The dirty little secret of British politicsby David Goodhart / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Amid the din of the party conference season it is easy to forget the dirty little secret of British politics: that the underlying differences in philosophy and even policy between the three main parties remain narrower than at any time in the modern age. All parties, reflecting majority public opinion, want a regulated market economy flanked by decent, tax-funded public services (with the state spending 40 to 45 per cent of GDP, once normal economic service is resumed), and all parties—following the Tories’ leftward shift—lay claim to the term “progressive,” aiming to improve the life chances of those at the bottom and even narrow the gap between rich and poor. After Labour embraced the 1980s (the turn to the free market) the Tories have recently made their peace with the 1960s (race and gender equality, environmentalism and so on). The Tories talk grandly about transforming the British state (see Julian Glover’s cover story, p32), but any party needs an election-time myth, and in reality their plans amount to a few small adjustments to the New Labour settlement. There is little that David Cameron would disagree with in Gordon Brown’s testament of belief published in this issue, p24. If Labour loses the election, as most people expect, it will not be because the electorate have tired of its centrist politics but because they got bored with the people implementing them. And the idea that the recession, or the retrenchment in state spending that it calls for, is opening a new divide in British politics is also false—is it such a big deal if we halve the deficit in three years rather than five? This is no cause for regret. An intelligent, unideological, technocratic politics is what is required to solve the many serious problems facing Britain and the world. One of those problems—what to do about Britain’s overmighty finance sector—earned Prospect a deluge of publicity last month when Adair Turner, our leading technocratic public intellectual, confronted high finance with some uncomfortable truths in these pages. The big idea this month seems to be Amartya Sen’s 20-year-old notion of “capabilities”—a more subtle version of the old left-wing idea of positive liberty. Several writers, including the prime minister, cite it as a guiding light for rethinking the centre-left. Nothing wrong with using new words to describe perennial themes, but the idea of capabilities is too easily bent to very different agendas. Most of these writers also agree that Labour has failed to renew British democracy. But perhaps in a post-political age the problem lies less with the apathetic masses and more with the unrealistic expectations and hyperbolic language of the political class.