What kind of politics do we need? Between left and right populism, it’s perplexing that there’s nothing inspiring emerging from the middle ground.
Is part of the problem that current hopes of an alternative are invested in something called centrism? There’s nothing to lift the spirits in that term. It suggests a bland splitting of the difference between the extremes or, worse, nostalgia for the discredited status quo ante.
Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.
My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.
Opposition politics in the UK are in a sorry state. The Labour Party is in the grip of a far-left cult which is not much interested in parliamentary democracy. Since the General Election, those in the Labour Party who don’t favour Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have gone quiet – perhaps buying into the myth that by not losing the election as disastrously as everyone expected, he somehow won it instead. Because the moderates expressed their lack of confidence in Corbyn on the grounds of his unelectability, they are now shouted down by those who crow about Corbyn’s apparent popularity. What has been lacking is a principled critique of what he stands for.
Some years ago, I attended a meeting on whether executive coaching could help make society better. I mentioned a Marxist critique of the crisis in capitalism that I had recently read. Before I even managed to share any insights that I’d found relevant, one of my associates brushed aside my contribution – asserting something along the lines that we didn’t want the Stasi in the UK (a sentiment with which I naturally concur). He seemed to want to restrict the conversation to the role of business in promoting environmental sustainability. The episode defined for me a sensibility in working life that holds to faux-apoliticism as a badge of professionalism. In this view of the world, there’s a safe agenda of social change, which allows a degree of corporate virtue signalling around our shared interest in planetary survival, but forbids the potentially more divisive discussion of wealth and power and the role of organisations in sustaining them.
This distinction is increasingly hard to sustain. The backlash against a capitalism that consigns whole communities to the backwaters is recognised as a factor in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This year, the Grenfell Tower fire gave us a grotesque demonstration of where apolitical collusion with the apparently natural workings of the economy can lead. Not just the circumstances that led to the fire but the local authority’s inability to respond to the disaster revealed a hollowed out state, in which an over-financialised approach to management overwhelms the ability of organisations to meet basic human needs.
Brexit is shaping up to be the object lesson par excellence in how not to lead in complexity. First this week we have seen the Government’s negotiating strategy (if one can call it that) for getting to Phase 2 of the Brexit talks blown to pieces by its negligence of the Irish border issue. Then the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, admitted that the Government had made no assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various sectors of the economy, despite having previously insisted on several occasions that such assessments were in hand. So the Government is navigating what is the biggest peacetime challenge that the UK has faced in generations, not just with no real understanding of what its impact will be but no attempt to understand. It’s almost as if the truth would be too frightening for ministers to know.
The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote a series of columns this year on the subject of moderation. He was responding to the increasing prevalence of fanaticism in the United States, which stretches from Trump’s “conspiracy mongering” to the neo-Nazis. We have our own problems with fanaticism in the UK, ranging from the hard-line Brexiteers who will have no compromise with reality to the misogynistic and anti-semitic left.
The problem with fanaticism is that it provokes righteous anger in those who oppose it. So a perfect storm of rage encompasses civic life. The last sentence of my previous paragraph might even have contributed to it.
“Democracy, said Camus, is the system that relies on the wisdom of people who know that they don’t know everything.” This observation, by Philip Collins in The Times (£) this morning sent me scuttling to consult Camus’ reflections in more depth.
Collins was giving a very measured response to the day of infamy which saw the murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox. I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox before yesterday. But in our age of political disenchantment, it seems especially poignant that she appears to have been – as my friend, Simon, who broke the news to me, put it – a fabulous advert for everything we all want: an engaged, democratic, local, committed politician.
Earlier this year, I attended a talk at the RSA by Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Laloux was every bit as inspiring as I had hoped after reading his book. But what has stayed with me also was a throwaway comment by Matthew Taylor, chairman of the RSA and former advisor to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. Reflecting on the paucity of organisational life, Matthew observed that we need a politics of organisation. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what we need and, at last, people are beginning to get it.
The politics of organisation was, of course, one of many absences in the General Election campaign. One of the successes of three decades of neo-liberalism is that what happens inside organisations has been ruled out of court for politicians. But at the same time, organisations – particularly private corporations – have become increasingly central to how our society is, well, organised. Most of us work in large organisations to earn our living and, with the hollowing out of the state, depend on them for the delivery of our public services. And what is left of life is increasingly mediated by the likes of banks that are too big to fail, food retailers whose chains extend from the convenience shop to the out-of-town megastore, and global internet businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. How we experience them as employees and consumers and how they impact on society in general are among the most significant influences on our lives.
When Barack Obama took office as President of the United States, I was struck by his effort to accommodate rivals within his cabinet. Now we have our own cabinet of rivals governing the United Kingdom and the impact on the tone of our politics has been immediate.
There are warnings in the press that the unlikely pact between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will end in tears. All governments end in failure at some point. But for now, we have a more adult-to-adult and consensual political discourse and the signs are that the leaders will try their utmost to make it stick.