Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Westminster needs better arguments rather than new parties

It’s become common to assert that Brexit has changed the contours of British politics forever.
That remains to be seen. After the UK leaves the EU, older loyalties and divisions may re-emerge, as allegiances and rivalries that developed since the referendum become irrelevant.
That hasn’t prevented some fairly animated discussion about the potential for new parties to reflect a ‘realignment’ of politics after Brexit.
Since Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left faction took charge of the Labour, there have been suggestions that its pragmatic ‘Blairite’ wing would be happier outside the party. They may or may not have enough in common with disgruntled Conservative ‘remainers’ to share a common political home.
This fabled ‘centrist’ group is joined by a ‘Radicals’ party, imagined by FT journalist, Jeremy Cliffe. He went to the trouble of drawing up a short manifesto, that combines pro-EU, pro-migrant social policies, with proposals for aggressive decentralisation and a free-market economy, driven by ‘disruptive technology’ (a buzzword for innovations that upset the status quo in industry).
At Conservative Home, Paul Goodman described the document - with its suggestions for ‘city states’, houses built on green belts and a network of high speed railways - as a prospectus “for younger voters”. Ironically, the plan for devolved ‘city states’ echoes nothing so much as the fantasies of so-called ‘neo-reactionaries’; US bloggers who have been accused of far-right sympathies.
At the website Unherd, Chris Deerin finds that Cliffe’s ideas are attractive to an “orphaned centrist”. Goodman is more wary and argues that the manifesto is not centrist at all, but in many respects lies well to the right of the Conservatives and is anathema to the “one nation” wing of that party.
At a very basic level, the coherence of the state would hardly be increased by dispersing more and more power to regions, cities or other devolved units.
David Cameron’s government talked a lot about ‘localism’ as it theorised about the ‘Big Society’. In principle, handing decision-making back to communities is a healthy instinct. The problem with many forms of devolution is that regions or cities rarely accept the sense of responsibility that should accompany their newly acquired powers. They wish to take credit for successful policies but continue to blame all their difficulties on central government.
A scheme to decentralise power and change the constitution drastically would likely lead to a more divided country with weaker allegiances to the national parliament.     
Is there any need for new parties?
Deerin’s article contains a graphic from The Times, which suggests a more realistic realignment of UK politics.
The model is skewed, because it preceded the EU referendum, but it proposes four new parties, ranging from The Solidarity Party, standing on the left for a large public sector and high taxes, through to The Freedom Party, which would equate to some of the patriotic populist movements in mainland Europe.
At least the four options outlined in this graphic describe accurately some of the prevailing thought among current politicians, though they still don’t comprise a compelling case for four entirely new political parties.
Although the direction of modern Labour has been portrayed as something new and exciting, the reality is almost the polar opposite. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and their like are bargain basement communist revolutionaries of the type that developed out of anti-establishment feeling in the 1960s and 70s.
The basis of their ideology has been tried, tested and disproved repeatedly, most recently in Venezuela. It’s a bizarre development that these escapees from Citizen Smith have been presented with a belated opportunity to champion solutions for modern, globalised, 21st century Britain, that have never worked, anywhere, ever.      
Once the dizzy hype and boisterous terrace chants around Jeremy Corbyn die down, surely the public will start to see clearly again an ageing Marxist of the most dangerous and misguided type. And even if moderates cannot regain control of Labour, then the Liberal Democrats are led by a man who describes himself as centre-left and has already appealed for solidarity between his party and Blairite MPs.
Conservative factions
The Conservatives are going through a spell of infighting, after a poor election result, with factions forming around different views on a final Brexit deal. These divisions are not necessarily permanent and neither will they inevitably bring down the government.
Theresa May has struggled to inspire the Tories with optimism or a sense of purpose, but the theories she has outlined sound a lot like rhetoric you might expect from the “socially just, economically conservative” party that The Times dubbed The Nationals.    
The Prime Minister’s big failure so far is that she hasn’t presented Conservative ideas in a way that made them sufficiently appealing to the British public. During the general election, she chose to rely too heavily on scaring voters about the prospect of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose ability to lead an energetic campaign she seriously underestimated.
Yet the type of philosophy the UK needs from its leaders remains broadly the same.
They should value the positive aspects of our society that are worth preserving - like stability, prosperity and democratic liberties. They should recognise that these goods have developed because of our institutions and culture, and they should be careful that any reforms don’t damage benefits that we already enjoy.
The Tory party is an imperfect vehicle for these ideas, but it is the only mainstream party where they are articulated at all.
May’s instincts appear to be right - she has accepted the British people’s verdict on Brexit, she’s in favour of a market economy (with certain qualifications) and she prefers policies that ease divisions in society - even if her leadership and the policy detail aren’t always convincing.
Free market ideology and traditional conservatism have mingled successfully enough within the Conservatives throughout the party’s history and, if they create a certain amount of tension, it isn’t enough to justify a split. “In the battle with socialism”, Sir Roger Scruton wrote in a recent book, “the classical liberal and the conservative stand side by side”.
That leaves Brexit and the rancour it appears to be creating in the current cabinet.
Frankly, some of the protagonists could do with calming down. The UK will leave the European Union, but there is little merit in making this process harder, faster or more acrimonious than it needs to be. It’s necessary to prepare for the consequences if a deal is not possible, but the argument that agreement cannot be reached or shouldn’t be reached is rash and premature.
It would be highly irresponsible if Conservatives on either side of the Brexit debate were to jeopardise the government over their differences of opinion, as they currently stand. Particularly if their motives were really to do with ambitions and rivalries within the party.   
For activists, commentators and political enthusiasts, dreaming up new alliances, manifestoes and parties is thoroughly entertaining. For the country, rather than tearing up the system as it is currently comprised, it would be far more constructive if the existing parties were simply to perform better and articulate more compelling policies.

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