A House Divided?

‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’

Despite the Biblical quote, this is actually a blogpost about the state of politics in Britain and elsewhere. For many decades, with rare exceptions, most of us have experienced a form of democracy dominated by two major political blocs - Left and Right, conservative and progressive, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

Each bloc presented its ideological view of the good society and, in general, each were given an opportunity to implement policies based on that view. Despite sometimes seismic changes in policy direction between governments of differents hues, this was looked upon as political stability, mainly because most of those governments, whilst ‘campaigning in poetry, governed in prose’. Once in post, those who held the levers of power, by and large, tacked to the centre of the political sphere.

For this system to work, each bloc needed to gather into its tent a range of supporters who were willing to compromise some of their beliefs in order to achieve power and effect change. Each grouping had its dirty laundry but tended not to invite an audience to watch it aired. Undecided voters desired a united front and, for many years, that’s what they got. In all honesty, I think the right were better at achieving that unity because they believed that achieving and holding power was more important than any ideological position. Hence, we have seen the Tories radically change their economic position from protectionism to free-market liberalism in the course of the 20th century.

The latest spasms in the political order of the US and most EU member states have disrupted the left-right status quo. I increasingly think this is not a blip but a paradigm shift in the way advanced democracies are governed. In the British context, both main parties are riven by attitudes to Brexit and live in fear of their own members and supporters. The argument has moved beyond the old capitalist divide of workers versus owners to a new question of relationships with the rest of the world. This is, of course, not an entirely new question, but in previous centuries was bound up with visions of empire, laissez-faire economics, and naval dominance. Now it is framed in terms of free-trade agreements, regional power blocs and global capitalism.

For the Right, the prospect of a truly global market with free movement of goods, services, capital and people has provoked a retreat into nationalistic protectionism. The flirtation with neoliberal economics is coming to an end, with a desire to recreate a form of imperial trade based on exploitation and gross inequalities. In order to justify this new imperialism, some are finding it necessary to re-assert the ideology of civilisation that underpinned previous attempts at empire-building. ‘They need us more than we need them’ thinking has never really gone away. The current political discourse on migration is a classic symptom of this thinking, where rich countries want to stop inward migration whilst retaining visa free travel and settlement for their own citizens.

The Left, however, finds itself now struggling to come to terms with the new realities. The battle against the market was dealt a fatal defeat with the fall of the Berlin Wall and created an ideological vacuum that has been hard to fill. For the last thirty years, the democratic left has flirted with the idea of taming neoliberalism by tricking the market into providing social goods at no expense to the taxpayer. The credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008 revealed the severe limitations of that approach and the need to a new contract between the market, the individual and the nation state. We are still waiting for the first draft ….