Short Term Thinking III

My last two posts provided the primer for a discussion of how post-industrial economies interact with the drive towards a democratic system from our current standpoint of an unplanned constitutional monarchy in which approximately two thirds of the country are not represented by someone they voted for, under any outcome.

Mark has reckoned and provided handy graphs for exactly how closely corruption and hubris in our halls of power correlate to the perceived job security of the official. Politicians who know they won’t lose take the piss; this is not exactly a subtle political insight, but we somehow failed to do anything about it for 30 years. What I suspect is that this represents a microcosm of the larger political reality of Britain in the 20th century.

I’m not the only person to see this general shape to what’s happening this year. Anthony Barnett’s analysis is much broader in scope, and examines wider categoric questions within British, and particularly Conservative, ideology and praxis. But he charts the same transition into a different view of government and administration, as well as of electoral politics, which followed Thatcher into power. Only three times in the 20th century did one party hold power for more than a decade. The Tories won two elections and governed under four Prime Ministers in the 50s and early 60s, but only the second electoral term had a significant majority, and then they lost power.

Thatcher, as I discussed yesterday, changed all that. She came to power at a nexus point, executed her agenda brilliantly and then dumped the consequences on John Major. During the decade of excess, the culture we have all come to know and loathe of Murdochian smears, casual insults to her own senior ministers delivered via the TV camera, governance by fiat rather than by cabinet, and all of the other trappings became entrenched in Westminster and Wapping. British politics has historically been polite and mature, as you’d expect from a sovereign nation who’ve been doing this about as long as anyone else in the West. In the 20th Century alone we saw no less than 8 coalition governments, one of which famously managed World War II. It is only in the 1980s that our politicians became hysterically, rather than ideologically, tribal.

Until recently on both sides of the pond, politicians could fight a friend on the floor of the house and drink gin [1] with him after. That is long gone and the older combatants, Lord Steel and Tony Benn, could be heard welcoming the return of conciliatory politics and reminiscing about the Good Old Days. One part of this urge is simple, old-boys-club wistful thinking; a nostalgia for the days when the politics was run like, and by, the Oxford Union.

But it also speaks to some truth. Two generations ago our politicians could oppose one another on rational grounds with intellectual honesty and passion, without having to believe each other evil. Misguided, frequently; selfish and dishonest, typically, but very rarely evil. Until Nixon there, and Thatcher here, the moderates in each wing held more ground than the violently divisive. What the Southern Strategy did for American politics, the breaking of organised labour and the sale without replacement of council properties did to Thatcher’s Britain. This was then replicated in the civil liberties and immigration discourse under New Labour.

Ianucci’s screaming gibbons have been permitted to debase our public debate to a red-top common denominator of insults, trite lines, scaremongering, sound bites, Alisdair Campbell, corruption prosecutions and bitterly personal acrimony. Its ultimate expression comes in the rush by New Labour power brokers to ruin any chance they might retain to establish amicable relations with a party that could easily offer them a return to power through coalition at the next election. That kind of rumpus is what the floor of the House is for. That’s the debating playground, set apart by law as a free forum where members can let themselves get carried away and throw tantrums if it’ll help. But administration, the process of governing, has to be grown-up politics; it is a persistent negotiation not a prize-fight.

Grown-up politics is pragmatic rather than ideological. Both Cameron and Brown made their political bones as foot-soldiers in the neo-liberal revolution. They helped the nation declare war on moderation and rationalism in the name of religious intolerance and class privilege. Thatcher pioneered in Britain the rather Stalinist attitude that government policy is more real than the facts in the case. God help you if the facts change over time. It is this hubris which brought Thatcher down over the poll tax: it is this willingness to willfully distort the truth in pursuit of ideology which led to the Dodgy Dossier and the sacking of Professor Nutt.

The last forty years have seen moderation locked out of British politics by autocratic majority governments elected on spin, scare-mongering and Murdoch’s propaganda machine. At this election the voters forced the return of compromise the only way they could under this constitution. And bizarrely, we had someone available who knew broadly how to handle that situation. I am not one of those who sees Nick Clegg as a kingmaker, because his role is less autocratic than that of either of the other two leaders (triple lock, etc.). What became very obvious through the election and the following five days was that one of the three party leaders knew the territory they found themselves navigating and the other two didn’t.

Anthony also commented on the extent to which the Liberal Democrats’ excellent credentials as European operators offset and the Tories’ ridiculous allies. What hasn’t been talked about as much is the impact of Clegg and Huhne’s route to the top of the party on the remarkable success of the Liberal Democrats at negotiating the minefields of coalition building. More on that next time on “JQP muses”.

[1] For any lost USAians, read ‘bourbon’. For ‘Oxford Union’ read ‘Ivy League law review editors’.

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