There is a delicious moment in Simon Walters‘ account of the William Hague leadership of the Conservative party, “Tory Wars”. Hague has decided to launch an attack on the “Liberal Elite” for tying the hands of the police. Yet when the speech is discussed with Michael Portillo, the Shadow Chancellor objects, saying that he himself is a member of Hague’s derided “liberal elite”.
The story is told against Portillo, the effete metropolitan counterpoint to Hague’s bluff Yorkshire grit, but read in the light of Hague’s defeat and the later Cameron ascendency, you can’t help but feel that the lost leader had a point. The Tories needed a bit of liberalism, though they have somewhat overdone it on the “elite” front.
Reading Steve Akehurst’s interesting article for Shifting grounds, I was reminded of that old story. Akehurst prefers “moderniser” to “Liberal elite” as his defining category, but I suspect the intent is rather similar. I’m tempted to echo Portillo. I’m the
liberal elite, moderniser.
That said, I’m not sure I agree with Steve’s precise definition. I don’t care for Louise Mensch much, wouldn’t describe myself as besotted with public service reform -it’s a dull, tedious, complex, politically difficult necessity, more like- and I don’t have a firm view of the salary required to transcend the middle class. Still, behind the caricature lies a truth. I usually describe myself as a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist, pace Kolakowski and today, it is the liberal part of that trifecta which is under most pressure.
As Steve rightly notes, the liberal modernisers are under pressure. Curiously though, their policy agenda appears rather durable.
Perhaps this is because for all the questioning of the philosophical values behind the
liberal elite modernisers, we are yet to see a serious centre-left alternative at any level beyond the rhetorical*. It’s the old Brown problem. The language is radical, the rhetoric inspiring, but the policy? Well the policy ends up a notch this way, a belt tighten that, and poor old Neal Lawson has his heart broken all over again.
Take Pre-distribution- in a sympathetic article about the policy consequences of the newly fashionable term, Professor Paul Gregg repeatedly says thing like: “indirect interventions often lack the power to overturn the processes already at work… …In terms of specific policies, there are a number of obvious policy areas but whether they are of sufficient scale to address the forces driving rising inequality is unlikely.. ..attractive attempts to shift inequality in work and wages.. .appear limited in scale or ambition...”.
You get the sense that there is the ambitious and the achievable, and an unspoken fear that never the twain shall meet. Responsible Capitalism? All for it, but how, exactly?
So when Steve argues that “The old modernising consensus has fallen from favour in all three parties mostly because its playbook was forged at a time when the basic questions of political economy were settled. In this respect, it was broadly in tune with public opinion. But the financial crash and the decline in living standards has incinerated most of those assumptions, and meant the old agenda satisfies neither party rank and file nor voters” I agree, but only to a point.
I can make an alternative argument – that despite the attraction of extremes of rhetoric, from the Tea Party to Syriza to Dutch Euro-Sceptics electorates have shown a split tendency – an increase in support on either wing balanced by a gathering together at the centre. So the most likely outcome in the German elections is a grand coalition and Mario Monti is the most popular figure in Italian politics.
Why? Perhaps because even when politicians who are elected on a prospectus of change are elected, they soon seem to adopt a governing policy of grandmother’s footsteps, not radical change. So, for example, Francois Hollande finds himself facing a similar fix to his predecessor. The electorate can tell when you’re trying to bite off more than you can chew.
The left, broadly constructed, have a clear approach to this – one of outright rejection of austerity, extended spending, direct action to lift incomes, preferably through significantly increased tax take. The right, equally, see a series of straightforward causes which can be tackled – immigration, welfare, regulation, taxation. There is even some cross-over between the two positions, most noticeably on immigration. However, such clarity comes at a cost – both politically and practically. There will need to be a period of fiscal restraint. We can’t end intra-EU immigration, and we shouldn’t. For big changes, there are big risks, huge unknowns.
It’s true that for those wrestling with the contest between the ambitious and the achievable, post-crash politics has become even more complex, less easy, and as Steve notes, this has meant stronger challenges, especially on the left.
Perhaps predictably, my particular leftish branch of the liberal elite threads a needle through all this. Pro-deficit reduction (when growth returns and at sensible rate). Support for private sector growth (at the price of sustained tough public spending constraints), conditionality and contribution to reduce pressure on Welfare bills, changing universality to focus on moments of new life costs, and so on. So to take the most direct example, I’m supportive of increased tax take from the wealthy, perhaps through asset taxation, but sceptical that you can take enough from this source alone to reform capitalism or re-order society**.
So here’s the funny thing. While Steve is absolutely right that the rhetoric and political pressures have turned against the “modernisers”, the policy agenda has not.
When it comes down to the hard tacks of political decision-making, faced by the limitations of national government power, relatively open trading economies, and the basic framework of social market capitalism, it turns out that not only are the liberal elites still determined modernisers, most of their rhetorical critics are secretly modernisers too. The direction of travel is remarkably similar – even pre-distribution is not much different to post-neo classical endogenous growth theory, though with a greater focus on incomes, which few in the liberal left would object to.
Once the rhetoric is stripped away, the common ground turns out to be the “achievable”. After all, what else would actually stand a chance of working?
If I may permit myself a raised eyebrow, it sometimes seems to me that the discontent on the soft-left about our current policy quietude is a consequence of a certain unwillingness to deal directly with this uncomfortable fact about their own political identity. It’s not that the true differences between right and left aren’t important- they are, ever more so in these times. The choice between deficit reduction now and deficit reduction in a year is a real and vital one. It’s just that they do not span so great a gulf as we partisans like to imagine.
To go back to Mr Portillo, you are the liberal elite too. So perhaps we can come up with something constructive together. To return to a regular theme of mine, a certain modesty of aims suits both soft left and the liberal left alike. For the likes of me because we believe in it, for others because the proof of the political pudding is in the legislating.
After all, if we want to convince people of the efficacy of collective action, it is best we first demonstrate where it makes a clear, successful difference, thus convincing the sceptical of our essential socialist claim that “it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified”.
That way, the centre-left get to embrace their hunger for ambition, and the liberal-left get to focus on our dear old mantra- what matters is what works. Oh, and if recent elections are any guide, my beloved soggy middle is still managing to squeeze out election victories, which does rather help.
Stronger together, and all that.
* The right has their own problem in this regard, with a whole series of impossible desires getting in the way of actual Conservative reforms. Lets abolish regulation! A grammar school everywhere! Let’s quit the EU! These often seem a happy Tory daydream, not a practical political agenda.
**I confess to being significantly more liberal than the electorate on immigration, by the way. I’m allowed one topic on which I’m fairly unpragmatic. Bloody immigrants coming over here, creating wealth and paying for our pensions. Though even here, I try to square the circle by supporting a points based system that at least rationalises our choices.