The Extraordinary Realignment of the Centre Right

The three main front of the UK's new Coalition are the economy, liberty and trying to 'carry on as before'. The Jury is still out on the first, the second is welcome, and the third is hopeless, but then so too is the main opposition.
David Marquand
8 August 2010

Intrigued by the latest exchanges on OK. I've been brooding on The Situation too.

I find I'm much less hostile to the Coalition than I was when it was formed (see herehere and here for my initial reactions). But I'm still alarmed by some things, though pleased by others. Trying to make sense of all this, I think the extraordinary realignment of the Centre Right that we're now witnessing has to be judged on three levels.

Level One - the ground floor level, if you like - is that of the Government's basic macro-economic judgment. This, I still think, is deeply flawed. I agree with Bob Skidelsky and Martin Wolf (not to speak of Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman) on this. The Government have adopted the so-called 'Treasury View' of the 1920s: the notion that public spending is crowding out private investment, and that if public spending is cut the private sector will rush to take up the slack. That turned out to be disastrously wrong eighty years ago, and it's hard to see why good reason why it should be right today. So I buy the Keynesian argument against premature spending cuts, before the recovery is firmly under-way. But I don't share the view of some (?most) left-wing Government critics that it is both self-evidently stupid and patently wicked to behave as the Coalition has done. I don't think Keynesian economics came down to earth from heaven when the General Theory was published 74 years ago. I see economics as a highly uncertain, empirical discipline, in which there are no absolute truths. This, to me, is as true of Keynesian economics as of other kinds. Economic policy making is a matter of balancing risks - in this case, the risk of a double-dip deflation versus the risk of a confidence crisis. The Government thought the second was greater than the first. I thought the reverse. But the argument is over more-or-less, not either-or. Honest people of goodwill can honestly differ.  So let's have less self-righteous shouting and stamping, and more good-tempered willingness to listen.Level Two is that of civil liberties, active self-government, democratic reform and the role of the central state. Here I think the Coalition is a big advance on  its predecessor. Rolling back the frontiers of the data-base state is not a small matter, as far too many Labour people seem to think. Though AV is by no means enough for me, it is at least a whole lot better than FPTP. The mere fact of having a nation-wide referendum on it - the first nation-wide referendum since the European referendum in 1975 and the first ever referendum on a crucial aspect of British democracy - is a hugely important breakthrough.

Equally, I don't agree with those who dismiss  Cameron's rhetoric of a 'big society' versus a 'big state' as a self-serving con. To me, the single most important feature of the last election, shockingly ignored by the Westminster-centred commentariat, is that it saw what may well turn out to be the death throes of the statist, top-down democratic collectivism which has been Labour's default position ever since it became a serious contender for government after the First World War. The Coalition is, in a way, an alliance between the two great non-statist political traditions of this country: the whig tradition, with its emphasis on Edmund Burke's 'little platoons', now exemplified by David Cameron, and the essentially republican tradition with its emphasis on civic engagement and bottom up democracy, partially exemplified by Nick Clegg. It's much too soon to tell how this will work out. It may all come apart under the stress of actually governing, and there are plenty of  ambiguities about it. So I certainly don't advocate blanket endorsement of Level Two of the Coalition project. But I do think it should be given a fair wind, unless and until the Coalition shows unmistakably that it is trying to deceive us all.

Now for Level Three. It's here that my doubts and worries are strongest. But I'm worried, not because the Government is departing from New Labour's legacy, but because it's sticking to it. Here, I believe, both Government and Opposition are engaged in a phony war. Despite all the furious charges and counter-charges that echo through the Westminster air, they are both on the same side. They both want to return to business as usual as quickly as they can. They disagree furiously about the route, but they agree about the destination. They want to get back to the sunlit uplands of ever-rising material prosperity, fuelling and fuelled by ever-rising consumption, both public and private. Both are dominated by short-term policy wonkery. Neither seems to have grasped the need for a new politico-economic paradigm, post-Keynesian, post-socialist, post-Thatcherite, post-national and above all post-affluence. I don't carry such a paradigm in my knapsack, I hasten to add. But I feel in my bones that this is what used to be called the left should now be working on.

I am glad to see some exchanges in OK seem to be taking steps towards doing this, as part of its coverage of "The Situation' in the UK.

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

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