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July 29, 2005

Proposition Two: The politics of convergence and divergence

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North continues his argument on why he thinks we might have better politics if political parties continue to decline. Here he considers the convergences and divergences of Blatcherism. The views expressed are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Proposition Two: The politics of convergence and divergence
What would an interesting MP be like?
Interesting MPs hope that they can be allowed to have unorthodox opinions without scaring the whips (party disciplinarians), their constituency party and their electorate too much. They hope that their tendency will gain support and become dominant within their own party, and interesting to the electorate.

Such people ought to have a rosy future if parties presented a less proscriptive manifesto, whips were more tolerant (or weaker), and if constituency managers were more imaginative. This would all require that voters be more imaginative. In the end, politics is a marketplace and the voter, as consumer, is king.

Our two party tradition
At first glance, British political life has always consisted of a couple of (at most a very few) large parties fielding and corralling MPs, who adhere to platforms more or less organised along the lines of "interests" (usually economic, vested interests) or ideas (universal representation, redistributive taxes, etc) or both. But read 18th and 19th Century British political history and it is the fluidities and contradictions which fascinate. Individuals mattered to a much greater extent than they have more recently.

The political scene of much of the 20th Century was, by comparison, much more ossified. It represented trench warfare between capital, management and tax-payers against labour, unions and welfare beneficiaries.

But our own contemporary picture is that both main parties have a history of Big State politics and both have important elements which want to change that. But these elements are minorities in both parties. Similarly, both parties have socially libertarian tendencies, which are a minority in each party. Both parties are increasingly classless. And it is now the Tories who lack government experience. Both have MPs who are political professionals.

So to an extraordinary and uniquely modern way, the two main parties are Blatcherite. That is to say: they agree broadly about the levers of economic management, about acceptable levels of taxation, about European integration, about foreign affairs, about the "War on Terror" and multiculturalism. They are, in short, economically and socially pretty conservative.

Over time, the big issues for electorate will be the size of the State Take and the degree of social liberalism, including how to handle multiculturalism. Subsidiary issues will be free trade and military engagement. These are perennial: we can see them playing out at any time in the last two or three centuries.

And there will also be the profound and familiar issues of how to achieve governments - cabinets and ministers - which combine competence with acceptability. Will we really be forced to stick with large competing parties not because they are good devices for deliberating or delivering policies but because they are the only way to provide a way of organising professional parliamentarians?

That would be a dire fate. We already sacrifice a good deal of honesty when we pretend Labour and Conservative are merely broad churches, compromising around core profundities.

Why are people political?
Four things have characterised the membership of the two main parties:

1. Tribal belonging: a sense that one belonged to or admired the Middle Class, or the Working Class.

2. A preference to identify with those who pay tax, or those who spend it: The former usually want less taxation, the latter want more. This compartmentalisation no longer matches a class identification, not least because the latter is now so weak.

3. A belief that one wants to contribute to The Establishment, or to reform it: For most of the 20th Century one could vote Tory to do the former, and Labour to do the latter. But The Establishment - especially Whitehall - is much weaker now. And anyway the Tories aren't now perceived as The Establishment, any more than Labour are only challengers to it.

4. The degree to which one was socially authoritarian: Labour was regarded as soft on dissidents and foreigners. Tories were seen as more forceful. These distinctions were always a little phoney and have all but disappeared. Even an "ethical foreign policy" turns out to be gun-boat heavy.

The Blatcherite convergence
Both the Conservative and Labour parties have been electorally successful when they are least ideologically pure. Indeed, only by violating their core principles can they become governments.

There is a convergence of the two main parties toward Tony Blair's version of Thatcherism. No-one can quite see how to make an electoral success without working within this assumption.

Observers feel the difference between electable Conservative and electable New Labour is now largely rhetorical, and those in either party who are more inclined to see or feel large ideological differences had better bite their tongue.

But this means that much policy development is furtive or disguised. Tony Blair, for instance, is moving toward the market in various aspects of welfare provision, but he seldom dares to trumpet his success (any more than Thatcher dared admit her failure actually to be Thatcherite). Tories who favour a smaller state are thought to "frighten the horses". It is possible but hardly attractive that Labour and Conservative will oscillate in power as they disguise both the realities of their actions and their (very limited) aspirations.

The divergences within Blatcherism
The splits of opinion have multiplied. Tories differ almost as much as Labour does on how generous tax-payers should be, and on the hugely different matter of how that generosity should be translated into activity on behalf of the unfortunate. So issues of justice divide people almost as much as issues of delivery. This is to leave aside the chasms of difference within parties on social liberalism or the merits of military interventions around the world.

If we do have interesting arguments in future, in large measure we will be discussing them in sects, cults, factions and groups, within rather than between the large parties. And maybe the splits will become so unavoidable that we do see multiple parties.

What politicians argue over
Politicians and parties have to decide the degree to which they support:
1. State enforced generosity (redistribution)
2. State sponsored access to state welfare/services
3. State enforced prudentiality (compulsory saving, insurance)
4. State sponsored access to private welfare/services

The Left used to want as much as possible of the first two options (when there wasn't much of them). They succeeded (1945-1979) too much for the modern British Mass Affluent, who let the Right (1979-2008) wind them back a bit.

Some strongly Tory thinking is rather leftish. Some Tories are gloomy about people and think that the weakness of the majority requires the state to do quite a lot of options 1 and 2.

The New Labour tendency is rather Toryish in thinking that there is merit in 3 and 4.

It is important to note that all these debates divide people within the two main parties much more than they divide the two main parties.

It is interesting to note that "The People" are frightened of change in any direction. They hope for excellent and cheap solutions to welfare problems. It is politicians (wrongly reviled) who see the need to expose and discuss the impossibility of this mass funk.

The future of these arguments
We are fairly sure that globalisation will increase international competition, and that may lead to less or more affluence for Western states. It isn't clear which. So we don't know whether we are facing lean years with a huge need for pared-down welfare, or rich years with fewer constraints.

Either way, the question will be: is private provision of welfare a luxury afforded by rich citizens and countries, or the cheapest way of delivering welfare however poor the customer. Or both?

These are partly moral questions, but they are as much technical ones.

It seems likely that whether a country is rich or poor, its citizens are likely to believe that the provision of its welfare services (however people fund their access to them) ought to be as efficient as possible. Competition is likely to be a part of that.

The "right" will say that the issue for the next generation or two is to find the means whereby those who can look after themselves do, whilst (in whatever degree) efficiently catering to those who can't or won't. And to repeat: the right will have to decide the degree to which they want all income groups to be taught and treated in the same buildings, and by the same professionals.

The "left" will have to decide how to deliver its desired "fairness" and "equality": its humaneness can even less afford inefficiency than the hard-heartedness of the "right".

Of course, the right may one day succeed in persuading large numbers of people that it is being mean partly to be kind: that it is the "tough-love" school of government. But would the "Tough Love Tories" accept being supported by the Tories who risk asserting that love doesn't come into it?

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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