Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Return of the Big Idea

Many years ago when dinosaurs walked the earth, steam engines were new-fangled and people said "new-fangled" about steam engines, politics was ideological. There was Left, there was Right and your voting choices were more or less hereditary.

The interesting thing about the last French general election (as I dimly recall blogging at the time) was that it returned to ideology after a long period of eschewment (I know, it's not a word, but I'm a good way through a bottle of cheap Rosé and in no condition to Google the proper replacement), and Gordon Brown's recent speeches at the Labour conference imply strongly that this is the battlefield he wants to fight on.

This smacks a little of desperation, or possibly insanity. New Labour won in '97 because they ditched the antiquated ideological straitjacket (mixed metaphor - again, drunk) that had kept them in opposition for so long: this was the beginning of the modern cliche that both parties have the same policies/are just the same/are just as bad as each other that has kept voters apathetic ever since. It worked because people were sick of philosophy and badly wanted some revolutionary pragmatism: many of Thatcher's less popular (or rather, more frightening and tyrannical) decisions were based on Conservative ideology, not practicality. New Labour looked like the common sense of the common man, up against the abstract ideals of a disconnected elite. No wonder it worked. And undoubtedly Blair and Brown hoped that this would break the tectonic cycle of Right-to-Left-to-Right that had defined the electorate's voting habits for so long.

But humans are by nature cyclical beings or, to put it another way, easily bored. The Conservatives, somewhat slow on the uptake, responded to Labour's win by trying to drive themselves further to the Right (remember "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" - the BNP would love to have thought of that slogan) and failed miserably, giving the voters yet more reason to leave the whole ideological aspect of politics behind. It had become parody. But a new cycle was in the offing.

Recently in Americaland Obama was elected president because the USA was sick of ruthless, selfish pragmatism and badly needed an ideal again. They had cycled round from their own particular brand of Right to their special version of Left. New Labour thought they had effectively destroyed the ideological debate but in reality had only shifted it to a new arena - now the difference between Left and Right is Control versus Freedom, and while 1997 seemed like a good time for somebody to take control everyone's become a bit tired of it now - the CCTV cameras, the taxes, the increase in police powers, the decrease in police responsibility...

Cameron has the advantage now, because he's moderately wealthy. In the past this has been a disadvantage because of the natural distrust the British have for successful people - we usually assume they have cheated somehow, by fraud, inheritance or, Gods forbid, working hard - but Cameron has at least had a proper job outside of politics (at Carlton, of ITV fame) and isn't noticeably titled: we're starting to think that maybe, just maybe, our Prime Minister should be somebody successful for a change. Somebody who is good at something. Major used to wear his lack of qualifications as a badge of honour, a mark of being a common man made good: that kind of thing just doesn't work any more. We no longer want the PM to be someone just like us. We want to be led by someone talented, by someone better.

Outside of the UK, this revision in battle lines between Left and Right is less distinct. The reason Americans give Obama so much shit about his health reforms is indeed racist, but not because he's black: it's because he's considered European, and therefore Socialist. It's hard for us to remember over here (especially for those of us who are not as old and decrepit as I) but it wasn't so long ago that America was effectively at war with Socialism in its extremist incarnation of Soviet Russia: they haven't forgotten this even if we have, and under the surface they still disdain Europe for being too close to that old and failed ideology. We in the UK tend to regard ourselves as external to Europe, but let's not kid ourselves: America doesn't differentiate. The furore over national healthcare exposed an ugly and vicious prejudice against the British, a belief that we are little more than cowardly half-assed Marxists who hate freedom, just like the French.

I don't envy Barry his job. But he's a big man and he'll work it out. As for Cameron, I hope he stops fudging over his material assets - I suspect he may gain more votes than he loses from admitting to being a fairly well-off man, and will certainly gain from his idealism. Britain wants a direction now, one that's outward rather than inward: we want to be led by a man and a party that doesn't blame us for all their problems, but that wants us to be the solution.

Brown may not realise it, but his talk of ideals and philosophy may just have knackered the election for him completely.

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