Opinion: Back to the future: why 2009 is really 1832

Not that many people accept the idea of reincarnation. But as a descriptor of what British politics needs, it’s absolutely spot-on: a very old and decrepit man needs to die, and turn into a new-born being.

Even the terms we use to describe political division are ancient. ‘Left’ harks back to mass labour and command economies, while ‘Right’ conjures up pictures of bosses in grimy towns, Mosleyites in England and Falangists in Spain.

In that context, contemporary politicians too often remind me of George III’s doctors wondering why the King is hallucinating and peeing blue: they’re no better than quacks faced with a new set of symptoms. And just like those court physicians, Ministers and MPs are more concerned about losing position than curing the patient. They drivel on about wicked Tories ‘making the workers pay’ or Labour nitwits ‘paying money to the idle poor’.

One very major reason ordinary people can’t be bothered to vote any more (let alone listen) is that they quite rightly see most MPs now as working The System – preoccupied with themselves and lacking new ideas for a fresh approach. For most Brits outside the policy-wonk bubble, the terms Left and Right belong in history books, not manifestos.

It’s possible that the boneheads who came up with Forward not Back for Labour last time out were thinking ‘How about two new dimensions to this sterile debate?’ but somehow I doubt it. For starters, very few politicos in 2009 want a debate; and for seconds, I can’t imagine anyone being keen to become The Back Party.

Either way, in a three-dimensional Universe we can go back, forward, left, right, up and down. And while I’m quite attracted by the idea of The Up Tendency, we’ve had quite enough of Down governments in the UK lately.

There are, however, other ways of expressing these three dimensions – ways of substance rather than soundbite, and ways that might both inspire electors again, and encourage greater freedom of thought. The most obvious (and therefore perhaps the place to go first) is the polar opposites thing: magnetic/anti-magnetic. Like forward and back, they are by definition opposites, but not laden with values and braindead thinking. One side favours social cooperation through magnetic communities, the other personal responsibility and endeavour.

Another form of expression might be open/closed. Here too there are equally tenable positions: those who prefer free debate on the one hand, and those who prefer elitist discretion on the other.

A third evocation is inspired by perhaps the one divide of opinion common to all societies over thousands of years: those who prefer what is versus those who use that same empirical analysis to wonder what might be. The key opposites here are comfort/adventure.

My vote would go to a magnetic Party keen to pull communities together; a free-thinking Party not closed to the prospect of the unexpected; and a Party exploring future possibility rather than clinging to the familiar (but unlikely) solution.

Traditional thinkers would have enormous doubts about such a Party: how, they might ask, could those who lay stress on social cooperation sit alongside those wanting radical change and entrepreneurial business?

I don’t have a problem envisaging such a political force, if only because I’d see it simply as the Reform Party. I do not doubt (because the psephology supports me) that a majority of voters now yearn for precisely that. But my view is that such a clearly ‘branded’ grouping could only flourish if the ties binding it were looser than at present. In particular, this is a call for no Whips and far fewer control freaks.

For decades now we have heard the endless arguments demanding that only a ‘disciplined’ Party is ever likely to achieve anything. But highly-controlled Soviet-style Tory and Labour governments have delivered only waste, spin, dated polemics, copycat ideas and gesture politics.

During that time, the power of the Executive has increased to such an extent (and in such anti-democratic ways) had he lived to see it, Bagehot would’ve had an attack of the vapours – and probably declared the State no longer constitutional.

If we truly want radical change in Britain (and whether people want it or not, we need it) then four obvious things need to happen: more power given back to non-Cabinet MPs; a reduction in the cost of entry for new Parties; full proportional representation for all elections; and a new House of Lords not based on cronyism.

The media are full of analogies about 2009 Britain: the last days of Rome, 1945, and even 1979. In my humble opinion, what we are facing is a second 1832, but on a far grander scale. From here on there is certain to be a step-change in how and why we do business, where power lies, and the qualitative renewal of liberty and democracy.

Just as in 1832, other reforms will have to run alongside this fresh start if it is to survive. Above all, education needs to be more civic, holistic and attuned to cultural needs, not targets. Health provision must accept reality, be far better targeted, and stop dragging out the same sacred cow covered in tatty rosettes year in year out. And the twin problems of corrupt local government and secretive judicial procedures must be eradicated.

Words like fairness and justice are greatly over-used – to the extent that a Labour leaflet I saw last week proclaimed the Government to be ‘putting fairness first’ – as if there might be somewhere else to put it. But around Britain – if you spend time asking people informally – they no longer express their needs in terms of Labour, Tory or Libdem. Rather, they will say things like ‘anyone with common sense’, ‘anyone telling us the truth’, ‘anyone showing an ounce of honour’ and so forth.

Our governmental and economic system is supposed to work for the People. The vast majority of citizens now (inasmuch as they ever think about it any more) are convinced it works for fat cats, bankers, civil servants, lawyers and grubby politicians. Grudging contrition doesn’t even begin to cut it: the time is right for another Great Reform Act.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “And the twin problems of corrupt local government”

    Where is this problem? I actually think it’s a pretty rare beast.

  • Nowhere have you mentioned our over-arching problem of climate change, and the huge need to change direction in all sorts of ways – especially economically. In the sense that we need to move in a diametrically opposite direction, I would suggest that we face an international version of 1940 – “Dig for Victory” or “Walk to save the Planet” (or whatever!) As Liberals, we are facing a huge challenge to our ideology, and I think we should recognise this. Of course, the issue of all being in it together, and rewards no longer being grossly unfairly allocated will be at the forefront if everybody is to be brought in to cooperate. However, it is the need to reverse thinking in so many areas of life that is the real challenge.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Nov '09 - 9:31am

    I am reminded in this of two sayings: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and “the greatest success of the devil is to persuade people he doesn’t exist”.

    The “good intentions” is the way the political parties have become centralised and professionalised. It was all done with good intentions. We have been told that a glossy image pushed from the top, an image of unity, and the abolition of messy things like open debate and party activists who weren’t just smart-suited salespeople, is what was wanted in politics and would bring us political parties people would want to vote for. This is what the antagonism between the SDP and elements of the Liberal Party in the 1980s was really all about, with the SDP and the right-wing of the Liberal Party for it, and the left-wing of the Liberal Party against it. The SDP and their allies in the Liberal Party won and gave us the party we have now, the walk-out from the merger negotiations of half the Liberal Party team loosely representing the left of the party shows the problem which is now much starker – all that we on the Liberal left were talking about then about creating a new way of doing politics has been lost, and our party is now seen by ordinary people as just another bunch of out-of-touch politicians who are only in it for themselves (unfair and untrue, but how can we fight back?). New Labour did what the SDP wanted to do, everything that is now seen as repulsive about it was seen as good by its media backers as it parasitically grew and destroyed the old Labour Party.

    The “devil” here is the political right. The most central battle in politics is those without power challenging those with power, that is what “left” and”right” are ultimately about. How clever it is, when inequality of wealth and opportunities are growing, and total control of our society is ever more being placed into the hands of a tiny smart-set elite, the new aristocracy, that they have persuaded us that “left” and”right” in politics no longer matters. How clever it is that they have managed to make most people think it’s those with what remains of the power of the ballot box (not much) who are the greedy pampered elite who need to be brought down.

    Take away democracy, and we have only revolution left to change things, and I am not a revolutionary. A “Great Reform Act” will not work (which is not to say it is without value) because the problem is not primarily a constitutional one. We need a new image of what a political party could be as an organisation of ordinary people coming together to challenge through the ballot box and through community action the power of the entrenched elite. Which is really an old image, because that’s what the political parties, at least ours and Labour were all about when founded.

  • For Labour it’s always 1945, for the Tories it’s always 1979…. I think for us it’s always 1832.

  • Liberal Eye 11th Nov '09 - 6:33pm

    Surely what this post is trying to say is that the existing narratives of left and right are broken. Various half-baked and patently flawed alternatives have sprung up or been unearthed from deserved oblivion (eg BNP and UKIP) but really there is no convincing alternative in sight. In short we are in a political interregnum, but one where the succession is unclear. The King is dead, long live … err, umm, err.

    My strong belief is that the world needs a good dose of the liberalism which has been too long absent in a 20th century dominated by socialism on the radical side of politics. The trouble is that it’s very difficult to disinter and reinterpret liberalism. The task is made harder because the Liberal Democratic Party is doing a dreadful job of pointing the way to a better future and, as an organisation, is quite remarkably complacent and wedded to various unsupportable ‘orthodoxies’ of its own devising.

    As in a detective novel, the best advise is to ‘follow the money’ and its close relation power. Understand how these work in the modern economy and you are half way to the answer.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Nov '09 - 3:19pm

    Liberal Eye,

    No. Yours is an analysis which we have heard so much of in the past 30 years or so that it’s now the orthodoxy. It is particularly the orthodoxy when “liberalism” is interpreted, as there are vested interests keen on doing so, in terms which are narrowly oriented towards freedom for wealth. The Liberal Party wisely noted there is more to liberalism than this when it adopted the slogan “freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity”.

    The domination of socialism in political discourse is over. It has been over for many years. To talk about its being over as some exciting new discovery is, well as refreshing as taking about socialism being an exciting new discovery in 1975. So, yes, up to the 1970s/80s, politics was oriented around how socialist you were. Socialism was the dominant ideology, the shelves of political bookshops groaned with tomes on Marxism. That is no longer the case. Just recently, I happened to be in the LSE bookshop. Socialism was confined to one little shelf. The shelves groaned with tomes on – liberalism. And it was liberalism as interpreted by the dominant powers in current society, the bankers and the like who are keen to push those aspects which defend the rich getting richer and the poor getting stuffed. That liberalism which is what we tended to mean by the term when I joined the Liberal Party in the 1970s is very much sidelined.

    That is why I say the terms “left” and “right” are still as relevant as ever, and it is a trick of the wealthy and dominant in society to pretend they are no longer relevant. As Orwell noted, you can stop people talking about things by taking away the language they need to use for it. Once again I say – “right” is ultimately those in power and dominant, “left” is those opposed to them and trying to change that. Are you seriously arguing there’s no political battle on those lines worth fighting?

    The right often put on the garb of the left by pretending the world is as it was and fighting the old battles. Don’t we see this throughout history? The enlightenment aristocrats could pretend to be of the “left” by stirring up anti-popery trying to make out they were still on the side of the people against the power of the Church, while stealing the people’s land rights through their Enclosure Acts. The Communist aristocrats always had the line that they were still fighting the revolution against capitalism while entrenching their power and doing down the people. And now the money-men aristocrats pretend to be of the left by pretending it’s still a fight against the evils of dominant socialism, all the while doing down the people by tying them down on global structures where the rich get richer and the poor get ever more controlled by the power of money.

  • Liberal Eye 12th Nov '09 - 6:51pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    I think you misunderstood me. In calling for liberalism to be ‘reinterpreted’ I did NOT mean in the way that so many do indeed want – which is as you put it, “narrowly oriented towards freedom for wealth”. That is an anathema to me which is one reason why I am emphatically NOT a libertarian. However, we do need to understand what it means today or we are fighting the battles of 10, 20 or more years ago. The fight has moved on but we too often are slow to keep up with the action.

    The reinterpretation I want to see is therefore one that does not fall into either the libertarian error of believing that markets have God-like powers to heal all the world’s ills on the one hand or resorting to well-meaning but too often clueless do-goodery on the other.

    Yes, socialism is dead but like old empires it continues to live in peoples’ minds for a long time after its demise and that is the problem we have. Developing a new paradigm is immensely difficult but totally necessary.

    So, when I say one should follow the money I don’t mean it a s a policy suggestion but rather as a way to gain crucial insight into the crime – the hijacking of too much wealth (and power) by a small elite. We need to understand how totally self-serving much of the ‘economics’ etc. they serve up (including in the LSE bookshop!) really is because once we understand this we are in a far better position to counter it.

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