The battle of ideas in the 1990s is less clear cut than in 1945 or 1964. The grand ideologies are dead . The left will benefit from a looser coalition with an eclectic intelligentsiaby Tony Blair / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Michael Young, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, has written that Labour’s victory in 1945 was founded on three coalitions: a coalition of ideas; a coalition of radicalism and patriotism; and “a coalition of intellectuals, thinkers and planners on the one hand, and practical politicians on the other.”* In office, the 1945 government combined values, interests and policies to fashion a political settlement that lasted a whole generation.
If Labour is to dominate again for a generation, we need to fashion a comparable settlement; that means providing an answer to the two questions which will dominate debate into the 21st century: how do we construct a new relationship between the individual and society in an era of rapid change? And how do we reshape Britain’s place in Europe and the wider world?
Our answers will have an impact only if we acknowledge the profound differences between 1996 and 1945-and even between 1996 and 1964-in the way that political ideas are generated and spread.
Values and ideas still provide the basis for policy decisions that otherwise become a matter for the technocrats. They give shape to a movement and meaning to a programme. As David Marquand has observed: “One of the safest rules of politics is that decisive political victories must follow ideological victories. Like armies sweeping through fortifications flattened by aerial bombardment, the Attlee and Thatcher governments beat demoralised opponents whose ideas had come to seem risible or contemptible or both.”
Labour is not yet at that stage. The synthesis we achieved in 1945, or the Tories managed after 1979, does not come easily. It is often forgotten, for example, that some of the people who became leading gurus of the new right in the 1980s, such as Friedrich Hayek, had spent 30 years being dismissed as cranks.
In 1963 Harold Wilson’s election as Labour leader excited a generation of intellectuals. But the euphoria of the intelligentsia that accompanied Wilson’s march to power was not matched in the ballot box. Wilson’s majority in 1964 was three seats (although it did increase in 1966). Worse still, not only were expectations impossibly high; hard choices had not been faced. In the end, the postwar settlement was not modernised from the left, but 15 years later from the hard right.
The spirit of the times has changed beyond recognition since 1964. The totalising ideologies of left and right no longer hold much purchase. Harold Wilson famously claimed that the Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. That is one reason I fought to reassert Labour’s core values in a new Clause Four. But as the late Ernest Gellner argued in the last issue of Prospect, na?ve ardour is little use to anyone. The challenge for a modern party is to recognise difficult realities while providing a programme and message which can move both activists and voters. To put it another way: the task is to combat apathy and disillusionment with politics without sacrificing realism and credibility.
How do we develop and present our ideas in the 1990s? Despite Labour’s recent success in increasing its membership, political parties are smaller and their cultures far less significant than 30 years ago. Moreover, thanks to the evolution of the media and the intelligentsia since 1964, the way political ideas are discussed and presented has substantially changed.
Following the implementation of the Robbins report (a significant achievement of the Wilson era), higher education has increased almost tenfold. There are many more better educated people today, but there is no cohesive, self-conscious, intellectual elite in the sense that there still was 30 years ago. Academia has become more fragmented, more specialised; media outlets have proliferated; and the walls between academia, think-tanks, industry and the media are being broken down by people who cross the traditional divides.
The all-rounders who excel on the television sofa as well as in the seminar room or lecture hall can be as unrepresentative (and often as anti-Labour) as their more scholarly equivalents of 30 years ago. They can be superficial, too. But in their eclecticism and their tendency to reject party labels they represent something real about our more sceptical, questioning times.
The pervasiveness of the media in political life-above all its compulsion to crunch a subtle or complex idea into a lurid headline-cramps political debate. The result is that the creation of ideas increasingly takes place not just outside the old left/right dividing lines (this is the inevitable result of a more pluralistic world) but also outside the party political system itself. The party which understands this new reality can benefit from an open but friendly relationship with the new intelligentsia. Intellectuals must recognise that politicians have to exercise political judgement; politicians should not expect intellectuals to be slavish supporters.
Writing in Prospect (March 1996), Ferdinand Mount, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said that the right has come to the end of a cul-de-sac. The “dogma block” of free market liberalism is producing more and more perverse results: more centralised government, more people on benefit, more entrenched vested interests. The centre left thus has a chance to set the terms of debate for a new period in politics beyond the “age of individualism” of the last 17 years, but different, too, from the old postwar settlement.
This is an exciting time to be on the centre left. The electorate are interested; think-tanks are flourishing; books are selling; new journals are growing, old ones relaunching. I am delighted that following a recent seminar of people from academia, industry and think-tanks, organised by the magazine Renewal, there are plans to set up a new network of people who want to make their contribution to changing the political climate (to be found at Nexus, Freepost SE8456, London SE18 3BR).The country has come to the end of one paradigm, a new one is being designed.
The Labour party is making its contribution. We have cleared out the deadwood of outdated ideology, policy and organisation, and made the party relevant again to many thoughtful people who want to vote for a credible alternative to the Conservative party. The building blocks of a new identity for the centre left are now in place. This identity has four elements.
First, there is the idea of a stakeholder economy. This is not a code for the import of the German economic model; rather, it builds on the commonsense insight that a community based on inclusion will be stronger than one with a whole class set apart. This reflects new thinking about the economics of trust and social capital, as well as older ideas about the rights and responsibilities of all those involved in wealth creation.
Second, we need to fashion a new social order to meet the anxiety and insecurity people feel about the breakdown of traditional norms and institutions, and the fragmentation of families and communities. It is a new definition of “one nation.” It starts from the belief that social inclusion is necessary for a society to merit that name. It then asserts that with membership come rights and responsibilities. This does not mean turning the clock back. It means that we need points of security in a world of rapid change. Freedom plus responsibility is a potent combination for the modern left.
Third, there is widespread recognition that Britain’s 19th century political institutions-centralised, secretive and undemocratic-are an unsatisfactory vehicle for tackling 21st century problems. Political reform is an essential part of economic and social reform.
Fourth, Britain has failed to find a post-imperial role in the world because of its ambivalent relationship with the rest of Europe. We must find it now, by leading reform within the EU to ensure that it remains a force for openness, democracy and wealth creation.
What joins these four pillars of Labour’s political agenda is a belief about how people relate to the society in which they live. I joined the Labour party out of a conviction that individuals prosper in an inclusive and active civil society.
Labour’s contention is that we will never solve our problems as individuals (whether job insecurity or fear of crime) unless we also solve our problems as a nation: an economy ill-equipped for global competition, a society divided against itself and a political system centralised and secretive. Liberty, equality and fraternity exist in creative tension. The fact that the latter two have been ignored for too long means that the first is increasingly being denied. We need to redress the balance.
There is a pressing need for continued debate to deepen these ideas, refine them, toughen them up. People outside the party have a critical role. They can help us understand the issues and forces shaping society so that we can shape the future. And they can contribute to gritty policy work: it may not have the glamour of purer intellectual endeavour, but it is equally demanding. By trying to convert ideas into policy you often discover their weaknesses, or even the incompatibility of two different values you cherish.
The American author EJ Dionne has written in his book They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era: “Our time combines social change with moral crisis, enormous economic opportunity with economic dislocation and distress. It most closely resembles the period 1870-1900, which led to the progressive era.”
It is rarely evident to people that they are living through a deep ideological shift. After all, many expected the Tories to win in 1945, and few foresaw 1979 as a turning point. The terrain of political ideas is now complex and fragmented, so David Marquand’s military imagery may be misleading. The new ascendancy is a gradual, incremental process; its creators will not just be intellectuals or Labour party members.
To say-as some do-that the ideas of the right are still more “exciting” than those of the centre left is to recognise that they have departed from the mainstream. This gets them headlines-but mainly because people find their ideas bizarre. This role reversal with the left is one I welcome.
Change today depends on winning trust. Winning trust depends on showing vision and competence. And proving competence is done in the details as much as the big vision. Bringing together vision and detail is the hardest, but the most important, thing. That is our task now. n
*Giles Radice (ed) What Needs to Change,