Thursday, 11 April 2013

A Pivotal Political Moment

I am a political watcher. I have been watching Politics intently for 32 years - from the days when Margaret Thatcher was campaigning to become Prime Minister back in 1979. 

Many would perhaps rightly think that this is a fantastic waste of the time invested. But it does occasionally pay a dividend that I value. Every so often I get a political insight from something I am watching and analysing that gives me a huge steer on the nature of future events. These occasional breathtaking insights are sometimes foresights that have the brilliant clarity and certainty of hindsight - quite an assertion!

One example of this was back in 2003 when I was nerdily watching the entire Conservative conference on TV while pretending to very slowly re-decorate my kitchen. Two young MPs from the 2001 intake made their first prominent appearance together conducting a Q and A session. It caught my attention completely. By the end of the session I knew I had just seen the next Conservative Prime Minister - the only question was which of the two would it be?

At the time no-one in the outside world had heard of either David Cameron (my best guess for next Conservative PM due to his age) or George Osborne (my preferred option due to his brilliant presentational skills - sadly now shrouded by the perceived necessity to look 'serious' in his position as Chancellor.)

Last night I was again nerdily watching the tributes to Mrs T in the House of Commons on BBC Parliament channel. Amongst the mushy stuff, it was a fascinating exposure of the arguments for, and against, the policies of her and her governments. The tributes had been going on since just after lunchtime when the PM had delivered his brief accolade and by 6.30pm ish there were only a handful of MPs on the Labour benches and probably 40 or 50 Conservative, most of whom were there waiting to speak themselves.

And then one of those Eureka moments happened. Gisela Stuart (Labour) stood up and delivered her poignant tribute. It started off quite slowly with talk about the equality of women in Parliament. It wasn't remarkable in any way. 

But then Gisela started talking about Economics and the economist Hayek and 'the market' being 'social'. Essentially she was putting her finger on the key underlying political problem in our country and in so doing, shone a light into the dark pointing a way forward.

Gisela started talking about 'polarisation' in our political debate and agenda and specifically about the polarisation between, on one hand, 'socialism' and on the other 'capitalism'. Gisela's idea was that this is a false choice and that the presence of this false choice is what is holding us up - as she put it 'on both sides of the house' but as I would express it, in this country.

Ok. So what I am driving at here?

Well. For years and years we have been stuck with the argument between 'Socialism' and 'Capitalism'. Although the word 'Socialism' was rejected by the Labour party in the 1990s when Tony Blair thought he would be more electable by doing so, socialist principles are those that are embedded still firmly in the Labour party. Conversely 'Capitalist Free Markets' are deeply embedded in Conservative thinking yet much of the electorate believe that 'profit' is a dirty word. 

These things, as they have been defined, are polar opposites.

But this simply is not true. 

And so, the electorate are stuck. We want a socially responsible government but we also want an economically competent government, yet no political party seems to represent both these things. In the centre of the electorate's mind we either have a harsh uncaring but economically competent government (Conservative) or a socially responsible but financially irresponsible one (Labour).

The key to solving this dichotomy is to unravel the theories, go back to first principles and find the overlapping, common ground - to resolve the false conflict. This is what Gisela is driving at. A new, to use another dirty word, 'Consensus' that stops our political parties endlessly re-fighting the same underlying arguments with every policy announcement.

It's not about simply re-branding political parties - Labour as New Blue Labour or the Conservative Party as Hug a Hoodie, Compassionate Conservatism. That is too vacuous, too obviously a superficial exercise. It is about digging much, much deeper.

The seeds of Gisela's argument are what I believe will spawn a new and highly effective political philosophy - One that will then go on to gather support from the broad electorate. 

Perhaps this is a fitting tribute to Mrs T. The idea that an examination of her legacy has and will help spawn the school of thought which will dicate the pattern of political life in the not too distant future.

People say that Margaret Thatcher overturned the post-war consensus and was divisive. I would say she challenged the post-war consensus and was divisive because her philosophy failed to achieve a new consensus. The arguments still rage today.

What Gisela was starting to articulate was a need and a basis for a new consensus. I shall keep listening.

The question in my mind again is now only which of the political players (parties rather than individuals) will be the one to lead this forward.


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