28 September 2008

Any colour you want, so long as it’s left

The theory of democracy is that everyone’s view is given equal weight. In practice, if no genuine alternatives are offered, the weight of each voter’s view is zero. In a mediocracy, the political elite proceeds largely as it wishes, with the electorate’s contribution limited to derision. (Mediocracy, p.66)
What do you do if an ideology, to which you do not subscribe, has become so dominant that your own viewpoint ceases to receive significant representation? You could either (a) buckle under, and change allegiance; or (b) accept you have become a minority which will be increasingly marginalised.

Or you could try pretending you've changed position, get into a position of power, then fight against the mainstream from the inside. More on this strategy in a moment.

* * * * *

I think I am beginning to understand why certain people claim the British press is “right-wing”. What they mean, perhaps, is that much of the press has a long-standing preference for the Conservatives rather than Labour. However, if you think about the current state of the Conservative Party, does that reference make sense?

I am not convinced even that much is true. In the halcyon days of New Labour, only the Telegraph and the Mail (possibly the Express) remained sceptical of the Left, and even they were slightly breathless with admiration for Mr Blair. But ‘right-wing’ bias in Fleet Street? According to Wikipedia's definition, “the Right”
generally regards most social inequality as the result of ineradicable natural inequalities, and sees attempts to enforce social equality as utopian or authoritarian. Right-wing economics leans to decentralized free market economy and civil liberties, whereas left-wing leans to centralized control.
If we take The Times as the paper which represents the ‘centre’ of the British broadsheet spectrum, I cannot recall seeing more than perhaps one or two articles in it over the past few years which have argued that we should move in any of the directions indicated by the above definition, i.e. that we should
• worry less about social inequality on the grounds that it is “ineradicable” and “natural”; or
• see interventions to reduce inequality as authoritarian; or
• have more free market; or
increase civil liberties (as opposed to allowing them to be dismantled).

Nor can I recall a member of the current Shadow Cabinet making any of these arguments. On the contrary, they have more often been making the opposite case.

* * * * *

The list of statements made by contemporary Tories which sound like coming from the mouths of New Labour is by now very long indeed, and it can no longer be doubted that the Conservatives have carried rebranding to the point of ideological inversion. The only question which remains is whether this is genuine, or simply a way of gaining power in the face of a 'liberal' hegemony under which it has become impossible to advance the traditional Conservative arguments.
Andrew Lansley:*
“It will become normal to be obese if we do not act now ... what we really need is action — not gimmicks or one-off initiatives, but a sustained plan ... The plan must start with nutrition in pregnancy and early years ... My colleague in the European Parliament, John Bowis, earlier this year led a parliamentary initiative to ban synthetic trans fats in Europe.”
Michael Gove:
[will say today that] the Tories would invest in an enhanced universal health visitor service to offer advice on childcare and provide other services during the first months of a child's life. “It's because we want to nudge those who would benefit towards the services that Surestart provides that we're prepared to invest in an enhanced universal health visitor service ... the government has an active role to play in delivering social objectives.”
Oliver Letwin:
“Conservatives are leading the way on low pay ... Conservatives have adopted the aspiration to end child poverty ... A green paper on schools proposes policies to deliver root-and-branch improvement in education for the most disadvantaged ... change is essential if we are to bring the least advantaged into line with the rest of us ... It is one of the ironies of the political scene that the leading advocates of radical change to achieve progressive goals are now to be found in the Conservative Party.”
David Willetts:
“Government can help society to pick between the many competing [social] equilibria which may be available ... If it wishes to shift on to new equilibria, it has some tools for creating new equilibria.
[Some argue] that you cannot legislate to change morality. But who can deny that precisely such a transformation has taken place?
The Government ... must break down co-operation which it does not think is good.”
George Osborne:
“Well look, no one takes pleasure from people making money out of the misery of others, but that is a function of capitalist markets.”
* * * * *

The quote from the Shadow Chancellor is particularly worrying. While there are typically losers as well as winners in most financial speculation, there are very few areas where the phrase "out of the misery of others" is apposite. Possibly the acquisition of assets in a fire sale. The use of this phrase suggests someone who either (a) does not understand financial markets; or (b) is so desperate to appear on the side of popular opinion that he will concede criticisms of his (supposed) ideological territory when he shouldn't. Either possibility does not augur well.

Earlier this year the Financial Times carried an analysis of the post-Blair ideological landscape, in which it got close to some of the key issues. Its argument that both main parties are trying to grab "the centre" is revealing. For "the centre" is now apparently the area where one is irrevocably committed to very high levels of intervention, above and beyond minimum welfare, education and medicine. "The centre" seems to mean such things as monitoring of families, compulsory parental training, extension of compulsory education, progressive reduction of civil liberties, and various interventions to bring about greater equality of outcome.

Some dubious analysis from Anthony Browne of Policy Exchange is quoted in the article.
Anthony Browne ... agrees that Mr Blair's decade in power convinced many in British politics — including an initially sceptical Mr Brown that the state was not always the best answer. "It was as if the Labour party needed to go through this massive expansion of public spending to educate the Labour party it wasn't just about spending."
If this means what it seems to mean i.e. that key people in Westminster think that Blairism taught us that we now need to reduce the state it is surely poppycock, and chimes with nothing else I have read. On the contrary, key players in the two main parties now seem agreed that the problems generated over the past ten years need to be addressed with more state, or possibly the same size of state but differently deployed.
[Anthony Browne] says that while voters may be confused or bored by the similar rhetoric on choice and reform, Britain could benefit enormously from a period when politicians seem to agree. "When you have that consensus, you know there will be reforms of public services. In that respect, this could turn out to be one of the most exciting elections. When we look back in history, I think we will see this as an extraordinary time of reform."
A Panglossian and uncynical take on the current mind-numbingly monotonous political scene, as is the FT writers' own explanation for the narrowing of debate: they attribute it to "globalisation [which] has limited politicians' room for manoeuvre on economic policy: footloose capital can pick and choose between the most favourable tax and business environments." The theory that competitive pressure results in less diversity is original, but hardly fits well with empirical data.

The FT writers get closer to what is likely to be the more pertinent factor when they point out that
British politics has become more personal ... It has also become nastier.
Politics and political debate have become mediocratised. There is little room for genuine analysis, because most issues must have a single, instant, obvious answer that needs to be compatible with a dumbed-down electorate and a monolithic ideological consensus.

* * * * *

The puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the Tories' bizarre ideological signalling is presumably that PR wizard Mr David Cameron. To give him credit, Cameron himself has never (to my knowledge) made any noises quite as blatantly leftist as those quoted above. He sometimes seems on the verge of making statements that would traditionally be associated with the Mail-reading constituency, but never gets as close as you might expect, and certainly not as close as his critics on the left like to project.

According to the Guardian, for example, Cameron recently claimed that “the poor, obese and lazy spent too much time blaming social problems for their own shortcomings.” However, that looks like a bit of tendentious rewriting on the part of the Guardian since, as far as I can make out from other media coverage, what Cameron actually said during his tour of Glasgow in July is that “social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” The distinction between the quote and its misrepresentation is illuminating, since the people who blame ‘society’ for poverty, disease and so forth are not typically the poor themselves, but the il-liberal elite (e.g. Guardian writers).

Cameron, like some other right-wing commentators, speaks about a "broken society" but I am not sure he has grasped the core of the problem. He talks of Britain becoming a "de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong. That is why children are growing up without boundaries ...". But the problem is not that Western society now has no morals, but that its current moral ethos — while superficially based on fairness and rights — expresses a selectively reductionist agenda according to which collectives, the state, and agents of the state are respected, while it is correct to sneer at individuals, particularly individuals taken to embody capitalism, and regard them as contemptible and degraded. (Big Brother is not an expression of individualism, as many of its critics claim, but of anti-individualism.) The new ethos is often referred to as 'egalitarianism'; however, it is not really about equal opportunities but about equalisation. It isn't even about political equality, since we end up with more entrenched and exclusive elites than before.

* * * * *

So much for the theory that the British media is biased towards rightism. The same must go for the supposed empirical finding that most of the industrialised world is currently ruled by "centre-right" governments. This is only true if by "centre-right" you mean something like Germany's SPD in the seventies. The fact that a party is labelled as right-wing, or once was right-wing, or is notionally to the right of another party which is left-wing, is not sufficient to make it actually right-wing. The definitions have changed, the ground has shifted, and terms such as "centrist" and "moderate" now apply to policies which would have horrified many Tories of the Heath era.

Of course, you can say, it is not the job of a political party to defend an ideology; its job is to try to win an election. Or is it? Let's assume for the sake of argument that it is certain the Conservative Party could not win an election without converting to soft leftism. Nevertheless, should it do so? Is it really possible to switch back to the right after election victory, provided you have defined your policies vaguely enough? And if you don't switch back, what was the point? The arguments against it are that (a) it is too short-termist since it permanently undermines the Conservative brand; (b) it contributes to the deterioration of genuine political balance and debate; (c) it reinforces the leftist cultural bias, because it signals to the nation (and outside observers) that conservatism has now become so ideologically unacceptable that even its own party disowns it. As one senior member of Mr Cameron's team has said, "We may win power, but for what purpose?" Quite. What is the point of replacing one leftist party with another, apart from the fact that it briefly puts the government under a bit more scrutiny than would otherwise be the case?

* via ConservativeHome