November 23, 2010

"AS"? THEY'VE BEEN REACTIONARY SINCE HISTORY ENDED:

As the left falls into a negative sulk, the centre-right have become the optimists: Everything, the Labour party says, is about to get worse. The task of dreaming dreams has been left to Nick Clegg and David Cameron (Julian Glover, 11/22/10, guardian.co.uk)

The coalition understands, hopefully, that it will fail if it continues to sit tests on terms laid out by Labour. Its politics must be recalibrated around a different philosophy. This sounds like – and can be – a way of dodging the consequences of cuts. But there is nothing inalienable about the ideas inherited from Britain's postwar settlement. The welfare state has in some ways led to a better and fairer society but after five decades Britain does not seem notably equal or free or happy. There may be better ways of achieving these ends.

John Maynard Keynes spotted the problem even before it came about. In his new book on the big society, the philosophically inclined Tory MP Jesse Norman quotes an article the economist wrote in 1939: "Why cannot the leaders of the Labour party face the fact that they are not sectaries of an outworn creed, mumbling moss-grown, demi-semi Fabian Marxism, but the heirs of eternal Liberalism?" Heirs, perhaps – but disinherited. There are few liberals in the Labour party these days. The task of thinking liberal thoughts has been left to the coalition.

On Tuesday Nick Clegg will give the Hugo Young Memorial lecture at the Guardian premises, and try to persuade his audience that the government draws its strength from ideology, not opportunism. He will step away from government by measurement and defend the liberal idea of individual human advancement. He has even been reading Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. Hayek next, perhaps.

Much of the left will sneer at this: but if I was inside Labour I would worry that Britain's centre-right parties are making a better job of setting out an optimistic philosophy of government than statist conservatives on the left. They have fallen into a negative sulk: everything, Labour predicts, is about to get worse, which only makes sense as a strategy if you have something better to offer.

Labour doesn't. The party has become uninteresting. The coalition is doing the thinking. Yes, the "big society" is waffly, unmarketable and disliked by many Tories. Norman's book won't persuade sceptics. But it is also a serious attempt to replace two misguided philosophies, one on the left and one on the right. Norman attacks Labour's state centralism. More interestingly, he also questions the liberal market economics which not long ago seemed a prerequisite of Tory thinking. He's trying to offer something original and he is not the only one in his party to do so.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2010 6:02 AM
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