Guide Dilemmas of Change in British Politics

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But I pretty soon repented. The first term of the Blair government I thought and still think was very impressive. But even then, there were some worrying signs. By this time I was Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford and my various roles as such left me little time for anything else. But, in so far as I did watch politics in the Labour Party, I thought there was a rather ugly, authoritarian streak in New Labour — not in terms of national policy but in terms of party management.

That alarmed me. Terrorism is not an entity; it is a technique of waging asymmetrical warfare. In my latest book, Britain Since , I identify four distinct strands of rhetoric and feeling in our political culture. One of them I call democratic republicanism and another democratic collectivism. In the s I was a democratic collectivist. By the s I had become a democratic republican. You have been an eloquent advocate of the idea of realignment on the left, by which is usually meant closer cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This is a key idea that emerged from your book The Progressive Dilemma , which was a very influential work, especially in the s.


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David Miliband was very instrumental in that. I think Blair wanted a realignment of the left. The trouble was that the Labour Party did too well in to make it politically feasible for him to do it.

I never thought it a useful tool to understand quite how fluid British politics has become, nor do I think it makes political sense after you have a long period of Labour government. The truth is that Nick Clegg and I come from quite different points on the ideological spectrum.

He comes from a Conservative background, not a Labour background as I do. I had a curious little email tiff with him not long before the last general election. I was quite impressed — not enormously, but quite. I sent him an email saying that if you want people like me to vote for your party — people who come from a Labour background — you are not going to do it by attacking the Labour Party in the completely negative way that you do, and particularly not by attacking the authoritarianism that you say has always been central to the Labour tradition.

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My father was a minister in the Attlee government and he was no authoritarian. Nor was Attlee. You are distorting the history of the Labour Party and you are making it very difficult for people who still identify with it in certain respects to support you. But I now realise that is nothing like the whole story. What has happened is that the economic liberals of the old Liberal Party — its right-wingers, if you like — have been reborn, and have managed to hijack the Liberal Democrat Party.

We forgot, for example, that there had been an electoral pact between the Liberal Party and the Conservatives in two constituencies in the early s. But for that there would have been only three Liberal MPs instead of five. At the moment I suspect that, if there were an election tomorrow, I would vote Green.

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But why not? The way I see the present situation is this. People who believe in political pluralism and electoral reform must accept the corollary of coalition politics. That means accepting all the procedures that this present coalition went through before it came into being. Coalition partners should negotiate, and agree on a position that results from fairly tough negotiations and that then becomes the programme for government.

And the process should be as transparent as possible, so that the general public know what both parties of the coalition have signed up to. So I applaud the procedures that produced the current coalition. I also applaud its decision to halt the growth of the so-called database state, exemplified above all by its decision to junk ID cards. Good on them! The tragedy is that, on the fundamental, really crucial issue — namely the economy and the deficit — they are simply wrong, disastrously, catastrophically wrong.

And they are not just wrong. They have betrayed the promises they made in their election campaign. That was the most distinctive Liberal Democrat policy. They might not have got it from Labour either, but they would have been more likely to get it from Labour. And yes, the alternative vote is fine.

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By the same token, a referendum on the alternative vote is fine too. They might have secured AV-plus from the Labour Party. That is the only rational interpretation of their conduct. They wanted to get into bed with the Conservatives and they did not want to get into bed with Labour. Their belated negotiations with Labour were a smokescreen for their real intentions. There is a lot wrong with the Labour Party, of course. It is tribalist, more tribalist than the Cameron Conservatives. It clings to a patronising and out-dated self-image, according to which the Labour Party, and only the Labour Party, is the true party of the left and the true party of the people.

There are other, pesky little parties that Labour can tolerate; and these may be allowed to clamber aboard the Labour ship if Labour needs them. But their duty is to support Labour, the true, serious party of the left.

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This mind-set is extremely offensive as well as intellectually contemptible. I was talking about a realignment that would include all kinds of groups, not just political parties, or electoral blocs. He was a tiresome fellow in lots of ways but I now think he was the most far-sighted of the Gang of Four. Be that as it may, I totally agree that we must stop thinking in terms of blocs of voters. And Clegg has ignored that obvious truth. We social democrats did romanticise the Liberal Party, as you put it, but the explanation lies in the astonishingly bitter nature of the SDP debate on merger with the Liberals after the election, which led to the creation of the present-day Liberal Democrats.

Nobody emerges from that debate with any credit.

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But nor does Roy Jenkins, the chief proponent of merger, and nor do the rest of the pro-merger camp, including me. None of us can look back on the debate with any pleasure or pride. And one of the consequences was that the pro-merger camp idealised the Liberal Party — just as the anti-mergerites demonised it.


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    Indeed, that was part of the reason why I left the Liberal Democrats after the election. The flip-side of this point about the romanticisation of the Liberal Party would be the positive case for the Labour Party as the predominant party of the left in British politics. There is some truth in that, but there is also a much larger element of what might be called counter-romanticism. The Labour Party has never been the party of the working class; it has been a party of a section of the working class.

    In the Conservatives got more working-class votes in the south of England than Labour did. As for America, let me tell you a story. But when I went to California as a graduate student a year later I saw that he was right. The US was a much more classless society than Britain. It was more socially egalitarian, though not in terms of income. The same sort of people belonged to it, and it too had strong ties with the unions. I was amazed and fascinated by a particular example of the Democrat-trade union link that occurred while I was at Berkeley, in the autumn of In , the employers put a proposition to ban the closed shop which was legal in California on the ballot paper.

    The unions countered with a proposition to change the tax system in a way that would have penalised rich corporations. They did this to siphon off some of the money that would otherwise have been spent on the closed shop referendum and to divert it into the tax change one. It worked! And in all this, the unions and the Democratic Party were hand in glove. What has this to do with your question? Simply this. My California experiences taught me three things. First, American society was more open, less hierarchical and more egalitarian than Britain.

    And thirdly, the American trade unions were closely linked to the Democratic Party. Of course, America has changed a lot since then, and the trade-union voice is much weaker as a result. But exactly the same is true here — despite the existence of the Labour Party. I agree that the voice of the workers ought to be heard in Parliament; that was the original reason for setting up the Labour Party, after all. But the notion that the voice of the workers can be equated with the voice of the Labour Party seems to me sentimental rubbish.

    You already mentioned that in your most recent book, Britain Since , you endorse republicanism as your favoured theory of politics. I think there are certain philosophical and rhetorical themes in the republican tradition which are very powerful. One of them is suspicion of arbitrary power. Quentin Skinner makes this point very strongly; and his writings have had a great deal of influence on me, particularly his Liberty before Liberalism. It applies just as much to economic power. A classic example is the unaccountable power of the banks and hedge funds that procured the crash of The second aspect of the republican tradition which is still hugely relevant to British society here and now is its emphasis on republican self-respect as contrasted with monarchical servility.

    British political culture is still saturated with servility: look at the Honours Lists, with their Commanderships, Dameships and Orders of a non-existent empire.