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.