I FLEW into a cold, grey England from a hectic trip to the United States. Against all expectations, London’s Heathrow airport was not backed up with passengers and luggage in the aftermath of the general strike called last Wednesday by several unions.
Despite the millions who marched against the changes in their pension benefits, the strike was entirely peaceful. And although the public were inconvenienced, there was a lot of sympathy for the strikers. As people watch the quality of their lives drop steadily as a result of the financial crisis gripping most industrialised countries, they realise there is worse economic news to come.
While most have cut down their expenses sharply, expensive restaurants in London are still thriving. According to a recent article in a Guardian food magazine, there are still many in the capital who think nothing of dropping a hundred pounds or more per head for a meal. This is a reflection of the income inequalities that now characterise modern capitalism. According to one study, while the average ratio between the highest and lowest paid employees in business firms was 40:1 in the seventies, it is now 400:1.
But these hard times are even more visible in the US than they are in the UK, at least to a visitor. Returning to New York, Boston and Washington after twenty years, I was struck by the number of people asking for money and sleeping rough.
Downtown areas seemed more rundown than before, and plastic bags and litter were visible everywhere.
Resentment against the unfairness of the system was increasingly being voiced, whether by taxi drivers, or the Occupy Wall Street campaigners at Zuccoti Park. Several cabbies wanted to know why bankers seen as causing this crisis haven’t been touched. Rather than being tried and sent to jail, they continue to draw their fat salaries and obscene bonuses.
The financial crisis has hit countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal even harder, with savage cuts spreading discontent across the continent. Greece has recently sent increases in property tax along with electricity bills, threatening to cut off power to homes that have not paid the new tax. This has caused howls of protest with owners refusing to pay.
Now George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has announced that it could take till 2017 for the economy to recover. Five more years of cuts to social services would devastate the middle classes, sending millions into poverty. Perhaps the young are the hardest hit, with thousands of fresh graduates unable to find jobs. This has resulted in many of them accepting temporary work as unpaid interns, just so they can build up their CVs. However, this is only possible if they can stay rent-free in London or some major town.
Despite the economic downturn, one sector that’s still booming in the US is security. Returning after so many years, I was shocked by the emergence of a huge infrastructure to safeguard private and public buildings and services. On my book tour, I travelled by train from one city to another, and I was asked for photo ID while buying my tickets, as well as by ticket- checkers.
On one leg of my trip, I was in the Amtrak waiting area in New York’s Penn Station with a video playing. As I watched, I realised it was about the security measures the train operator had put into place, from undercover agents on the trains, to trained sniffer dogs.
On one three-hour journey from Washington to New York, I saw three different security guards with dogs walking along the aisle. And these guards were equipped with pistols, walkie-talkies, handcuffs and clubs. Dressed all in black, they looked very intimidating. The constant refrain on the security video was: “See something, say something.”
The sad part is that none of my American friends seemed to even notice this encroachment of the security syndrome into public life. Flying from New York’s JFK airport, I was subjected to the most intrusive and intimate pat-down search I have ever experienced. As I have a cardiac pacemaker, I am not supposed to walk through metal detectors, so I routinely inform security staff at airports around the world. Normally, I get a quick pat-down search that takes a few seconds. Not this time.
At the end of this long investigation, when I said to the guard that I had never been subjected to this level of thoroughness before, he replied: “It’s these dangerous times we live in.”
Indeed. But by creating a constant environment of fear of terrorism, the government also sustains a largely unnecessary security industry on which billions are being squandered. And by and large, this effort has attracted some of the least intelligent people around. It is my experience that when you put a uniform on somebody who is poorly educated and has an IQ of less than 100, you give him licence to throw his or her weight around.
But instead of resisting this erosion of their personal liberties, the American people have allowed the governments of Bush and Obama to do more to intrude into daily lives than any of their predecessors. And ironically, most of the terror plots foiled have been through foreign tip-offs, coincidence, incompetence, or by the public.