Monday, 1 October 2007

Cavaliers and Roundheads

One of the most astute comments ever made about the nature of politics is to be found in that peerless classic, 1066 and All That. Condensing the English civil war to a single sentence, it characterised the two sides thus: The Roundheads (that's Cromwell's lot) were "Right but Repulsive". The Cavaliers, on the other hand, were "Wrong, but Wromantic".

The significance of the remark lies not in the details of the historical events it purports to describe, but in the intuition that things that are right are generally repulsive, and things that are wrong are, mutatis mutandis, considerably more attractive. Sugar and cream are "naughty, but nice". Eating broccoli is good for you. Sex will give you unpleasant diseases. Smoking kills. This, of course, was the main Puritan insight, which is still one of the prime movers of the left-liberal conscience. The fact that something gives pleasure may not in itself ever be a stated reason for banning something, but it's a good rule of thumb that when there's a campaign to get something banned, it's because someone out there is having rather too much fun.

But it's too easy to blame Puritanism. What Puritanism feeds off is a guilt-complex that seems to some extent innate. People have an inbuilt hypocrisy that tells them that, while a little of what they fancy might do them good, it also leaves them slightly soiled.

This may go some way towards explaining the predicament that the Conservatives find themselves in. A few years ago, then chairman Theresa May made a notorious speech to the party conference in which she used the phrase "the nasty party". This has been followed, especially since David Cameron became leader, by a calculated distancing of the party from policies which, at least to a metropolitan elite, sounded "nasty". Such as, Tories have ceased to focus on, or even to mention, immigration controls, "harsh" language on law and order, or Europe. All of which, along with tax-cuts (another no-no) represent the kind of things that a right of centre party has traditionally seen as its unique selling point. Instead, Cameron and his lieutenants have preferred to talk about the environment, the national health service, and public services.

For a while, this strategy looked to be succeeding. Unfortunately, it now turns out that most of their apparent progress was down to sheer boredom with the demented posturings of Tony Blair. Trouble was, having dumped the traditional right-wing agenda, there was nothing much to put in its place. Concern for the environment and for civil liberties, however genuine, seems so counter-intuitive to the broad mass of voters (and, indeed, to most political commentators) that it just doesn't register. Yet whenever a Conservative attempts to venture onto their traditional territory, there's always a Labour spokesman on hand to scream "lurch to the Right." Right, as in Repulsive.

Modern politics is essentially a branch of marketing, since large parts of what used to constitute the red meat of politics have largely been removed from the domestic agenda. And, even without Blair, Mandelson or Campbell, New Labour marketing remains both cynically brutal and ruthlessly efficient. What Labour strategists long ago hit upon was how to exploit voters' innate hypocrisy, their Puritan guilt. A large proportion of the electorate, and especially of that roughly 50% of the population the marketing people refer to as Mainstreamers, want right-wing policies on things like law and order. They also want to be looked after by the state, and, to a surprising extent, to be told what to do. But above all, they want to think of themselves as decent people. Like those nice, caring, sharing Labourites, not like those nasty Tories. A statist, right-wing, socially authoritarian solution of the sort offered by Labour is almost inevitably going to win.

Of course, there are plenty of dissidents. But, whether they launch their dissent from the socialist left, the libertarian right or the civil-liberties centre, or indeed from a position of apolitical individualism like the Heresiarch's, they will always be little platoons when faced with the massed ranks of Labour's coalition. We are in grave danger of sliding into almost permanent one-party government, of the type associated with Sweden or Japan.

Does this really matter? If the people are generally happy with the government's actions, can it really be undemocratic for one party to dominate the life of a nation?

For a number of reasons, I would say yes. And especially if the permanent party of government is, at least notionally, a party of the Left.

Firstly, democracy is not the same as majority rule. Minorities also have their rights. And while one may justly criticise some of the excesses of the previous Tory governments, the great recent (and forthcoming) erosions of civil liberties have taken place under Labour. Nor was this merely a response to terrorism. New Labour has pursued a cynical hard-right law and order strategy right from the start. One of its very first measures was to make easier the conviction of 10 year-olds. The draconian Terrorism Act of 2000 was passed, let it not be forgotten, well before 9/11; yet that did not stop the government, after the attack on the Twin Towers, from rushing through even more far-reaching laws. I have little doubt that if capital punishment were still being practised in this country, New Labour would have extended its scope and speeded up executions.

Of course, many Tories privately have sympathy for a hard-line approach to such matters. Not necessarily private: the cry of "bring back hanging" will always get applause at a conservative conference. There's a deep paradox here. People who join the Labour party rarely do so because they have right-wing opinions; many, indeed come from a civil-liberties background. Yet once elected, their support for authoritarian measures seems uncontainable. Meanwhile, Tories, who often do have right-wing opinions, rarely implement them when in office.

Why should this be? Probably because they have a left-wing opposition to restrain them. Because left-wingers benefit from the deep-seated prejudice that they are the good guys, when they denounce a particular measure their denunciations carry weight. And notionally right-wing ministers, who are as prey to guilt and hypocrisy as the rest of mankind, back off. Or never go there to begin with. Whereas when a supposedly left-wing government proposes something draconian, and the Tories oppose it, to most of the public their stance looks both opportunist and bizarre.

If there is no convincing or coherent opposition from the Left, politics will tend ever more strongly in a right-wing direction. That's why anyone who truly values civil liberties and a tolerant society should be praying for that the Tories stage a miraculous recovery.

1 comment:

Jack said...

They'll need a bloody miracle... have you seen the graph of turnout since IngSoc came to power?!

http://content.answers.com/main/content/wp/en/4/44/Turnout.png

A closer inspection of the three main parties (or triumvirate), you see that Labour's success is entirely to do with the Tories' collapse.

Labour hasn't increased its support at all; people simply refuse to vote (or see nothing to positively vote for).
The result is a government elected by 25% of the population; with the largest portion of the electorate - some 40% actively disengaging.

The system is broken, and current Ipsos-MORI polls show a possible further turnout fall to somewhere around 50%.

Having surfed the virtual political coast for a while now, there seems to be consistent majorities of people who simply reject the whole view and value-system of the current establishment.

So many laws put into place to coerce people into agreement seems to have created an undercurrent of fear of free expression... it may cost them their job; their reputation; or even result in a visit from the police about something they've written or said in exasperation.

The next election would seem to be possibly one of the most interesting in British history, but for all the wrong reasons.
Will voter turnout fall even lower?
Will there be a hung parliament?
Will smaller parties and independents suddenly flourish?

Or will we be prodded and poked futher into an Orwellian CCTV ID-Card DNA-database Anti-protest and Anti-Freedom-of-speech mire?