Sunday, 22 November 2020

Beyond left versus right: How relevant is the political spectrum?

I recall a high school history lesson in which it was explained how the extremities of the political right and left were by no means polar opposites. The subject matter might vary, but the similarities between the totalitarianism of the one and the authoritarianism of the other were clear for any objective viewer to note. This interpretation proposed that rather than a single straight line there was curvature at the ends which brought far left and far right into closer proximity. Nonetheless, the mainstream of politics was still seen as reasonably delineated by a straight line spectrum.

The most marked blurring of the spectrum in Britain came not from the reforms of Thatcherism but the adoption of a significant portion of them by Tony Blair's Labour Party. While it would not be unreasonable to note that the Labour Party has had moments in which it has fought back against Blair's vision, in terms of a societal effect I do not think there has been any great reversal of this economic progress beyond the old right versus left battle.

For the Conservatives, there was a less clear big bang moment. Rather a party which was never entirely at ease with social reform, had a remarkably good record of 'getting there in the end'. Often it was undignified and the outbursts of the last hold outs did more to define the image of the party in the eyes of opponents than any legislation. Yet, the Tories have long been the party of deliverable gradual reform. Under David Cameron there was an acceleration of social liberalism within the party, but Cameronism was not contrary to Conservative traditions, it was just more open in talking about a broader range of topics and challenging some outdated perceptions.

I think a case could be made that by 2016 and the end of the Cameron premiership the straight line spectrum of left and right was obsolete. Philosophical debates over the means of production were superseded by the practical considerations of how to provide fair pay and conditions to the gig economy worker. And while there remained a debate about how quickly social reform would take place, there was little doubting the trajectory which ever party was in power.

The respective ideological takeovers of Labour by Corbynism and the Conservatives by Brexit purity hinted at a return to the old political spectrum. However, in practice this was little more than a Westminster pantomime, albeit one with serious connotations. It did not really reflect society beyond the bubble of the politically engaged.

In geopolitical terms too, the idea of a right and left wing spectrum would struggle to define China, the Communist financier to infrastructure projects the world over. Locking ourselves into the old way of thinking can constrain how we respond to the challenges of today and the future. Previously on this blog I have referred to why I think the days of small government look to be numbered and advocated a universal basic housing policy which I think could be perceived as both socialist and libertarian.

I fear that the west is in something of a self-inflicted decline with Britain more so inclined to this than our neighbours. Perhaps the origins of this were shifting economic and demographic patterns but now it feels too often fuelled by a lack of confidence in nation, culture and identity. Great powers do rise and fall and sometimes the latter happens for no greater reason than internal decline. This must be repaired if we are to prosper in the future. However, those repairs and the necessary innovation is going to be critically constrained if our politicians simply seek to find solutions that come ready-made in a box labelled appropriately for their self-defined point on the political spectrum. Society has moved beyond left versus right, so too should our politics.