As the conference season draws to a close, we re-publish Peter Oborne's reflections on the Labour leader's ambition to forge a new politics for post-crash Britain. It is a plea for pluralism, in a terrifying time of great challenges: for the right to listen to the left. We run it alongside Gerry Hassan's call for the left to engage with Tory ideas.
The history of Britain since the Second World War can be divided into two long phases, each lasting several decades. The first of these can be dated from the famous election triumph of Clem Attlee’s Labour Party in 1945. Though Attlee’s government was relatively short-lived, its achievements were stupendous: the foundation of the welfare state, the creation of the National Health Service, the nationalisation of the “commanding heights” of the economy, and the imposition of Keynesian demand management at the Treasury.
This proved an enduring settlement. Even though his election defeat in 1951 opened the way to a longish period of Conservative rule, neither Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden nor Harold Macmillan (the three prime ministers who succeeded him) challenged the elements of the Attlee system. Genuine change did not come about till the mid-Seventies, when the oil price shock was followed by economic and social collapse.
Britain entered a time of uncertainty and intellectual despair, made all the more troubling because most politicians, including those on the Right, had come to believe that Attlee had solved once and for all the underlying problem of modern politics. The destruction of this conventional wisdom led to an ideological battle for control of the British state. The Left, led by the brilliant Michael Foot (it is only because he ultimately failed that he has been written off as a useless eccentric: history is always on the side of the winners), argued very powerfully that the failure of the Attlee settlement showed that the time had come for a move towards thoroughgoing socialism.
Meanwhile, the Right, led from 1975 by Margaret Thatcher, who was guided by the defence of classical liberalism developed by the Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek during the depression of the Thirties, made a compelling argument for a return to free-market economics. For a while, it was wholly unclear which side would win, and indeed for long periods it appeared that the Left was in the ascendancy. Only the sweeping victory of Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1983 general election signalled the end of the argument and set Britain on a clear economic course: privatisation, a reduction of state power, and a bold reassertion of liberal economic principles.
This Thatcher settlement, like Attlee’s, proved enduring. Indeed, it was formalised after the general election of 1997, when the victorious Labour prime minister Tony Blair (supported by his chancellor Gordon Brown) explicitly accepted and developed the economic and moral insights of his great predecessor.
The financial collapse of September 2008 drew a line under this period of our history. From that moment, British politics entered uncharted territory, just as it did after the financial disasters of the Seventies. In economic terms, the age we are living in is simply terrifying. But politically, it is of special interest, because every accepted orthodoxy is in the process of being dismantled. Most senior politicians are condemned to operate within an exceptionally narrow set of parameters, meaning that they do little more than administer a system they inherited from others. But our current generation faces a remarkable and very rare challenge: to go out and create a new structure for British governance and public discourse.
Hence the importance of Ed Miliband’s party conference address in Liverpool on Tuesday. This speech has so far received an ungenerous press, something that should come as no surprise. For many years – and particularly during the long and now widely exposed Murdoch ascendancy – political reporting has suffered from a shameful defect. Lobby correspondents have regarded themselves as courtiers, aligning themselves with the gang in power rather than searching out the underlying truths. Hence so much of the foolish sneering and mockery of Miliband’s personal appearance, mannerisms and method of speaking.
The obsessive concentration on matters of overwhelming triviality has obscured the central point: that Miliband made an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate. He sought to reshape the terms of political argument and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought. He has even made a tentative step towards tearing up the rules that have defined British economics for the past generation with his cautious critique of capitalism as it has been carried on here for the past 30 years.
This was long overdue. One of the unintended consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of the Eighties was the emergence of a new class of feral rich, who abandoned the ordinary morality or sense of civic duty felt by previous generations. New Labour, with its unashamed worship of ostentatious wealth, made the problem much worse, and went a long way towards undoing the bonds that ought to tie together every society.
Ed Miliband, who this week straightforwardly repudiated almost every aspect of Tony Blair’s inheritance, has not yet got everything right in his attempt to create a virtuous political economy which celebrates hard-working and decent men and women rather than City sharks. But he has taken British public life in a new and thoroughly welcome direction, and this poses a challenge to the Conservatives as they gather in Manchester this weekend for their own party conference.
To be fair to David Cameron, there is every reason to believe that he agrees with Miliband’s call for a fairer and more decent capitalism. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s Big Society idea, with its demand that we should all recognise our duty as full members of the communities in which we live, acknowledges this very point. The difference between the two leaders is that Miliband is making the case that there is a still a powerful role for a benevolent state, while Cameron insists that there are many areas where the state is incapable and where civil society (churches, charities etc) must fill the gap.
But the most important speech at Tory conference next week will, at this time of impending economic disaster, come from George Osborne. In many ways, Mr Osborne has been outstanding. He has won the central argument about the need to cut the deficit he inherited from Labour, as Miliband himself acknowledged when he told the Tories that “If you don’t cut the deficit, we will do it for you.”
What Osborne has yet to do (as the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, a trained economist, has noted in private from time to time) is to produce a coherent and substantial political economy. There is no account from the Chancellor yet of exactly how he expects Britain to emerge from the economic darkness, let alone of the kind of society that will stand at the end of it all. Perhaps he feels that simply by lifting the burden of the financial deficit, the animal spirits of our entrepreneurs will reawaken of their own accord. Perhaps he feels that morality and economics don’t go together – a perfectly respectable position to take.
Ed Miliband’s vision of a fairer and better- balanced capitalism, however imperfectly sketched out, challenges Osborne to give a much fuller account of what he is doing. The Labour leader this week showed a clear grasp of our national predicament, and may have signalled the end of an unhealthy era of managed, technocratic discourse. He rose to the occasion, and he deserves our thanks.
This piece was originally published in the Telegraph.