislating peers have all somehow misconstrued its intent. It is true to say that many of the proposed amendments have yet to be included; and yet the bill has already been described as “incomprehensible”, by people who have gone through it thoroughly. With more amendments yet to come.

Even among those who support its basic premise, there is plenty of opposition on the grounds that it is, quite simply, a terrible attempt at legislation, appallingly mishandled politically. The Lib Dems are in a key position to restore a lot of their pre-Coalition support if they bow to the undeniable pressure to stop it, and vote against its passing. Nobody, it seems, wants this bill to happen. Except, weirdly, Nick Clegg.

So what did they do at last weekend’s spring party conference? Uniquely among the major parties, the Lib Dems have a truly democratic process by which attending party members may vote on overall policy, and the leaders would be unwise to ignore the feelings of their grassroots members. This, in theory, is more truly democratic than either Labour or the Conservatives, though it does occasionally produce the appearance of a Monty Python sketch as factions debate endlessly over obscure minutiae.

On the NHS bill, they had the choice of debating one of two emergency motions. One, with the support of 204 conference reps, was to drop the bill entirely. This had the less-than-exciting title “Withdrawal of the Health and Social Care Bill”. The other, supported by a mere 15 reps, was to support the bill, and was emotively titled, “Protecting our NHS: The Shirley Williams Motion”. Guess which one was voted through for debate?

The bizarre implication that to oppose the bill was to abandon the ‘protection’ of the NHS was trumped by the naked populism of appending Lib Dem grandee Shirley Williams’ name to it. I like Baroness Williams, and have a lot of time for her views, but on this she’s just plain wrong – despite having changed her mind at least twice on the issue. More importantly, even if she sanctioned the use of her name to sway doubters, Shirley apparently had never even seen the wording of the motion until five minutes before the debate, which, for added emotional blackmail, she personally got to summate at the climax.

Shirley made an emotive speech in support of the amended bill (although her interpretation of it seemed at odds with that of others). Nick Clegg chimed in his own two cents’ worth at a Q & A session, in which he got members’ backs up by proclaiming that opposing the bill was the same as agreeing with Andy Burnham – perilously close to George W Bush’s assertion on the ‘War on Terror’, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. Bush is hardly a man Clegg should be looking to emulate; but he reiterated his reductive binary assessment in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, using the slightly different tack that to oppose the bill is to oppose any reform of the NHS, as though this were conclusively the only way to do that.

Unfortunately for Clegg, his members declined to vote in favour of the motion. Unfortunately for the party as a whole, voting against supporting the bill is not the same as voting to stop it – it is, in fact, exactly the kind of fence-sitting the Lib Dems were frequently pilloried for in Party Political Broadcasts of the mid-80s. It’s less a statement of principle than an exercise in sophistry that will be completely lost on the wider electorate – all they’ll see is that the Lib Dems could have stopped the bill, and didn’t.

‘Nice’ vs ‘Nasty’ – being weighed in the balance

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In just the same way that, however many piecemeal tax concessions and minor social victories they may have scored, they’ve been unable to stop the Tories’ other massively controversial pieces of legislation. The Coalition agreement may permit them to abstain from voting in extreme cases, but it doesn’t permit party whips to allow outright opposition to ‘government’ (read ‘Conservative’) policies. Hence, the public have seen the Lib Dems appear to support Iain Duncan Smith’s draconian welfare reforms, Michael Gove’s clueless education reforms, and George Osborne’s suspiciously ideological and dubiously effective austerity policies.

What’s more, thanks to the doctrine of Cabinet Collective Responsibility, Lib Dem ministers have even had to publicly appear in favour of all this, whatever their personal feelings (even though Clegg, bafflingly, genuinely seems to think the NHS bill is a good piece of legislation). The upshot of this is that the public at large, or at least the genuine majority of the country who oppose the Conservatives, have come to see the Lib Dems as little more than a powerless adjunct of the Nasty Party, basically the crutch that enables their masters to trample on the poor. As a result, their popularity has plummeted from the 30%-odd at the election to around 8%.

This is actually rather a shame. The protests of Lib Dems that “it would have been worse without us” are very probably true; imagine an undiluted NHS bill, or Cameron getting his tax cuts for the rich through unopposed. But they’re still politically naive, as can be seen by the haste and overeagerness which they rushed into the Coalition agreement in the first place (an agreement that looks worth less than the USB stick it’s stored on, considering its pledge of “no top-down reorganisation of the NHS”).

I’m not sure Clegg and David Laws realised what a powerful negotiating position they were in when the Agreement was drawn up. After 13 years of increasingly bad Labour government, the electorate were still not ready to forgive the Conservatives for their 18 year reign before that. Cameron was desperate to get into power; sure, the negotiations dragged on for days, but I still think they were too rushed. Had the Lib Dems held out harder for some of their aims – or for freedom to oppose those of the Tories – they could have come out in a far stronger position.

Or they could have exercised the ‘nuclear option’ – simply stated they were unable to reach an agreeable compromise with the Conservatives and just walked away from coalition, leaving the Tories looking like the intransigent bad guys and having to try to get their reforms through a minority government. I’m not at all convinced that this would have led to another general election within months, as others have speculated; but even if it had, and the Tories had gained a slim actual majority, I think they’d have had a far harder time getting their legislation through. And I think they’d have been a one term government if they had managed to be the ‘unmoderated’ Nasty Party.

Sadly, that’s all speculation, which of course can’t be proved either way. In the mean time, we’re stuck with what we’ve got – the risk of the Lib Dems being so thoroughly absorbed (in the public’s view) into the Conservatives that they may as well no longer exist.

I’d regret that immensely. Unlike many who drifted from the increasingly authoritarian Labour Party to the Lib Dems, I’d hate to lose them. Many of those defectors have now drifted back to Labour, perhaps missing the point that, socially liberal though they may be, the Lib Dems were never a left wing party. Yet if you think the disappearance of our third party would be a good thing, take a look at how well an entrenched two-party system works in the US. Look how much tribalism we’ve already got – aren’t you sick of hearing the mantra about “the mess we inherited from the last Labour Government” being responsible for everything from the financial crisis to the Black Death?

The Lib Dems are – or could be – good for democracy. If they learn a little more political nous, and stop putting themselves in lose/lose situations as with the Coalition Agreement and the NHS bill, they could regain some of the support they’ve lost. They’re starting to learn that, but it’s still stumbling baby steps, as last weekend’s party conference showed. They could maybe do with abandoning the increasingly isolated Nick Clegg, who’s now beginning to look like a figurehead for his party’s identification with the Tories. Their increasing ability to assert distinctions from their senior partner offers a shred of hope. But there’s still three years till the next general election, and they’ve still got a lot of learning to do if they want to survive their partners’ policies.