Where does power lie? The question that ties us to Athens

The election in Greece was about power, where it lies and who wields it, voters refused to accept that control lay with the European Central Bank and Angela Merkel alone

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The Independent Online

The forthcoming UK election is in most ways very different from the Greek contest just past.

The UK economy is growing and its currency is outside of the Eurozone. In 2010 David Cameron and George Osborne might have pretended that both the British and Greek economies were clinging together on a cliff’s edge, but Greece was in much deeper trouble then and is now. The UK economy was growing in 2010 and following a second recession it grows again.

There is, though, one parallel and it is an important one. The election in Greece was about power, where it lies and who wields it. Voters refused to accept that control lay with the European Central Bank and Angela Merkel alone. No Greek voter had elected Merkel or the ECB. In their election they asserted a right to take a different course. This assertion will be sorely tested in the highly charged months to come.

We may get some answer to the questions: how much power lies with voters? How much lies with a distant bank and the equally faraway leader of another country? 

Similar questions fuel the unpredictable election here. Indeed they are the cause of the unpredictability. Hidden behind the familiar campaign exchanges about the economy and the NHS, the British election is also about the nature of power, where it is wielded and by whom. These were the questions posed in the Scottish referendum and lie behind the extraordinary rise of the SNP that has followed since.

Alex Salmond struggled during that campaign with precisely the same issue the newly elected Greek prime minister faces now. How to assert political autonomy while sharing a currency? With genuine conviction Osborne and Ed Balls insisted that an independent Scotland would not be able to keep the pound while Salmond could contemplate no alternative.


Similarly in Greece the new government wants to remain part of the Euro while asserting its right to pursue a course that alarms more powerful elected leaders who share the same currency. Who rules, the independent government or those that set the terms for membership of the euro?

We do not know what would have happened in Scotland if Salmond had won the referendum, although I am certain that both Osborne and Balls meant what they said about an independent Scotland not being able to share the pound. What we do know is the SNP’s vision of political autonomy shines more brightly in the aftermath of defeat.

Some 45 per cent voted for independence in Scotland and awoke the next morning to find a distant Conservative prime minister speaking outside Number 10 telling them what would happen next. But in Scotland, the population had different ideas. The SNP acquired crowds of new members, frustrated by the sight of a UK prime minister continuing to wield a degree of power over them.

A sense of powerlessness extends well beyond Scotland. In parts of England voters fear that immigrants take their jobs while power is wielded from Brussels. The increased scrutiny of Ukip –  exposing the fragilities, contradictions and wacky views of senior figures – has only limited significance in the short term. Powerless voters have a party that appears to be offering new forms of democratic empowerment by leaving Europe.

The increased support for the Greens is part of the same pattern. Once again in the short term it is of limited significance that many of the Greens’ policies are not costed, the party is divided and when it gets the chance to rule, as it has in Brighton, it fails to deliver.

For the time being they are the ones that stand out from what appears superficially to be a Westminster consensus on the deficit. Those who feel threatened by the cuts to come, largely unheard in the London-based media, have a voice that speaks for them.

An electoral debate about power is not an easy one for the mainstream parties in the UK as they are identified with the current arrangements that seem to take it away from the population. Perhaps that is why on the whole they tend to stick to orthodox topics. Once more today, in order to mark the final hundred days until the general election, the Conservatives will focus on the economy and Labour on the NHS. But both will make a big miscalculation if they ignore the pivotal debate about where power lies, not least because they have developed and important views to espouse.

Cameron’s early leadership was all about his version of empowerment, policies that were supposed to bypass the state in order to give direct powers to parents, patients, tenants, charities and the rest. He used to call it his big idea, a redistribution of power. In his early conference speeches Ed Miliband offered an alternative vision, one where the state intervened to liberate people trapped in markets that did not work and where the state accepted a degree of responsibility in providing higher levels of training and access to universities.

There is also a very big difference between the two of them on the pace and scale of spending cuts, a contrast arising partly from contrasting views as to whether the modern state stifles individuals or can help to empower them.

From so-called free schools to an overhaul of the NHS, Cameron has sought to implement his vision. There is little evidence that voters feel more empowered. Part of Miliband’s dilemma as a leader has been how much he should be a change-maker and how much a reassuring centrist. There are not many parallels with Greece, but the voters’ sense of powerlessness in the face of distant forces is one that applies here too. The parallel should help to resolve Miliband’s dilemma. In the UK battle over where power lies he must be a change-maker.