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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Trasformismo English style?

Trasformismo. This term was used from the 1880s onwards to describe the process whereby the so-called "historic" Left and Right parties which emerged from the Risorgimento tended to converge in terms of programme during the years which followed, until there ceased to be any substantive difference between them....The two main parties disintegrated into personal cliques and factions, which characterised Italian parliamentary life until fascism. Footnote from Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (1986 [1971], London: Lawrence & Wishart), p58.

The result of the Conservative leadership contest has still to be announced, so David Davis may still win. However, the chances are David Cameron will be the new Conservative leader. It is interesting (what? a Tory leadership contest?!) that I've read over the past few weeks that Cameron plans to attack Blair on the grounds of being sincere but weak. That is, Blair will be praised by Cameron for having a programme of "reform" of the public services ie handing them over to big business, but will be attacked by Cameron as being unable to implement these because of opposition from within the Labour Party and the unions.

What will be the difference between the two main parties then? Gordon Brown at the Labour Party conference said he would continue the "reform" programme after Blair leaves office. By using the right amount of "Old" Labour rhetoric he will probably get his way, especially as he can use the bogey of a Conservative government with even fewer qualms than Brown as a way of forcing the unions to tow the line in the run-up to the next election. I remember before Labour took power how Brown used to attack the Conservatives repeatedly as "incompetent" ie it wasn't their policies, but the way they implemented them, that was their main fault. Sounds familiar, eh?

I always think one of the most important statements in Western politics in recent times was back at the 1988 Democratic Party conference when Michael Dukakis (remember him?) was nominated as the Democrats' Presidential candidate. I remember a line of his quite distinctly: "This election is about competence not ideology." Politics is seen as about managing the world, not changing it: ideal for those who see politics as merely another career not as a means to change the world. No wonder political parties (particularly mainstream ones) have so many problems now enthusing their own members, let alone the electorate at large.

I can't see the Lib Dems being much of an alternative to the two main parties either. Last year there was a selection of essays published in the "Orange Book" by so-called Lib Dem "modernisers" (I suppose they are "Young Turks" in cliched journalistic-speak, although that phrase always brings to my mind people in Tommy Cooper fezs). Basically, the Orange Bookers want the private sector (ie the usual suspects) to take over more running of public services. Spot the difference! If Charles Kennedy goes before the next election I can see the Orange Bookers getting their way (arguing that to take Tory seats they need Tory policies), with their appeals to the public based on claims that both main parties are "incompetent".

I'm not sure how the next election will go, but I would not be surprised if there is a hung parliament. I would not be too surprised if the "modernisers" of all three main parties then united around a programme of "reform" in the aftermath. After a bit of English-style trasformismo, a de facto "National Government" for the 21st Century, an unabashed government of the Far Centre, would emerge. How democrats outside the magic circle would deal with that is another matter.

Anyway, enough idle speculation. If you think the main difference between Blair and Cameron is age, I can quote the following Nick Cohen article in your defence.

The Birth of Blameron, New Statesman, 8th August 2005

Evelyn Waugh once complained that the Conservatives had been in power for years but not turned the clock back by one minute. The old reactionary should be alive at this hour. He could watch with shock and awe as the Tory “modernisers” defy their name by wrenching back the hands of the clock - to 1995.

Once again a public school boy with good manners is seeking to become prime minister, although this time his alma mater is Eton rather than Fettes. Once again, he seems refreshingly normal. He has a pleasant wife and young family, and announces that he is as far from the old-fashioned machine politician as it is possible to get. Once again, public relations are at the core of his campaign, although this time he doesn’t need hired help in the form of Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson because he has spent years as director of communications for a media conglomerate and can spin himself. Like Dr Who, Tony Blair is regenerating into a fresher, younger actor who, in a novel twist in the plot, will lead the Conservative rather than Labour Party.

Close your eyes and listen to the young pretender’s speeches and you are back in the time when Oasis topped the charts, Bridget Jones was counting the alcohol units and Osama Bin Laden’s name was unknown to all save a handful of twitchy intelligence officers.

Here is David Cameron setting out his vision for the Tory party in a speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank at the end of June:

“We’ll never achieve a dynamic economy and a decent society if we expect the government to do everything, as the left say, or if we expect individuals acting on their own to do everything, as some on the right have implied . . . Shared responsibility is the hallmark of a civilised society. It’s a profound Conservative insight and instinct that the state can’t do everything and shouldn’t try.”

It might have been the master in his prime. First Cameron establishes a false dichotomy: only communists have ever believed that the state should do everything, and only anarchists have believed that the state should do nothing. No serious British politician in the 20th century believed in anything other than a mixed economy. Then he uses the false dichotomy’s dialectic to show that he, Cameron, has seen the thesis clash with the antithesis and can give the electorate the triumph of concluding the synthesis.

This is Blair, 1997, talking to an audience in Southampton:

“In the 1950s and the 1960s the big question in politics was: what can the state achieve? In the 1970s and 1980s the big question was: what can the individual achieve? Neither of these questions is right for the new century. Today the question we must answer is: what can society achieve - not the state on its own, not individuals on their own, but all of us together in a community, where opportunity for all is matched by responsibility from all.”

Blair’s interpretation of history was as selective as Cameron’s. At the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s taxes took roughly 40 per cent of gross domestic product, just as they did at the end of the 1960s and just as they do now. Even if they didn’t, why does it follow that Cameron’s “shared responsibility” or Blair’s “opportunity for all and responsibility from all” is the best policy? Why not return to state power or anarchic indivi-dualism? If Thatcherism was the answer in the 1980s, why not in the 2000s? Ditto with the alleged socialism of the 1960s.

As the philosopher Jamie Whyte points out in A Load of Blair, these reasonable questions cannot be asked. The cunning of dialectical rhetoric is that it shoves the listener on to the train of history. There is no choice about the destination, no chance to change direction. You had x, then you had y, so - QED! - you must have z.

Not that Cameron wants us to think he’s a sly political manipulator. On the contrary, he assures us he likes nothing better than swapping the falsity of the metropolis for the decent values of his West Oxfordshire constituency. “I love being a constituency MP,” he enthuses. “And it often strikes me that we behave completely differently in our constituencies from the way we behave at Westminster . . . We’re calm and reasonable. We don’t score points; we help solve people’s problems. We try to understand what’s going wrong, and how it can be put right. We bring people together to tackle issues.”

Or, as Tony Blair explained in 1994: “I feel a perfectly normal person. I look at politicians who are older than me and I wonder when was the last time they had their own thoughts to themselves in their own way without feeling they had to programme their thoughts to get across a message . . . This may sound an odd thing to say, but I don’t actually feel much like a politician.”

In 1993 Tony Blair was for the family - “out of a family grows the sense of community. The family is the starting place.” In 2005 Cameron, too, bravely came out for the family - “It can make us happy when we’re sad” (as can beer with whisky chasers).

Blair was “tough on crime”; Cameron says the Prime Minister is not tough enough. Blair used globalisation to justify a flexible labour market; Cameron says that “in the era of globalisation, we’ll never achieve our economic potential if we smother our economy with excessive taxation and regulation”.

In 1997 Blair stated that he believed firmly in the bleeding obvious - “that people achieve more together than they can alone. That the rights we enjoy are matched by the duties we owe, that security is life’s most precious commodity.” In 2005 Cameron announced he, too, wanted policies whose virtues were so universally agreed that they were beyond political debate - “a dynamic economy”, “a decent society” and “a strong, self-confident and outward-looking country”.

I could go on, but it’s time to take on the understandable objection and ask what is wrong with the modernisers . The case for them appears so overwhelming that criticism feels like mere contrarianism. It is true that for the first time in a century the Tories have made the fatal mistake of falling out of step with British society. Millions of people who have no real objection to their policies won’t vote for them because of their repellent image. Imitating Tony Blair appears the logical tactical manoeuvre. As writers in the New Statesman - your correspondent included - have repeated a thousand times, Blairism is just a PR stunt. Why not use the tactics of the man who destroyed the Conservative Party to destroy new Labour?

Yet sometimes it can be a mistake to take the NS literally. The Blair of circa 1995 disappeared in the global crisis of 11 September 2001, and it has been impossible to accuse him of being all style and no substance ever since. Think what you will about his policies, but at least you know what they are. By contrast, the Conservative modernisers have nothing to say about the great issues of the modern world. You leave Cameron’s speeches without the faintest idea of how he would tackle Islamism or protect his country. Should Britain stick with the United States or move closer to France and Germany? What’s gone wrong with multi-culturalism? Should democracy be encouraged in the Middle East, and if so how? Answer comes there none.

Derivative and dated, Conservative modernism is ultimately a counterfeit. You can almost catch the sweet reek of the caramelised sugar that holds the confection together. A public grown weary of PR will turn up its nose in an instant.

At about the time Evelyn Waugh was complaining about the modernism of his generation of Conservatives, a journalist confronted Brendan Bracken, Winston Churchill’s slippery but plausible sidekick. He couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong, until something clicked, and in an indomitable voice he cried: “You’re phoney! Everything about you is phoney! Even your hair, which looks like a wig, isn’t!”

Unless he can mature by at least ten years overnight, the same will be said of David Cameron.


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