Try this pseudo-syllogism:
- Western capitalism is in terminal crisis.
- Former capitalist political parties have turned to social democracy.
- The electors now favour the erstwhile Right.
It seems to work.
In Germany, Angela Merkel has got her centre-Right government, mainly because:
- she deserted the historic territory of the CDU, and campaigned — credibly — under the slogan of Die Mitte;
- because the opposition (although, technically the majority) has failed to reconcile two differences. One is between the SPD and Der Linke (which, since it incorporates former Communists, is by definition, the “hard left”) and tends to reflect the pre-reunified Germany. The other is to bridge the gap between Germany’s social democrats and the Green movement.
Sárközy in France stalks as tall as any 168cm mannekin can. Again, it’s the admixture of:
- centrist rhetoric (and some minimal following action)
- leftist incapacity.
The essential problem is the lack of common interest on the French Left, divided intellectually, personally, and tactically. Until the rift between the factions of Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry can be reconciled that febrility will continue. A less doctrinaire approach (which implies that of Royal) would allow rapprochement with the further Left (perhaps a seventh of the electorate), the Greens and François Bayrou’s MoDem (going on for a further sixth of voters). Alternatively Bayrou (or some successor) must seek to embrace the centre-left.
If there is one place where a revival of leftism is overdue, perhaps imminent, it is Italy. Any outsider is left aghast as Berlusconi continues to sell a toxic cocktail of ultra-nationalism and tabloid populism (a throttle-hold on the media helps). Yet there are “coming men” (and women) such as Dario Franceschini and Enrico Letta of the Partito Democratico. Equally, the attempts to build a left-of-centre political entity (going beyond the Olive Tree Alliance) look promising. Another positive thought is that the Berlusconi high-wire act cannot last much longer, and the fall thereof will be precipitous.
Which brings Malcolm back to Britain.
Any government, after a dozen years of power, and after the economic shocks of the last couple of years, deserves and expects a public kicking. In Britain the Cameroonies pursued a ruthless and unprincipled populism.
Quite what a hypothetic Tory government would be like is both difficult and easy to define. From time to time economic policies vary between extremes of “set the people free” (circa 1950) and strict economic controls (from time to time these include public sector pensions, wages, bankers’ bonuses — whatever will win a Daily Mail headline). In effect this is the age-old dilemma of a conservative: authoritarianism versus classical liberalism. At one extreme, the dogma propounded by T. E.Utley in 1949 has never been far away:
Human nature is violent and predatory and can be held in check only by three forces, the Grace of God, the fear of the gallows, and the pressure of a social tradition, subtly and unconsciously operating as a brake on human instinct.
In economic policies, that translates to “Rab” Butler saying (and cited by Harvey Glickman in the Journal of British Studies 1, November 1961):
A good Tory has never been in history afraid of the use of the State.
Heath, Thatcher and — doubtless — Cameron would accept that one.
Yet the Tory Party has lost the basis for that paternalist and philanthropic dirigisme: it derived from a neo-feudalism that is lost and gone forever. In stead, the moneybags of the modern Tory Party are in and around London EC4. In those circles any control on earnings is for the little people. Yet Cameron and Osborne say bankers must be curtailed, and
What we have not got (and, if the gurus of Tory HQ have their way, we will not be getting this side of a General Election) is any comprehensive view of economic policy. From that we can extrapolate. Things will not greatly change at one level (the Bank of England will still have its wicked way with interest rates and “quantitative easing”), but the public sector will be ground down.
And therein lies instant revival for the British Left. Once the cuts bite, the public is no longer there to soak up unemployment, front-line services start to suffer (as they undoubtedly must), hospitals and schools, transport and welfare are all contracted (or contracted out), the screams of anguish will rise higher and higher. The Tory calculation must be that two or three years of pain can lead to tax-cuts, and so to a golden future of a second term. Perhaps.
Far more significant than the lack of credible or consistent Tory policies has been that much-noted collapse of Labour morale. Now, “morale” is a curious thing. Consider the change in Thatcher’s standing between early April (terminal) and early June, 1982 (triumphant): all on the backs of 255 British dead. Equally, the present moment is an economic war. The sense is percolating through that Gordon Brown and the Labour Government are winning this one. As that realisation continues, can Cameron change the story-line again?
The bottom line is that the Left have the arguments:
There is an essential agreement that welfare provisions cannot be lopped remorselessly: to do so would further worsen social cohesion, increase unemployment, impact on the weak, elderly and defenceless. If anything the voters want most social, medical and educational provision expanded, not contracted to provide a cheap throw-away tax-cut thrill.
Social measures apply also to environmental concerns: the capitalist industrial system has to be constrained to secure environmental benefits to all. Greed is not good and will not be accepted.
Better social equality is not negotiable. Unbridled excesses by City slickers distorted the whole rewards balance system , inflated the property market especially in Ireland and the South-East of England; and brought down the system once and for all.
Only the state can ensure delivery of the essentials of a modern infra-structure. That isn’t just the welfare, health and education structures. It’s utility planning for transport, telecommunications and the whole e-world.
Then there’s the system of governance. In the UK does the Union survive? How can provision be brought closer to the users? When, for heaven’s sake, do we allow proportional representation?
No more stealing our clothes
The Left has had its wardrobe plundered by the Right. Time to stop the pilferage. It was ever thus:
“A sound Conservative government”, said Taper musingly, “I understand: Tory Men and Whig measures.”
The Right’s moment across Europe (which is where these ramblings started0 has come about by occupying key points in the centre ground. The battle, though, is yet to come, when the Right retreats to its comfort zones. Meanwhile the Left needs to emerge from its fox-holes and assert its strength.
- In October 1959 Malcolm remembers the Daily Telegraph rabbiting on that Labour was finished for a decade. The decade lasted five years.
- Similarly, in 1970. That Tory dominance was even shorter.
- Only a futile little colonial war, served up salaciously by the Murdoch media, allowed the Thatcher slash-and-burn then to create the context of a post-industrial wasteland in which Britain became dependent on a quaternary sector and service industries, and therefore suffer so severely in the present world crisis.
- The 1992 election was traumatic for British Labour. Out of it came the 1997 landslide.
Do not, therefore, believe that the Left, in Europe or the UK, is out of time.