Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Big Idea? Stoppit with the ideas

Read this article by Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph in tribute to (Lord) Ralph Harris

The premise is simple, modern politicians have no ideology, no real leadership. They exist in a cocooned world moulded by focus groups and opinion polls. Ideology, he argues, should be the driving force of modern politics, and politicians should trade in their 'followership' for 'leadership', converting people to their way of thinking. He says;

"The absence of ideas is acceptable only in a one-party state. Despite the
very good imitation that each of the main political parties does of the others,
we are not at that pass yet.But unless a new generation of thinkers has the
courage to pick up Ralph Harris's baton, and show that ideas are nothing to
fear, we soon will be."

A typical 'sound' argument that will resonate with many Thatcherite-era Tories. However, could I humbly suggest that in fact the single most useful ideology for modern politicians is to abandon any one ideology.

Consider Sweden.

I lived there for nine months and was astounded as a student of political theory at how 'lagom' the place was. 'Lagom' roughly translates like the Three Bears story, where mummy bear's porridge was 'neither too hot, nor too cold' - so it is with lagom, a state of neither extreme - a happy medium.

Just as with their porridge, the Swedes like their politics similarly lagom - hence the incoming right-wing prime minister of that country doesn't plan more than a tinkering round the edges with the famed Swedish social model. The parliament of Sweden reflects this, a unicameral chamber built upon the principles of consensus and avoiding confrontation. (Interestingly, Sweden's parliament has a very healthy proportion of women as a result of the absence of macho posturing)

Whilst this lack of excitement bored me silly, it struck me how the Swedes have a lovely country, where no one really worries about anything, and especially not big issues, like unemployment, healthcare, education. More likely a heated debate on plastic recycling.

Contrast with France.

I was struck on Channel 4's 'Are all Muslims evil bastards' debate by the comment from the female editor who published the offensive cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed. She said;
"Well I am a person of the left, a radical feminist" and proceeded to constantly bang on about her revoluntionary credentials.

It struck me that no politician in this country outside of the Socialist Workers would ever trot out such outdated language. Yet in France a major editor on a national paper is happily an unapologetic lefty. A sign of the ideology driven political culture of that country.

Look at the state of France. A country with high unemployment, fierce debate over how to tackle the current crises that beset it, and no action to do anything. If Chirac were ever to resolve himself to tackle the problems in a meaningful way he would face chaos as the unions fought to bring down the government.

Britain has already travelled that road. Men like Ralph Harris fought not to impose a radical new idea, but to bring back an old one. 200 years old in fact. What Simon Heffer is perhaps not giving credit to, is that the trauma of the Second World War meant, as Churchill put it,
"that every individual was to subvert their will to that of the state"

The post-war consensus was thus always slanted in that direction, with the government feeling obliged to get things done for people rather than granting them freedom in their own affairs. Thatcher put that right by her willingness to listen to the new-old ideas, however, when Thatcher departed her successors could not grasp that her strength was not solely her ideology, but also her pragmatism. Hence the failure of privatisations based on dogma rather than an uncritical appreciation of the facts. The Tories had passed beyond lagom and gladly headed into right-wing oblivion where they stayed until very recently.

Modern politics takes place on the centre ground, Labour understood this and shifted their camp accordingly, David Cameron is attempting the same. Future debates will not take place over ludicrous notions of the state setting the price of eggs, or owning airlines, or of not exisitng at all, but in that complex no-man's land of compromise and moderation.

As the Conservatives lay to rest a man who did so much to bring Britain back on keel, perhaps we should also lay to rest the idea that politics must involve gargantuan battles between bitterly opposed forces. New policy is likely to evolve gradually from the old. Personal freedom will mix with a responsible state as the battle scars of the past heal.

The challenge of the future is how to convince voters in this not-very-interesting lagom debate that they must change their vote. This is the real Big Idea.

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