Where do we go from here? Part I: The frustrations of British politics

In the first of a wide-ranging three part conversation, Anthony Barnett and Gerry Hassan discuss the state of British politics and democracy and how the left - weak and disorganised in the face of a resurgent neoliberalism - can propose and build alternatives to the dominant dogmas of the past thirty years

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Gerry Hassan
2 August 2010

In the first of a wide-ranging three part conversation, Anthony Barnett and Gerry Hassan discuss the state of British politics and democracy and how the left - weak and disorganised in the face of a resurgent neoliberalism - can propose and build alternatives to the dominant dogmas of the past thirty years. Part II: Challenging the Official Future; Part III Agency and Self-deterimantions without Marx

Hi Gerry,

There is a strange mixture of moods here in political London. There is a Tory right, with Spectatorish leanings, used to dominating the argument across most of the print media and bullying the BBC. It is aghast at the coup Cameron has dealt them. He has got office, the highest validation of principle in the Tory cannon, yet he has won it by delivering the liberal Toryism they scorned (and hoped he was merely pretending to advocate).

It is a truism that Britain (and even, arguably, England) is a centre left society. But the ruling elite has never been and they are astounded by the coalition. This includes the BBC which refused to regard the 'database state' as important or report the fears of an intrusive state, which were very widespread, as 'relevant'. Mark Thompson, its Director General, recently told Broadcasting House that he favoured opening the archives as the BBC's coverage over the years gives a "pretty good portrait of people's lives and emotions". But no one who listens to its broadcasts of the past few years would come away with any understanding of why the Coalition has set about rolling back the intrusive, controlling state. The BBC, of course, is part of it, thanks to the license fee.
As for Labour, it is still in denial. A key advisor said that if only it can address people's feeling of "anxiety" the Coalition may split and it could find itself back in power in 18 months....

They will do what they can to bury the significance of Iraq -  a great pity as dealing with it or electing a leader who, like Obama, opposed it from the start, is the only route back to office in the next five years.

The wider public likes what is happening. There is an openness, a lack of staleness, a sense of serious people dealing with serious issues, a fascination to see how they get on - we might return to this - a sense of invention and reasoned reasonableness which the public likes, while remaining sceptical and cautious and of course waiting for the punishment.

But how does it feel in Scotland? My sense is that both Cameron and Clegg are dedicated to reviving Union politics, though perhaps in very different ways. Will this appeal to people north of the border as well?

Cheers!  Anthony

Dear Anthony,

Thanks for that. There is so much to consider, digest and think about. There is this utterly changed British landscape. There is what is going on in Scotland. The first Labour leadership election since 1994 and the prospect of the first Labour debate about what it stands for since the 1983 disaster. And then influencing all of this is the end of the thirty-year party – an opportunity to take stock of what Britain has become domestically and geo-politically.

If I address first Scotland, there is a strange feeling north of the border. There isn’t much sense of optimism, more a feeling of foreboding (which I think is everywhere with the impending cuts), combined with an element of smugness. Many people seem to think the return of the Tories is like the return of a bad B Movie – an old script they know the best tunes too – ‘same old Tories’, 'Tory cuts’ and ‘no mandate’.

It does not matter to this perspective that Scotland is very different – with a Parliament – or that the political situation is very different – with a Con-Lib Dem government.

There is a deep conservative impulse in large parts of Scotland – including in many self-defined radicals and left-wingers. Part of the whole home rule movement pre-devolution was about wanting to remain the same, to return to the civic and social sense of Britishness found between 1945-70. This of course isn’t an option in the UK, and that fact is going to be made even more explicit in the near-future.

This conservatism, found in the Scottish Labour Party, but also the SNP, Lib Dems, Scottish Tories, and much of civic Scotland, has little positive to offer. But the power and entrenchment of this conservatism is about to be tested.

The UK is at a major moment of flux, the existing political order stands humiliated, the economic assumptions of the last thirty years to which our entire political elite signed up is in tatters, and yet the sense that ‘there is no alternative’ still exists, given the lack of coherent, radical ideas. Neo-liberalism has been discredited, but is in a state of ‘undead’, not yet slain, like Arnie Schwarzenegger in one of those ‘Terminator’ films, where despite going through hell, pain and punishment, he still keeps moving. We really do need to ask what do we have to do to finally kill off neo-liberalism?

Best wishes, Gerry

Hi from Athens, Gerry,

There are two very different themes woven together in what you say. First, the big hunger for a different political way forward. Second, the wretched but also fascinating actuality of the here and now.  On the first: nothing is at hand to "kill off" or slay neo-liberalism from the democratic left, as you ask. Hidden in this desire, certainly when expressed by others, is the assumption that if only a stake was driven through the heart of global capitalism socialism would awake, as if from too long a sleep.

My view is that until an alternative is developed, tested and wins support the present order won't and can’t be 'overthrown'. You can feel this here in Athens. What is the alternative to Greece paying its debts and accepting the hard road to a viable membership of the Eurozone? Defaulting? This could mean not just 20 per cent public sector pay cuts (as at present) but no pensions or public sector pay at all as the banks close. That way lies the army.

I agree with David Marquand that a new kind of politics is needed which is broadly a mix of left, green and republican values, but have to wonder if given the scale of the British, European and global crises which we face whether this is frankly up to the task, radical and transformative enough.

Against this backdrop, we still need a serious conversation about the multiple issues which face us here in the UK: the state of our democracy and politics, and how they don’t work (but addressing how this fits into these wider epochal issues). Also, how to make sense of the coming limited, flawed, electoral reform proposal of AV in the referendum. It could matter hugely in terms of starting a public claim on the state. But will people be persuaded by the Tory advertising agencies to endorse the serfdom of 'strong government'?

If they refuse to, it will hardly be groundbreaking, simply getting one knee off the ground. 
A lot may turn on the coming debate in the Labour Party about how and whether it can recover from defeat. It was immediately obvious when Cameron made his offer to the Lib Dems that Labour could have offered one so much better. I don't mean after the election, as Brown's attempt to oversee any coalition doomed it utterly. I mean in 1997, or after the 2001 election, or when Brown became leader in 2007, or after the expenses crisis broke in 2009. 
Four golden opportunities wasted. 
Of course, it would have meant Labour changing. Looking back we can see that despite all the talk of being 'new' and its embrace of globalisation, adoration of a deregulated City, military adventures and the Washington alliance, Labour remains deeply conservative, dedicated to power provided by a royalist state. Indeed what Cameron has shown is that Labour is more conservative than the Conservative party in this respect. I suspect that the leadership contenders don't understand this. 

Cheers, Anthony

PS: I am back from Athens now. I see the six statements from the Labour leadership contenders. You wouldn’t know there was a national question in the UK, or that Europe matters, or that there is a general economic crisis even. As you have just noted in your post in OK. But I suspect there is a larger evasion going on, one that Jeremy Gilbert’s call for democracy in the Labour Party points towards. This is about how politics is conducted. Usually, this being a very backward political culture, the two are contrasted. (There is an interesting example of a political outsider – that’s a compliment - wrestling with the inadequacy of this opposition in Nat le Roux’s recent speech) Either we need a change in constitutional structure or we need a change in behaviour and a return to honorable mandarin efficiency. In fact these are not opposites. There is a media driven process that is dissolving party politics itself (see Peter Mair or Keith Sutherland). Yet consensus is also an anti-democratic impulse. Honest or not a representative democratic system has to be driven by party politics. The Labour contest assumes a traditional party form to politics. Yet the national fragmentation of the UK on its own points to the end of one-party rule. 

Dear Anthony,

I take it you are asking to put to one side the crises of contemporary capitalism, of how we nurture and support our societies socially, environmentally and democratically, and how we live with the financial leviathan and insatiable beast of the aggressive, acquisitive market society of the last thirty years. But of course this also must shape the challenge, opportunity and the need for rethinking.

What form of politics and framework best suits the UK? Is a new unionism possible led by Cameron, or will the future belong to a post-nationalist politics? And to the constitutional reformers and radicals who have rightly been so critical of Westminster politics and the Ukanian state, what is the vision behind the radical, democratizing impulse? What is all the concern about processes, structure and reform for after socialism? Where is it meant to lead beyond a ‘normalising’ politics?

Today social democratic parties are in retreat everywhere; disorientated by the brutal politics of neo-liberal capitalism, and the temporary success of the ‘near-left’ of Blair and Clinton which offered a brief hope that they had identified a path of renewal and modernisation.

Where I think this takes us is that it is only possible to understand and address the British situation by looking at it in international and historical context. We have to go beyond what I see as the platitudes of a red, green, republican recasting of politics. This sounds a bit like the sort of politics the centre-left in Italy have practiced under Berlusconi, constantly widening their politics post-PCI to the point no one really knows what they stand for beyond ‘good governance’; and as we have seen populism vs. good governance is never enough.

The politics of the left are clearly exhausted. ‘Left’ has become associated with tribalism and defining very set limits of the tribe and community to exclude wavers and ‘traitors’. Left and green politics are not automatic bedfellows which can be added together in a coalition of new politics. The left, as with neo-liberalism, stands firmly for modernity, for believing the human soul, condition and the planet can be endlessly recast for their political project. Part of where we stand now is in the midst of the disaster of the modernist utopia, which has taken us through Stalin’s death camps to the neo-liberal catastrophe.

We need an even wider realignment than David Marquand was suggesting: a realignment which addresses not just mind, but body and soul, which involves rationalism, activism and doing things, and emotionalism. Yet, again, all of this needs to be for a wider purpose. After socialism, social democracy’s retreat, and the watered down vision of ‘progressive politics’, what does a politics drawing from centre-left values look like, say and what is it called?

This is a critical crossroads. The ‘long boom’ of the late 1990s and 2000s is over, neo-liberalism has shown itself to be another god that failed, yet there has been no major recanting and apologies from any of the leading figures of neo-liberalism or its main institutions. There is, unlike the last systemic crisis of the 1970s, no clear, radical alternative set of ideas critiquing the existing economic, social and political order.

We stand on the brink of a second neo-liberal revolution, as the numerous crises are used by finance capitalism and markets to justify eating up and destroying the last vestiges and institutions of social democratic values, across the Euro zone and advanced capitalism. The response to this cannot be the traditional left one of resistance and defending the remnants of ‘welfare capitalism’. Therefore, we need to look to a new age of radicalism.  We need an ecumenical, global conversation about the challenges facing humanity and the planet - from the impending eco-crisis, to the kind of society and economy we wish to live in, and how we address the concentrations of power which the market and state throws up.

I think we cannot just talk about processes and structures any more, or about narrow or even wider constitutional reform in the UK. Instead, we desperately need to have a conversation about values, the kind of values advanced capitalist societies should promote, embed and advance.

Central to all of this are two elements: firstly, what kind of story/stories do we want to advance as a society? Social democracy used to have a powerful, plausible story; neo-liberalism - like it or not - has a story with actors, motivation and plots which poses as ‘the official future’. Secondly, there has to be an account of the economy. For the last two decades the left has been in retreat on political economy, appeasing globalisation in return for a share of the goodies. This version of the economy has to address the role of growth, the limits of growth, redistribution and ecological sustainability. Without this I fear we await the second installment of the neo-liberal revolution.


This is the first of a three part conversation - part II will be published tomorrow.

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