‘Adopt my political views or die’

There is an amusing tendency in the commentariat that I keep coming across of late. Confusing their own preferences with those of the electorate as a whole, these commentators take it to be axiomatic that politicians will prosper by acting in accordance with their principles. Political failure is a product not of perceived incompetence, or selfishness or uncontrollable external circumstances; it is the price that politicians pay for their willful refusal to follow the policy prescriptions of commentators who are in perfect concord with the true mood and values of the nation. Simon Heffer’s Britain is one in which it is obvious that the state is sclerotic, wasteful and meddlesome; everyone thinks so at heart and the most successful politicians will be those who most resolutely cut taxes, eliminate spending programmes and defenestrate bureaucrats. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/index.jhtml)

Strangely enough in Polly Toynbee’s Britain the people’s instincts are fundamentally social democratic: they bridle at inequality, are driven by an ideal of fairness and think that the state is morally obligated to fight for the underdog against corporate greed and the socially regressive media. The path to political success? Bold social democratic politics that faces down the special interests and repudiates the Murdoch press. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/pollytoynbee)

In a way it is touching to read these articles with their complacent and, I presume, unconscious conflation of self and society. It must be very reassuring to look out at the British public and to see your own beliefs and values mirrored, struggling heroically to find purchase in the often uncongenial world of politics. It means that you can cast yourself as a populist, a sort of tribune of the people calling politicians to open their eyes to truths that are available to everyone if they are just willing to see. It means that one’s analyses are ready-to-hand and endlessly reproduceable in variation: you just weigh the current political protagonists against the standard of these unvarying values and award marks. The fact that politicians can’t generally be trusted to do just whatever you would have them do just helps the fashioning of columns by giving you a target for your polemic: critical commentary is much easier to write than acquiescent commentary – and more attractive to readers and editors too.

Phillips Collins and Richard Reeves provide another example of this willful self-delusion in the June edition of Prospect in their article ‘Liberalise or Die’ in which they tell the Labour Party that unless it starts acting as if it agrees with them on all matters of principle then it is finished. (http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10177)

I think that the title of the article is supposed to be a stark prognosis, but instead it reads like a sort of narcissistic threat from journalistic highwaymen, one that perhaps lies underneath the surface of all of these commentaries. Collins and Reeves are early twentieth century figures who, having found themselves in the twenty-first century, somewhat disorientated by their new surroundings try to pass for historians. They talk about the Fabians and figures personally familiar to them (and therefore comforting) like Hobhouse and Lloyd George, and quote from the yellowed pages of long-perished periodicals.

They avow themselves liberals of the Lloyd George stamp and it follows from this that ‘For New Labour to survive, it must become new liberal.’ Liberalism is protean, though, and they want to make sure that Brown doesn’t mishear them and set about transforming himself into the wrong sort of liberal. The bad kind of liberal is a classical do-nothing liberal, someone in the Peel-Gladstone-Hayek tradition. The good kind – the new kind – believes that liberty (as they quote the now deceased Victorian Progressive Review) ‘must no longer signify the absence of restraint, but the presence of opportunity.’ Good liberals are still frightened of the state, but are willing to use it to ensure that liberty is doughty and tangible, not abstract and spectral.

The other bad guys are the Fabians and unfortunately the government has for far too long been drawing ‘from the deep, poisoned well of its Fabian tradition.’ Brown has proved such a lacklustre Prime Minister because his water has been laced with self-defeating notions about the efficacy of interventionist central government action. Quaffing the ‘mechanical socialism’ infected water for the past year has reduced Brown to his current state of dilapidation and political exhaustion – leaving Labour (unless it mends its ways) with nothing to look forward to but a ‘bleak’ future. ‘The only hope for the party is to excavate its liberal treasure [it seems that both the right and wrong answers are located underground]. The choice is stark: liberalise or die.’

Collins and Reeves do not argue this point, they assert it. It is an article of faith to them that when it comes to service provision ‘the individual should be in charge’ and that such a course will meet with political approval; or that taxing ‘unearned’ rather than ‘earned’ income will find favour. Whatever the political question, the answer (both strategically and tactically) is to act in accordance with liberal values. I don’t really want to engage with the substance of their arguments here (discussing Labour’s twin debt to Fabian socialism and New Liberalism is hardly new ground; even Blair trod there), just to express my bemusement at this tendency to project one’s own views onto the political culture. It really is a sort of fantasy politics – a utopianism, in fact – in which all psychological conflicts and frustrations are dissolved. When one adopts this sort of view one need only decide what one believes and then set about winning the battle of ideas: there is no need to wrestle with the heterogeneity, intransigence or self-contradictoriness of the public; or with structural constraints on policy-making; or with the irrational determinants of political popularity; or with the sometimes tragic disjuncture between what is tactically sound and what is in principle right. Often politics is about such frustration and conflict, and the recognition that what we believe in is impossible given the nature of the polity. That recognition and the humility that comes with it can be very valuable.

One might call it the West Wing fallacy – that somehow if one just has the courage of one’s convictions and pursues them boldly and disinterestedly, then the ugly partisan side of politics will take care of itself and the opinion polls will come to reflect the admiration that the electorate feels for your quixoticism. With Sorkin, as with Collins and Reeves, it was a liberal (yet another kind) wishful-thinking. He imagined an America in which a liberal President could somehow pursue a liberal cultural agenda in the face of a culturally conservative press and nation, and yet find himself becoming more popular for doing so. Authenticity, in such thinking, becomes a sort of political alchemy.

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