British politics in this dismal decade resemble a failed sponge cake – brittle and bitter at the edges, and soggy and inert at the centre where the meaningful action should be taking place but isn’t. As W. B. Yeats so eloquently put it in “The Second Coming”,
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
Anyone concerned about the political health of our democracy ought to be worried about this malaise; and a ‘liberal conspiracy’ should be seeking to rectify it.
Today’s public debate is dumbed down in most respects, yet at the same time often snarly and ill-tempered. An interesting perspective is provided by Frank Furedi in Politics of Fear and Invitation to Terrorism. His thesis is that we – the West – have lost our bearings and are confused about our identity and purpose. The public is frightened by the shadowy threats of terrorism and mounting global violence which are hyped up by our elected leaders who, though they mouth platitudes about ‘freedom’ and ‘democratic values’, are bewildered by the nature of others’ hostility to our way of life and respond by encroaching on our own cherished traditional freedoms under the guise of ‘protecting’ us.
So far as Britain is concerned, it is undoubtedly true that over the last couple of decades we have moved into a ‘dependency society’ where more and more groups of people are identified as ‘vulnerable’ and therefore in need of an army of State nannies and supervisors to run their lives. Although we tend to think of our existence in sharply contrasting ‘before and after 9/11’ terms, this trend has been going on far longer than just since 2001, though it has accelerated sharply since then. After a decade of New Labour, we are approaching the point of no return: it is no longer inconceivable that within our lifetimes British citizens will be chipped, tagged, and spied upon by hidden cameras and eavesdropping devices from the cradle to the grave. All in our own best interests, of course. George Orwell’s worst nightmares are coming true.
As a democratic liberal who believes that the State exists for the benefit of the individual, and not the other way round, I find these trends dismaying though not altogether surprising, and certainly not so daunting that I feel constrained from protesting vigorously against them. I do believe, however, that time is getting short; and that the mobilisation of an active Centre majority which will fight every inch of the way for the recovery of our liberties is a highly urgent task for democrats.
By an active Centre, I don’t mean a return to the stale old consensus politics where the Labour and Conservative parties jostle with each other for the middle ground and the difference between them grows less and less. The Tories pulled off this trick in the post-WW2 years so successfully that it ultimately resulted in social and economic stagnation which was only broken by Mrs Thatcher’s plucky but misguided radicalism and ‘dash for freedom’. This has now morphed into New Labour’s embrace of neo-liberal economics, which is the perverse flip-side of its over-nannyish social policies. With this un-Labourlike and unSocialist scenario compounded by Blair’s headlong rush to be Bush’s poodle, it is no wonder that so many on the Left are angry and disgruntled, and feel bitterly betrayed.
This, surely, is where a promising opportunity lies for those of us who seek pragmatic rather than doctrinaire solutions to set out our stall before an increasingly bothered and bemused public. As Furedi rightly points out, the old labels ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are obsolete, and the meaningful divide is between those of us who believe that real national security and social progress will be achieved through trusting the maturity and common sense of the public and those who – wherever on the political compass they envisage themselves to be – seek to control and hobble others because they are frightened that they are losing control.
The spectrum of politics is not semi-circular; it is a full circle where the two extremes of undemocratic Left and Right are near neighbours so indistinguishable that their labels don’t really matter. At present, their strident, angry voices are far too dominant. Impelled by fear, they strive to compel all the rest of us to conform with their political, social, and religious dogmas. The open, tolerant, pluralist Centre is still, I believe, the political preference of the majority of level-headed, shrewd British people who are increasingly depressed and derailed by the raucous voices shouting over their heads and attempting to impose unwanted curbs on how they think and behave.
After a decade in office, Labour is obviously tired and stumbling. It’s worst mistake has been a growing tendency to invade, in Nannyish fashion, the citizen’s right to privacy and integrity. We need a government elected at
It is time for the commonsense Centre to bestir itself. We should listen less to the feverish chatter from the fringes, and restore a more balanced political discourse to our affairs.