After the Politics of Left and Right:
The End of ‘Modernisation’ and ‘Progressive Politics’
Open Democracy, May 18th 2010
This is an extended, more ambitious essay – based on Monday’s article in The Scotsman – which I am posting as it has had such a positive response on Open Democracy.
Life changes you. Time passes and you slowly realise that you have changed. You become mellower and more reflective. You recognise the validity of opponent’s points even when you disagree with them.
This happens to some of us. Others remain stuck – repeating themselves, showing the same degree of intolerance, making strident points and never listening to others.
A moment, or set of moments, recently took place when I realised I was beginning to change. These occurred over the course of the election and its aftermath, and made me begin to acknowledge even more the limitations of the political tribes which define so much of our public life.
A revealing example of this was BBC TV’s post-election ‘Question Time’, the first since the Con-Lib Dem deal. Appearing on it were Tory Lord Heseltine, Lib Dem Simon Hughes and Labour Lord Falconer, along with ‘independent’ perspectives from Mehdi Hassan (no relation) of the ‘New Statesman’ and Melanie Phillips of the ‘Daily Mail’ (1).
Hassan and Phillips saw the coalition as the ultimate betrayal, the former berating the Lib Dems for their sell out of ‘the left’ and liberal principles, while Phillips saw the agreement as representing the end of the Conservative Party as we had known it.
What was as interesting as what they said was their tone – hectoring, lecturing, bullying, filled with certainty and self-righteousness. Hassan felt he had permission to interrupt and be rather rude to Heseltine, who was being nothing but reasonable and moderate.
This was a display of the politics of the unreflective left and right at its worst, in full flight, showing the tribalism, inflexibility and the narrow bandwidth of what they both regard as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
A certain left-wing view of the world gained credence during the New Labour era, which emphasised its lack of interest in inequality, the fawning of corporate excess, along with acquiescence to Murdoch and George W. Bush. It looked at what New Labour had become and found it, rightly in many respects, repulsive.
Yet, what does such a perspective propose politically in response? Very little it turns out, beyond talking about the importance of public spending, the role of the state, and trade union and workers’ rights.
It is a curiously old fashioned, backward agenda, which shows why New Labour arose in the first place, and one which has little to say about some of the big issues we face, such as liberty and the database state, and the environment.
Some left-wingers have assumed the vanquishing of New Labour means the party can return to its values pre-Blair/Brown, forgetting that the party then had trouble winning elections, and wasn’t very comfortable with pluralism, decentralism and democracy.
There is an equally powerful certainty in parts of the right, seen in Phillips and Lord Tebbit, which bemoans the moderation of the Cameron led Conservatives and its coalition with the Lib Dems. There is a zealous right-wing mentality which sees threats and enemies everywhere, from immigration to Islam and Europe.
Such people seem to be uncomfortable with the make-up and nature of modern Britain, and in part, modern life. They almost feel that the country is no longer ‘theirs’ and has been altered out of recognition, displaying both a sense of nostalgia for an ill-defined past, along with paranoia and suspicion about the present.
The election also saw the articulation of an unattractive, not very subtle version of Scottish nationalism, not just in the SNP, but wider society. The SNP election campaign was the worst I can remember, with its rather base, embarrassing, theme of ‘give us more money or else’.
After the vote, Salmond tried to force himself centrestage and overplayed SNP influence, while by day two of the Con-Lib Dem government, SNP politicians and others were crying foul! Up went the cry of ‘no mandate’ about the Tories and the return of the bogeyman, without anyone bothering to explain what exactly the corollary was: what was there a specific Scottish mandate for?
Then there is the biggest tribe which is so powerful and far-reaching that most of its members don’t even realise they are a tribe: the forces of British nationalism. Across the political spectrum, British nationalists tend to tell a very partial and selective account of Britain, which starts from a very Westminster and Londoncentric view of the country, and then fits the rest of us into it.
Even in the post-election environment as the left gathers its depleted forces to assess things, even the forces of the more thoughtful left such as Compass, ‘Soundings’ and Demos, take the nature of the UK as a given. What follows from this is that they completely omit an analysis of the British state, its nature and what it has become, as one of the central problems of British politics.
The forces of left, right, Scottish and British nationalism at their best have contributed to the civic worth and richness of our society, but at their worst, and as they have declined in numbers, have become self-absorbed, unrepresentative political tribes who have not yet adapted to their shrunken, minority status.
In particular, left and right, no longer offer a comprehensive account of the entire world in the way they used to. They are both partial, incomplete explanations of the human condition, and not fully up to the huge challenges we currently face of global humanity and the fragility of the planet we live on.
Many left and right voices of even a thoughtful disposition are imbued with a sense of tribalism and thinking that their values are timeless. This can be seen in the writings of people such as Polly Toynbee of ‘The Guardian’ and Fraser ‘The Spectator cannot support this’ Nelson (when talking of David Cameron’s post-election declaration on electoral reform).
Toynbee is on the record as claiming that the idea of ‘the left’ is a universal one transcending time, claiming the ideas ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal progressive’ are ‘hard-wired into the human psyche’. Will Hutton responded to this stating ‘there is a built-in tension between two facets of human nature’, but the old notions of left and right are dead, and ‘new ideologies will arise to fill the current vacuum’ (2)
It is not surprising in Britain that some have begun to see both left and right as part of the problem, with their blindness to the concentrations of power, the left of ‘the big state’, and the right of corporate power. Both have fallen prey to forms of liberalism, the left of the social liberalism of the 1960s, and the right of the economic liberalism of the 1980s. Blair’s New Labour tried to combine both in a very illberal ‘big tent’.
What our political tribes miss is the sense of humility, contingency and complexity which characterises much of modern life. It is true New Labour committed many egregious errors, yet at the same time, we need to have a nuanced discussion about its record. Were New Labour’s successes in reducing poverty, and in particular child and pensioner poverty, the best we can do as a society? And how fundamental are these shifts as public spending cuts loom large?
Then there is how we do our politics, left, right, Scots and British nationalists. They have all fallen under the spell of ‘the politics of modernisation’, a think tank and policy wonk view of the world shaped by a notion of change, organisation, thinking about public services and policy, which is technocratic, top-down, controlling, and ultimately, informed by a pessimism about the ability of people to shape their own lives.
‘Modernisation’ has proven to be a disastrous worldview, one which does not feed the soul, but leads to consultants and corporates earning big bucks from the public purse, while leaving the rest of us poorer and feeling powerless.
This worldview has become the mantra of our political classes, from Blair and Cameron to Salmond, and one which our problem tribes have adopted without losing any of their intolerance and over-confidence. It is partly the certainties of left and right and their philosophical bankruptcy which have allowed such a set of values to become so dominant in recent decades.
What comes after left and right tribalism and ‘modernisation’ has yet to become clear, but one thing it will not be is ‘progressive’ or a ‘progressive consensus’. The term is laden with problems as David Marquand wrote:
I have a lot of problems with the term ‘progressive politics’. I once wrote a book called ‘The Progressive Dilemma’ and taught a course called ‘The Progressive Tradition’. These experiences convinced me that the term is vacuous, a hangover from the days when the self-defined ‘left’ saw itself as the vehicle of preordained historical change. No one who broods for a second on the terrible history of the twentieth century can possibly accept that picture now. Surely we have learned that ‘progress’ can be destructive and even evil. (3)
The emergence of the Con-Lib Dem government may work and it may not, but it does provide an opportunity to escape not just the ‘old politics’, but the old meanings and tribes as well. This moment of flux will be resisted by the mindset of much of the British political elite, the media and influencers, who feel familiar and comfortable with the assumptions of the Westminster system, ‘winner takes all’ and will hanker for a return to a ‘business as usual’ politics as quickly as possible (4).
Despite this we find ourselves with an historic opening for a different kind of politics, one which draws from beyond the old, withering left and right tribes, and dispenses to the dustbin such problem terms as ‘modernisation’ and ‘progressive’.
A politics which is open and sensitive to new ideas, terms and ideologies might just be emerging, and would be truly exciting, unpredictable, and more relevant to the multiple crises and challenges we face in the UK and globally in the early 21st century. It will thought be a bitter struggle against the entrenched elements in the British political order, system and insider groups, who know how to work the existing world in their narrow interests.
1. BBC TV, Question Time, May 13th 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/question_time/
2. Will Hutton et al, ‘A Roundtable Discussion on the Prospects for a Progressive Century’, in Neal Lawson and Neil Sherlock (eds), The Progressive Century: The Future of the Centre-Left in Britain, Palgrave Macmillan 2001, p. 204, 205.
3. p. 211.
4. Rosemary Bechler, ‘Against Power-Mongering: Moving On from the Politics of ‘Winner Takes All’’, OpenDemocracy, May 11th 2010.