Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Post Modernisers

Peter Oborne writes:

British politics has been dominated for more than 20 years by the so-called modernising movement. This first gained traction in Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party of the 1980s, reached its apotheosis under Tony Blair, and was finally copied, out of desperation, by an out-of-power Conservative Party around the turn of the century.

All successful national politicians during this period have described themselves as modernisers. The success of the modernisation project has been so pervasive that it is impossible to understand the nature of British politics without a working grasp of what the concept means and what its practitioners stand for.

Sadly, this has been very difficult, because modernisation is not a political philosophy. It is really about a set of techniques for securing and then keeping power. Modernisers are actively hostile to political ideas. Indeed, the antiheroes of the modernisation handbook – Foot, Benn, Livingstone, Thatcher – are all figures of powerful conviction.

One of the most pronounced characteristics of the committed moderniser is evasiveness over difficult issues. The leading practitioners – Mandelson, Blair, Brown, Cameron – have all preferred to insinuate ideas furtively or indirectly into political discourse rather than make their meaning open and clear.

At the heart of all this lay a fundamental conceptual error. The modernisers confused virtue with success. What mattered was winning – no matter how wretched the methods used. This confusion of means and ends has been disastrous for British public life because it has led to cynicism and lack of trust.

One reason to look forward to 2012 with optimism is that the modernisation project is now close to intellectual bankruptcy and collapse. Suddenly, the modernisers are looking very old-fashioned.

There are various reasons for this failure. The first is that the modernising project, while successful in political terms – it has been on the winning side for four consecutive general elections – has proved disastrous in many other ways. It has proved useless at addressing, let alone resolving, underlying national problems, as can be proved by looking at the three great modernising pieties when the movement was at its most dominant 10 years ago.

Further European integration, and in particular the need to join the single currency, was top of this list. Second, it was accepted beyond question that spending cuts were always bad. Third, all talk of confronting immigration was racist. Ten years on, it is clear that the modernisers were out of touch on all three issues. It was the conviction politicians – always denounced as swivel-eyed and extremist by the modernisers – who were ahead of their time on all these matters.

The second reason for the failure of modernisation is that Britain, along with most western countries, is now stuck in a period of prolonged economic and social crisis. The modernisers’ obsession with focus groups and the machinery of political manipulation could work well during a benign environment. But these are a real hindrance to good, decisive government during the troubled environment that exists today. That is why it is becoming clear that the coming generation of politicians will be those with the courage and flair to turn their backs on the modernising textbook, and return to a politics of truth and morality.

One of the reasons why Ed Miliband has been consistently underrated as Labour leader is that he is trying to reintroduce values into British politics, and to move away from the manipulation and cynicism of the modernising era. He has done this on a number of fronts. Miliband has consistently and with admirable courage stood up for trade unions as a legitimate voice for working people, launched attacks on the greedy and irresponsible rich, and was the first party leader to take the bold step of condemning press criminality when the phone-hacking scandal broke last summer.

All of this maddens Labour modernisers, whose numerous allies in the London-based press have as a result been hard at work trashing Miliband’s reputation. New Labour’s strategy, from the start, was to isolate or ignore the unions, while awarding tax breaks to the super-rich, and special privileges to the Murdoch empire, now so deeply compromised by evidence of widespread criminal conduct stretching into the higher reaches of the organisation.

It comes as no surprise that Labour modernisers should regard Ed Miliband’s leadership with antipathy: he is against everything they stood for. Harold Wilson said in 1961 that the “Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. Those words might fit Miliband’s Labour, but could never be applied to Mandelson and Blair’s New Labour, with its celebration of the get-rich-quick culture, without provoking derision.

In this context, it may be significant that Miliband has recently hired Tim Livesey, a former adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, as chief of staff. The Labour leader grasps that religion and morality are now set to play a dominant role in mainstream political debate.

David Cameron is more complicated. He secured the Tory leadership six years ago in part by entering into an alliance with the modernising faction of the Tory Party (led at the time by a tieless Francis Maude and casting around for a new saviour after the retirement of Michael Portillo). Cameron therefore came to accept many of the core modernising doctrines – the preference for presentation not substance, the need for the Murdoch press as a strategic ally, a fondness for advertising slogans and in particular the necessity to “rebrand” the Conservative Party so that it should be seen to be “nice”.

Some of the Prime Minister’s worst mistakes, such as the indefensible decision to hire the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press adviser, were made during this troubled period. Some critics, perhaps unfairly, believe that the influence of the modernisers helps to explain the failure of the Conservative Party to win outright victory at last year’s general election.

Now that he is established in Downing Street, David Cameron is starting to rip up the modernisers’ rulebook. He did so in Brussels four weeks ago by courting isolation in Europe. Now, like Ed Miliband, he is challenging the modernisers’ fallacy that success is the same thing as virtue.

In fact, they can belong to very separate spheres, as the Prime Minister showed signs of recognising last week in his speech that at last addressed the role of Christian teaching in political discussion (though with only a fraction of the religious understanding and passion of Margaret Thatcher’s great speech to the Church of Scotland more than 20 years ago). The modernising Tony Blair, though a much more dedicated believer, could never have made Cameron’s speech, not in public at any rate.

Some of our greatest leaders – Cromwell, Gladstone, most recently Thatcher – have made no secret that their political beliefs were directly shaped by their religious convictions. They were not afraid to inject morality into public debate, or to talk of right and wrong. In the year ahead we in Britain, along with the rest of Europe, will find that many of our most fundamental assumptions and beliefs are likely to be challenged. It is greatly to be welcomed that the leaders of our two greatest political parties seem to have chosen such a moment to abandon the facile discourse of modernisation in favour of tentatively addressing the great, defining moral issues of our age.

A superb piece. If Ed Miliband is in such trouble, then how come his party is consistently ahead in the polls and has won five by-elections in a row, at the last one, after the EU non-veto, managing a swing of 8.5 per cent from the Conservatives?

On course for government, Miliband needs to make Labour the party of absolute commitment to the Welfare State, workers’ rights, trade unionism, the co-operative movement and wider mutualism, consumer protection, strong communities, conservation rather than environmentalism, fair taxation, full employment, public ownership, proper local government, and a powerful Parliament. That is fully compatible with a no less absolute commitment to
any, all (as in my case) or none of the monarchy, the organic Constitution, national sovereignty, civil liberties, the Union, the Commonwealth, the countryside, traditional structures and methods of education, traditional moral and social values, economic patriotism, balanced migration, a realist foreign policy, an unhysterical approach to climate change, and a base of real property for every household to resist both over-mighty commercial interests and an over-mighty State.

The first list requires a truly national party, which would respect and take account of all of the commitments in the second list, though without requiring any of them. A truly national party would be profoundly sensitive to the interests, insights and aspirations of agriculture and manufacturing, of small and medium-sized businesses, of each and all of the English ceremonial counties, of each and all of the Scottish lieutenancy areas, of each and all of the Welsh preserved counties, of each and all of the traditional Northern Irish counties, of each and all of the London Boroughs, and of each and all of the Metropolitan Boroughs. To those of the countryside, local government, the trade unions, mutual enterprises, voluntary organisations, and social and cultural conservatives. And to those of people who cherished ties throughout the world, most especially within these Islands and the Commonwealth, but also to the Arab world and Iran, to the Slavic and Confucian worlds, to Latin America, and elsewhere, in principle including any country on earth, and ideally including all of them.

None of this would be to the exclusion of the interests, insights and aspirations of financial services, of the presently favoured parts of the country, of the towns and cities, of social and cultural liberals, or of those who cherished ties to Continental Europe, the United States of America, and the State of Israel. But it would exclude any new Cold War against Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else. A truly national party would always give priority in international affairs to the ties within the Commonwealth and within these Islands, and could have no truck with any idea of the American Republic coercively imposing utopianism. It would reject that idea’s rewritten Marxism in which the bourgeoisie is the victorious class, because it would reject all class-based politics in favour of what Aneurin Bevan called “a platform broad enough for all to stand upon”.

A truly national party would fight every seat as if it were a knife-edge marginal, and would draw deeply on a heritage variously trade unionist, co-operative and mutual, Radical Liberal, Tory populist, Christian Socialist, Social Catholic and Distributist, and so on. Integral to that heritage is a valiant history of opposition to all of Stalinism, Maoism, the Trotskyist distinction without a difference, Nazism, Fascism, and the Far Right regimes in Southern Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Those who have never recanted their former Stalinism, Maoism or Trotskyism, or their former support for those Far Right regimes, admitting that that stance had been wrong
at the time, can have no part in a truly national party.

Ed Miliband, over to you.


  1. I love the way Thompson is forced to employ Oborne because he has a column in the print edition. This is it, as it happens. Great stuff from him, as ever. Great stuff from you, as ever.

  2. That last bit reads like something out of the Euston Manifesto or the Statement of Principles of the Henry Jackson Society.

    But like Oborne you remain convinced that all signatories to the first and, not the same thing, all New Labour people were old Tankies or old Trots, while all signatories to the first and, not the same thing, all Cameroons are old hands from the Monday Club, Western Goals and the FCS. Apart from a few who are old Tankies or old Trots.

    Only those positions, say you, Oborne, Peter Hitchens, Geoffrey Wheatcroft and others, can possibly have led anybody to support the Iraq War. Everybody who did therefore must fall into one or more of those categories and be dismissed out of hand accordingly. Unlike safely antiwar characters from the CPB (in mourning for Kim Jong Il), the SWP, the Brussels Journal and Taki's Magazine.

  3. I have never been asked to write for Taki's Magazine, and only once for the Brussels Journal, which accurately described me in its introduction to my piece as "a mixed-race social democrat".

    As for the CPB and the SWP, I am told that the many factions of the Far Left are trying to put together a collection of responses to my next book, which apparently has already gained some circulation in literary-political London. Whether they will be able to tolerate each other long enough to finish such a project remains to be seen. But from their own point of view, they would certainly find plenty to critique.

  4. This, Mr Lindsay's part in italics, is what Marko Attila Hoare, now an HJS employee, has called "Far Right" and David Toube of Harry's Place has called "mentally ill".

  5. Unrepentant Blairite29 December 2011 at 15:40

    They are right. But the frightening thing is that apart from Tom Watson, the only person outside Ed Miliband's immediate entourage with access to the Leader is Maurice Glasman, who thinks the world of David Lindsay. Lindsay's ideas set out here are as much an influence on Glasman's as the other way around, and Glasman is Ed Miliband's guru. In fact, Lindsay is politically somewhere between the two. A dangerously influential, influentially dangerous man whose name and thoughts are known at the very highest levels of the party he refuses to rejoin. That's my party and I want it back.

  6. The closeness to the Blue Labour lot and the very high regard in which they hold Lindsay is truly sad but sadly true. As is this silly leader's heavy dependence on them, and on Glasman above all.

    What Lindsay sets out here is what Miliband is being fed on a daily basis. The approach that really did win three elections is being banished along with the very name of that hugely successful leader and PM.

    Look at Lindsay's further comments on Oborne's post, look at material by or around him in wide circulation prior to publication next year, and it is obvious that he envisages a movement strategically similar to the New Left on both sides of the Atlantic or the neoconservatives in the US.

    One day, supporters of at least one major party, probably Labour, will wake up and discover that their party has been surreptitiously turned into the vehicle for whatever this is (paleo-Labour?). Or in many cases will not wake up at all, making it all the easier for paleo-Labour to use their party for its own ends. Glasman and other BL figures will be pretty old by then. But not Lindsay. He will be at his middle-aged peak.

    Will Lindsay rejoin once that takeover has been accomplished? Or will he be like Bob Santamaria, who completely controlled the Australian DLP but never joined it? Some of the old Scoop Jackson Democrats never became Republicans even while publicly supporting that party at the height of neoconservatism. They kept their Democratic registration and I suspect Lindsay will remain ostentatiously one of the people who left because of Blair, long after his own ideas have taken over the party that he imagines those ideas once defined.

  7. In that case it had better get on with creating its New Left Review, its Marxism Today, its Commentary, its Public Interest.

    What am I saying? 2012 is going to be the big year, I think we can safely say.

  8. The lines are now drawn explicitly.

    The New Left redefined the movement in terms of environmentalism, feminism, gay rights and ethnic minority concerns, sceptical about traditional state action and trade union power, strongly secular, and eventually open to actively spreading freedom and democracy as well as to trade and immigration.

    So whatever Lindsay et al want instead will redefine it back to a white, patriarchal, heterosexist, theocratic organ of old-fashioned statism, syndicalism, isolationism, protectionism and nativism. Glasman is listening to Lindsay, and Miliband is listening to Glasman. Chilling. Absolutely chilling.

  9. Hawking for contributions to one of your forthcoming books, you pointedly include Glasman's already submitted copy along with your own. He seems to have written it before you have so much have as a complete lineup, never mind a publisher, so convinced is he of your virtue and importance. I assume he is also writing for the collection of responses to "Confessions of an Old Labour High Tory" by your fan club. Again, nothing as minor as the absence of a publisher seems to have prevented the great and the good from signing up on the spot to put into the public prints their fulsome admiration of your work. You are a very, very dangerous man. The approach of a government under your influence is horrifying and demands to be much better known. It is a crying shame that something like Harry's Place, which would ordinarily have exposed this sort of relationship, does not take you seriously. It bloody well should.

  10. As mentioned above, the mighty David Toube of Harry's Place, who has seen the text of COLHT in the course of its electronic travels, has issued a very round robin email describing it as "mentally ill", matching that of Franjo Tudjman's London bag carrier, who was presumably being complimentary when he called it and me "Far Right".

    I was last called mad by Damian Thompson, when I pointed out the existence of a large party of nominally Tory MPs who were in fact shills for the Israeli Hard Right, an insanity since confirmed by the resignation of the Secretary of State for Defence. We continue to await the resignation of the Editor of Telegraph Blogs.

    Maurice, on the other hand, does indeed take a very different view of my work. Nor are my ties to him purely professional as of last term. Small world.

  11. You are the perfect Blue Labour figure, combining the boy bloggers isolated from their local parties with the middle-aged men stuck on the lower rungs of the academic ladder. Your life is one long tribute to the power of unaccountable all-male social networks -- drank your way into two school governorships at 21 and all that -- and this is just your latest useful boys' club. It is scandalous that Ed Miliband has allowed it to take over a national political party without the slightest reference to proper procedures.

  12. Oooo, get her!

    Yes, David has been saying all of these things for years:

    - working class communities autonomously organising for their own goals based on their own experiences;

    - protection from as well as by state power;

    - combating the power of the free market;

    - a Labour Movement led by a more diverse range of social groups than today, including key roles for the churches and for charities;

    - deployment of the intellectual resources of the Bible, Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, Early Modernity, and the non-Jacobin, non-Marxist traditions of distinctively British radicalism;

    - corresponding respect for the age old English tradition of liberty and the ancient organic constitution that guarantees it;

    - the failure of the post-War settlement to ensure real representation and participation in the running of public services and publicly owned industries;

    - a particular attention to Catholic Social Teaching, always formative of millions of Labour voters but unknown to almost all left wing intellectuals;

    - the centrality of faith, flag, family, friendship and familiarity, the last understood as emotional and material stability.

    A dozen years of Lindsayism to a tee. Other people are just catching up.

  13. Reading your and the Good Lord's essays already submitted are why I am also writing for that book. I am so grateful for the invitation, although reading about it on here must have annoyed no end the people who think that they own political comment in this country but who had never heard of it. Come Ed's Premiership, they might as well emigrate to anywhere still stupid enough to take them.