Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

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13 May 2008

Campaign for Plain England No. 7: social care – but where?

Just had a listen to GB’s 4.30-minute long speech yesterday, introducing the British government’s consultation on social care in England. At least, I assume it related to England only, for two reasons: 1) England is the only ‘part of the country’, as GB would say (and did say, in fact – but I’ll come on to that) where the Scottish-elected PM has any say over social care; and 2) the BBC and other media reports – to their credit – did state up front that the consultation was designed, in the BBC’s words, to “reform the social care system for England’s ageing population” – which does rather make it sound as though ‘England’s ageing population’ are making themselves an increasing nuisance and causing an inconvenient budgetary shortfall, in contrast to a more neutral phrase that could have been used, like ‘social care for the elderly in England’.

In passing, a brief description of those reforms as outlined yesterday: the usual New Labour mix of no new money from the public purse for England, coupled with incentives for individuals to save for their later social-care needs (so they don’t have to sell the family silver to pay for it – but they’ll still have to pay for it); plus more ‘efficient’ (cost-effective) co-operation between the health and social services, and more help to assist people to lead independent lives at home (less of a burden on social services, although probably many people would genuinely benefit from that until their condition becomes too debilitating).

So I had to gather from the context that the reforms being proposed related to England only: GB certainly didn’t say so. Yes, not a dicky bird on England: not one single measly mention of the ‘E’ word from the unelected Scottish English First Minister. However, I did spot a particularly pernicious circumlocution that just about summed it up. As usual with GB’s utterances, you had to be alert to pick up on it, as he passed quickly on. The offending passage, about three minutes into the speech, was:

“We know that differences in entitlement between different areas of the country create uncertainty and anxiety for people when they are most vulnerable. Of course, those who have the most need are given the most support”.

What are these ‘differences in entitlement between different areas of the country’? This can mean only the difference between the entitlement to free social care in Scotland compared with the means-tested systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. GB tries to gloss over this in the second sentence I’ve quoted by implying that the ‘difference in entitlement’ is the same as the means-tested system itself, which ensures that ‘those who have the most [financial as well as care] need are given the most support’. But there isn’t a ‘difference in entitlement’ between different areas in England: everyone has the same level of entitlement relative to means. By contrast, the difference in entitlement in Scotland is not proportionate to individuals’ means or care needs: all elderly people who are thought to need personal or nursing care in Scotland are offered it free of charge regardless of means or the severity of their condition.

As a result, GB is reiterating two deceits here: 1) that the Barnett Formula, which guarantees the higher levels of public expenditure in Scotland that enable the provision of free personal care there, is a reflection of genuine social need and of greater poverty in Scotland; 2) that his remit as PM in the social-care area extends to ‘the country’ (the whole of the UK) and not just England. So he can try to make out that he is a reasonable UK PM trying to ensure a fair distribution of stretched public finances across the whole of ‘the country’, rather than a Scottish-elected PM who needs to make the English social-care budget stretch as far as possible so as to subsidise the superior and more expensive system for his constituents. Well, us wealthy, property-owning English shouldn’t whinge so much, should we? We should be glad that we do have assets we can sell to pay for our social care – unlike so many of our northern cousins, apparently – and if we’re worried about the future, we should just save for it now like the thrifty Scots!

Approval ratings:

  • BBC: four out of five – well done for being up front about the fact that the measures related to England only. Docked one point for suggesting it was almost the ‘fault’ of the ageing English population that the public purse for social care was so stretched – rather than the truth, which is that the English would probably be more than happy to pay for better social care through their taxes if they were given a democratic say in the matter, as opposed to wasting many more billions on futile fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance.
  • GB: zero – say England when you mean it, man!

11 May 2008

The UK After Britain: Who Decides?

All of a sudden, the landscape seems to have shifted. Within the space of a month, two at most maybe, England appears to have come back into fashion. It now seems acceptable, in ‘progressive’ political commentary in the official press and on the blogosphere, to talk about what kind of England ‘we’ wish to create after the demise of the Union. It’s taken the realisation that the Conservatives will probably win outright at the next general election – a conclusion formed by many, including myself, after Labour’s disastrous local-election performance last week – to finally take on board the fact that the days of the Union are numbered and we’ll have to start talking and thinking about a separate England whether we like it or not. Welcome to the fold of sanity, one is tempted to say in greeting of the new converts!

Why is the break up of the Union so likely under Cameron? Well, it would only be hastening the inevitable, in any case. The reason, of course, is that if the Tories do win a comfortable parliamentary majority (albeit on a minority of the popular vote), this will be almost entirely on the basis of votes cast and seats won in England, while they have practically disappeared as an electoral force in Scotland and aren’t doing that much better in Wales. The prospect of living under a hated ‘English’ Conservative UK government, opposed to granting more powers to Holyrood, and perhaps reducing the influence, number and hence relevance of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament while forcing down the public-expenditure budget for Scotland, would almost certainly provide the final push and persuade a majority of the Scottish people to vote for independence – a referendum on which the SNP plans to hold in 2010. And if a referendum at that time were blocked by the other parties at Holyrood, then the next Scottish general election in 2011 would effectively be turned into a referendum in all but name.

In any case, it’s hard to see Scotland surviving in the Union till the end of a Cameron government unless the Tories come to their senses and realise that if they want to preserve any sort of Union, they’ll have to grant equal nation status and representation to each of the nations of the UK under a federal system, including England. As I’ve suggested before, maybe Cameron will do a deal with the SNP to hold a referendum after the 2012 Olympics – giving him two years to concoct a plan to save the Union.

However, rather than trying in vain to save the Union, would it not be far more sensible and show more foresight to start planning now for the future for all the countries of the UK after the end of the Union? The federal option is one such possible future. If, on the other hand, Scotland decides to go it alone, as now appears more likely, what then for England – and for Wales and Northern Ireland? Shouldn’t we start thinking and talking about the future for these countries (and also for Cornwall) – whether we stay together under new constitutional arrangements or whether we, too, go down the road of independence? Such ‘national conversations’ in each of our countries – mirroring the national conversation the SNP government has got going in Scotland – would provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have an input and try to get their voice heard, offering a chance to prevent the process being run by Westminster politicians seeking to preserve their privileges and their power.

The window of opportunity to hold these conversations is the period running up to a Scottish referendum on independence. Indeed, if we do not start working out what sort of future we want as nations after the Union, we could end up having that future dictated to us by the outcome of the Scottish vote. There’s a strong argument for saying that the people of Scotland alone do not have the right, at least morally, to determine the future of a union that involves many more people than just the Scots. (Last week, the Scottish Labour Party may already have conceded the constitutional principle that Holyrood has the ‘sovereign right’ to call such a referendum on its own initiative, as Anthony Barnett observed.) We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England; so we should not wander carelessly into a repeat of the same sort of mistake, but this time one with potentially even more drastic consequences.

In a comment on the OurKingdom blog last week, I argued that it would be illogical to extend a referendum on Scotland’s independence to all the citizens of the UK, in that only the Scottish people could be said to have a moral or constitutional right to vote on their nation’s status. The only way to give the other nations a say on the matter of independence at the same time as the Scottish vote would be ask the same question of voters in those countries; i.e. to ask the English whether they want an independent England, and the same for Wales and Northern Ireland (and possibly Cornwall).

In other words, a Scottish referendum on independence is asking voters there to answer essentially two questions rolled into one: 1) do you want the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted to come to an end? 2) do you want this end to come in the form of independence for Scotland? If Scottish voters are entitled to determine whether the UK breaks up, then it should be self-evident that people in the other nations of the UK are entitled to the same choice. That’s the first of the two questions. In relation to the second, it’s unworkable and inequitable to ask the Scots if they want independence while asking the rest of the UK if they want something else, such as a federal UK, or a re-design of the devolution settlement creating English and Welsh parliaments, for instance. We should be asked the same question, and be given the same choice, as it relates to each nation in turn. And if the Scots voted for independence, this could simply invalidate referendums in England and Wales asking a different question, as the whole constitutional set up would have be re-evaluated and renegotiated as part of Scotland’s secession.

So if an independence referendum in Scotland now appears inevitable – whether it comes in 2010, 2011, 2012 or whenever – the people should demand equivalent referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe also Cornwall). It’s not just up to the Scots to strike the final nail into the Union coffin; and if they get the option of voting for independence, so should the other nations of the UK.

And in the meantime – in the two to four years running up to a likely Scottish vote – it’s time for the people of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall to take charge of their future by starting to really reflect and debate what they want that future to be: a federal UK whose constitutional framework and institutional structures could be the same whether Scotland were included or not? Independence for each country? A new state of England and Wales, with devolved parliaments for Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland with strong guarantees for the rights of the Protestant community? A separate England with the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles joined together into a new confederation?

It’s time to get those ‘national conversations’ going in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall. The future is ours, and the people – not the politicians – should decide.

Subsequent to this post, I’ve started a new blogsite intended to kick off just such a national conversation for England.

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

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