There are not meant to be taboos any more. From Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, to Lady Gaga’s meat dress, from Ricky Gervais’s use of the word “mong,” to Grayson Perry’s pink frocks, culture seems always to be breaking with convention. Shock matters more than chic. As deference has disappeared and the old elites have been overturned, freedom is worshipped in the Facebook age. Henry Miller’s assertion that “whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens,” rings loud and true.
Except, it seems, in politics. In Westminster taboos still carry enormous power. The armed forces, home ownership, and the Queen are off limits; the squeezed middle, banker-bashing and wishy-washy environmentalism are de rigueur.
Each party has its own taboos, of course. For New Labour, scarred by the 1992 shadow budget which was blamed for its general election defeat, it was always tax. For David Cameron’s Conservatives, desperate to shed the “nasty party” image, it was the NHS. “There are certain unbreakable taboos,” says a Tory cabinet minister. “It would be impossible for a Conservative who isn’t a Eurosceptic to win the leadership. Because political party membership has shrunk, parties are to a greater extent prisoners of their bases.”
And yet, across the spectrum, there is a remarkable consensus about what it is acceptable to challenge. Patrick Diamond, who worked at No 10 under Tony Blair, says the mandarins who remain in place when governments change are technocratic not revolutionary. “The options that are considered feasible and legitimate are very often framed by the civil service,” he says. “There’s an underlying conformity of thought which makes it very difficult for politicians to break out of those pathways with radical ideas.”
Pragmatism also plays a part. Leaders are afraid of voters’ prejudices when an election draws near. Politicians rail against the “forces of conservatism” or the “enemies of enterprise” then quiver before middle England. All too often radicalism looks like—and sometimes means—abandoning the centre ground. “Political geography concentrates swing voters in certain parts of the country,” says one senior Tory. “There are upper working class and lower middle class voters in constituencies… around big cities who tend to have certain preoccupations—crime, immigration, living standards—and they exercise disproportionate influence relative to their numbers. The squeezed middle are among the most powerful people in Britain.” “At our best when at our boldest,” Blair once said. Caution, however, is often the easier path.
Now, though, taboos may be cracking under the strain of the economic crisis. It has forced politicians to rethink their priorities. There is not enough money to avoid confronting the difficult issues and parties have started talking about public sector “cuts”—once a word that could not be uttered in polite political society. The only debate is about which services should suffer.
Labour, in government, put up the top rate of tax to 50p, the central proposal of the famous shadow budget it spent so many years trying to disown. The Conservatives have ended up proposing sweeping changes to the NHS—a volte face. Cameron has also marched on to his party’s forbidden territory of Europe by using the veto in Brussels. In the week before Christmas, he even broke the taboo of talking about religion, when he said Britain is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so”.
Some senior figures argue the existence of a two-party government makes it easier for politicians to challenge received wisdom. “Coalition is better able to break taboos than one-party government because you can give each other cover,” says a Liberal Democrat strategist. “The sense that you are a government of national interest rather than party interest allows you to get into difficult areas.” Some Conservative cabinet ministers are convinced that being in coalition has allowed them to go further in slashing budgets than they could have in a majority administration. “Nobody can say it’s the same old nasty Tories doing their usual thing,” says one. “The Lib Dems have made it easier to do more.”
How far will the taboo-breaking go? Politicians have so far shied away from discussing limiting the scope of the health service but, as costs soar, they may have to. Already health managers are preparing to confront another taboo and close hospitals to deal with budget cuts. Britain’s relationship with the EU is now on the table in a way it has not been for more than a decade, and there will be pressure to rethink military capability, including Trident. As schools gain more independence, there will be questions about academic selection.
Senior politicians in all parties agree, though, that the fundamental taboo to be dealt with is, as one Labour figure puts it, “how one transfers wealth from grandparents to grandchildren, from the baby boomers to Generation Y.” How long before the Treasury, the Liberal Democrats—and logic—prevail and universal benefits such as the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and TV licences are up for grabs?
This may be the generation that is forced to abandon some of the old rules. The politicians will succeed in doing so, however, only if they can persuade the voters that they are driven by pragmatism and the national interest rather than ideological conviction and narrow party concern.