Thursday, 2 February 2012

The politics of ideas; or, the ideas in politics

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Small, throat-clearing introductory note:

When there is so much turmoil in the world, I always think I should be addressing the serious matters. Then I end up writing about the dog, or Kauto Star, or what The Brother said on the Skype. That won't do at all, I think; must give them the big stuff. Then I finally do a long political post, and I think: oh, the poor readers, now they have to wade through a thousand words of me pontificating about political ideology. At least today there is no mention of the repeal of the Corn Laws. I know you will be very, very relieved to hear that.

Throat-clearing is now over. Here we go:


An interesting thing happened this morning. The last item on the Today programme, traditionally some kind of accelerated intellectual discussion rather than a hard news story, was: are there any big ideas left in politics?

It’s an excellent question. The notion is that as British politics moves more and more towards the centre ground, the battle is over management rather than ideology. In some ways, the utilitarian in me thinks this is not a bad thing, but when it is put like that, it does sound rather dry and uninspiring. In essence, the cry of the hustings has become: I can organise things better than the other lot can, so vote for me.

The Labour party is in a bit of a mess and a muddle at the moment. It is uninspired by the rather pedestrian leadership of Mili Jr, and foxed by running into the bashing wall of indebtedness. The final full stop on the cherished notion of free spending came when Liam Byrne left the Treasury a note: Sorry, there’s no money left. To their credit, all sorts of leftist thinkers are now bending their minds to the great question of how to create a good society when there is no cash.

When capitalism has proved itself so unreliable, and the global economy shivers and totters like a drunk on a three- day binge, throwing money at the problem is no longer a cunning plan. What interests me even more, and makes me a sad, is that even when there was money to burn, constant government spending did not provide beautiful, neat answers. I had so hoped it might. Surely if you invest, as the politicos like to say, in education, you will get children who can read? One of the things that made me most disappointed in the New Labour years was that the numbers on literacy and numeracy were still so shocking.

On the other side, the old right wing ideas which had their shining moment in the eighties, under Mr Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, of deregulation and supply side and trickle down, are now discredited. (Although interestingly, the current Republicans still insist that the answer to everything is lower taxes and then the trickle will trickle, despite all evidence to the contrary.) Here, the new Conservatives are trying to work out how to combine good society with tight, focussed government. Rank libertarianism and the Milton Friedman school seem too cold for such difficult times.

It is not as simple as the old idea that government is the problem. There seems to be a shift towards a recognition that government is necessary, but that it should be clever government. Perhaps a little leaner, less intrusive, as the right sees it; do away with absurd bureaucracies and red tapes, and focus the thing intelligently. As an idea, this is not bad on paper; the success of the execution remains to be seen.

The enduring weakness of the left is that all government is good by definition; the Achilles heel of the right is that all government is pernicious and patronising. In a way, it is the most fascinating of times, because both sides have had a bash at their ideas over the last forty years, and both have come up short. After seeing ideology in motion, all serious people realise that ancient holy cows may have to be abandoned, or at least tweaked a bit. And there is nothing like a crashing electoral shift and a global crisis to sharpen minds.

In this context, the Today question was a fine one. On came Baroness Warsi, the chairwoman of the Conservative Party. Are there still big ideas in politics, and how are your ideas different from those of Labour, she was asked.

And this is where it got interesting.

Either she did not know what an idea was, or she was determined not to speak of one. It was really, really strange. She at once started mouthing party pablum about people being ‘incentivised into work’.

This is not an idea. It is a managerial matter of making the welfare state function more efficiently. It is to do with correcting unintended consequences. James Naughtie had to interrupt her and restate the question, but it was to no avail.

I felt baffled and puzzled and mildly cross. It was a very short interview, and it’s a bit much to expect vast ideological debate to be played out in three minutes, but even so. Come on, Baroness, I thought, I need more than this.

The deep oddity of this is cast into sharper relief when one considers that the Prime Minister does actually have an idea. It’s one that has been prodded and dissected and mocked, but it is an idea. His dream of The Big Society has never really taken off in the public consciousness, because it has an amorphous, subtle quality to it. It can’t fit into a soundbite or go neatly onto a bumper sticker. It harks back to Burke’s little battalions, and, in its purest form, has a rather lovely central tenet: it expresses a faith in the people.

On a very basic level it says: you, in your local community, know more about what you need and want than we do, far away in Whitehall. In some ways, it is quite a liberal notion: it contains the mutually reinforcing concept of government helping people to help themselves. Cameron moved it away from the harder edges of social Darwinism, the up by your bootstraps strain of conservatism, when he said: there is such a thing as society, but it is not the same thing as the state.

There are three problems with this idea. One is: no one quite knows what it actually means. It has an inchoate, all things to all people air. The second is: as the country is overwhelmed with economic bad news, and hangs on by its fingernails, there is not much time to ponder big notions of how a good society should work. People are too worried about keeping their jobs and paying their bills. And the third is: there is a suspicion that it is just pretty talk to justify cuts. Rather than it being a good-hearted ideological theory of giving power to the people, it is seen as a cheese-paring, mean-spirited, you do it because we can’t afford to kind of thing.

I am sad that the Baroness would not speak of ideas. I know that the Tories traditionally distrust the life of the mind, although I think and hope that old canard is, in fact, old and possibly dead. But ideas do not have to be complex. God is great is an idea. All humans are created equal is an idea. Freedom under the law is an idea. (An excellent Whig idea, as I never forget.)

None of these is complicated. But they are all interesting. People being ‘incentivised into work’ is not only an ugly and clumsy collocation, but it is not something that makes one think. It is the language of practical management, and may well be a ministerial necessity, but it does not lead anywhere, in terms of thought or theory. The benefits argument is messy and sometimes alarming and often demoralising and usually labyrinthine, but it is an argument of execution, not philosophy.

Ideas can be crazy and impractical and frightening; they can look gorgeous on paper and be lousy in life; they can contradict each other like crazed cats fighting in a sack. But I think they are more necessary than ever now. Poor old Blighty can’t get out of this mess with nothing but a bit of dry incentivising. We need more than that.


Pictures of the day. Mostly trees, with added dog:

2 Feb 1 02-02-2012 11-05-06

2 Feb 2 02-02-2012 11-05-15

2 Feb 3 02-02-2012 11-08-03

2 Feb 4 02-02-2012 11-08-11

2 Feb 5 02-02-2012 11-08-51

2 Feb 6 02-02-2012 11-09-49

2 Feb 6 02-02-2012 11-10-01

Snowdrop watch: first and only clump still bashfully coming into flower:

2 Feb 9 02-02-2012 12-48-38

Small Pigeon photo essay.

Oh, look, there is a stick:

2 Feb 12 02-02-2012 12-48-17

I'll just give it a bit of a go:

2 Feb 13 02-02-2012 12-48-19

Eugh; not quite as delicious as I expected:

2 Feb 14 02-02-2012 12-48-24

Now, if I put my faintly melancholy Grace Kelly face on, will you take me inside and give me a biscuit instead?:

2 Feb 15 02-02-2012 12-48-58

I mean: this absurdly irresistible face?:

2 Feb 16 02-02-2012 12-49-08

Of course, she did get her biscuits. What makes me laugh is that she has taken to putting on very, very serious photograph faces lately. I think it is because she is bored beyond belief with the whole posing malarkey. The moment I put the camera down and pick up stick, ball or biscuit, her ears go up, her mouth opens in delight, the tail starts describing its circular arc, and she bounces about like a puppy. The grave and slightly disapproving expression for the photographs is clearly a dirty protest. In her doggy mind she is patently saying: vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Or similar.

The hill:

2 Feb 17 02-02-2012 12-50-39


  1. I wonder--is it systems and ideas or integrity and compassion in a society that count? For instance, many of those intrusive government regulations that drive people nuts (especially in business) were passed in an effort to counter misdeeds which would go on unless there were laws against them. Perhaps if everyone had higher standards personally, better government would follow naturally. . . . But that's scary. It's hard enough to change government, let alone people!

    Real ideas in politics. Love it.


  2. Bird - love the idea of higher standards. :)

  3. Tania, I only read a few pages of your book "Backwards In High Heels"...but felt compelled to inform you of a piece of inaccurate info. On page 13 you spoke of the bonding hormones. Well one of them is OXYTOCIN. However, you wrote OXYCONTIN which is actually a highly addictive pain medication. Just thought you should correct that.


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