Purple Prose?

Our present political life is seriously damaged. Many people are now looking for the centre having found that the main parties have migrated away from them to the edges. Life on the edge has damaged our mainstream parties. The Labour Party has become increasingly censorious and illiberal seeing a need for the state to increasingly intervene in the lives of us all. Further, following the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it has developed nasty antisemitic traits in response to the problems in the middle east. The Tories on the right, on the other hand, have seen its perfectly correct support for freedom of speech and individual liberty used as a cover by racists and bigots (people less concerned with the right of free expression than pleased with the opportunity to say hateful and spiteful things under the cover of free speech). Neither of the main parties now are without problems and I am sure that many, like myself, find themselves politically homeless.

You can find the centre by going left from the right-hand side or by heading right from the left-hand side. However, the centre is distinct from both of its containing edges. I am not sure if these movements from the two sides will ever find the middle but it was in the hope that they may that I read the flowing two books over the last month or so. From the Left there is “Blue Labour: Forging a new politics” and on the right we have “Red Tory : How the left and right have broken Britain and how we can fix it“. I read these in that order, Blue then Red, although this is the reverse order in which they were published. There was five years between the books; Red Tory was published 2010 and Blue Labour in 2015 but despite this they tackle largely the same themes.

The similarity of the books is the most striking aspect; large aspects of either book could be transposed into the other with little upset whatsoever. Both are aware that the traditional working class has been abandoned by the main parties and we have a major problem of an large portion of our population in the post-industrial areas feeling alienated and ignored. They both also recognise the increasing disengagement of this group, who feel and behave as disenfranchised, and the danger that this poses to our society through the mechanism of populist parties from both extremes.

Both books see the need to review our approach to nationalism. Both feel patriotism and nationalism can act a valuable bulwark against the problems of globalisation. Both books promote the nation state and internationalism as the antidote to the excesses of global capitalism. On the left by limiting the powers of the state and corporations, and on the right by limiting the excesses of the market when corrupted by monopolies, cartels and state intervention. Both agree – ‘smaller is better’.

The fate of the family is prominent in both books and both are alarmed by the damage that has been done to it. Blue Labour views the family as a basic building block of society which is particularly important to the poor and working as it provides the best support and safety They bemoan the weakening of the family in pursuit of greater economic productivity and also express concerns that the traditions of mutual support and communalism which grew in the working class movements are declining (Trade unions, mutual societies, building societies, friendly societiesare all examples of working class organisations). The Red Tory also worries that these aspects of our society are changing, and fears that welfarism is replacing mutualism with the consequent risks of dependency and loss of autonomy.

Both books see the increasing inequality in our society as a major threat to our future. We are splitting into a society of “haves” and “owes”; the rich are becoming much richer and the poor are increasingly in debt. So even though we have more possessions it is hard to see that we are that much richer. As Red Tory reminded us of Belloc’s view :-

“For to own something on credit I not to own it at all, and since no security of tenure is available by rent, those who seek some primary foundation or asset in the world have little choice but to buy into a form of ownership that converts its possessor into a debtor”

Red Tory pp49

The housing bubble that first burst in 2008 has left most of us in debt and working to serve this. All members of the family now have to work in the market, there is no room or members to stay at home and care for others, and despite this increased work we are not wealthier. The cheap goods that capitalism generates a little but increasing debt wipes this out and adds to the growing inequality. This has worsened since the mid-70’s and the boom years of Thatcher and Blair :-

Little wonder then that the golden age for waged workers in the OECD was not in this recent allegedly great age of prosperity, but between 1945 and 1973, when they gained the greatest percentage share of GDP for their labour and enjoyed greater real purchasing power

Red Tory, pp 49

It is interesting to note that both books have strong religious influences. Blue Labour has a number of essays by prominent Christian thinkers and an introduction by Rowan Williams the prior Archbishop of Canterbury. Red Tory is written by an author who is an Anglican theologian as well as political theorist. There are shades of “distributionism“, in both books, as they try to find a path to more widely distribute assets between us all and steer a way between socialism and capitalism. There are perhaps modern echoes of the “Three Acres and a cow” proposed by G.K. Chesterton.

Both books are worth reading and I hope will have influence on their respective groups. I found the “Red Tory” more readable than “Blue Labour” as it was written by a single author and was consequently more consistent and coherent. But the ideas in both, on the need to curb increasing inequality, to promote society and constrain the state, and to use nations and locality to limit the influence of global capital, are well addressed in both books.

A plague o’ both your houses.

Democracy has many problems as the old story of the lamb and two wolves voting on what to have for supper clearly illustrates. However, as Winston Churchill opined ” democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried“. Democratic systems are probably the only way that mankind can live in reasonable harmony and in stable and fair communities. However, for democracy to work a few basic principles need to be observed.

The democratic process needs to be inclusive, so that no-one and their opinion is excluded. It needs to equitable; each person’s vote must carry the same weight are every other persons. There should be a secret ballot so that there is no possibility that others can coerce the voter’s decision, and the democratic unit should be small enough that every vote does count and the system avoids, as far as is possible, the risks of the tyranny of the majority. Finally, the executive of the state must act in accordance of the democratic decisions, it can not pick and chose amongst the outcomes which it agrees with and which it will effect.

Britain’s system had in the main held to these principles and could lay a reasonable claim to the title of “the mother of all parliaments” but over recent times this seems a much less apt description.

I am not simply talking about the reneging on the results of the EU referendum, which three years after the vote has still not been enacted in any form whatsoever, but also of the recent shambles in the house of commons when the constitutional safeguards that we normally relied upon have been sorely, and perhaps fatally, tested.

Firstly we had Boris Johnson attempting to prorogue parliament in such a way as to reduce the amount of time for discussion and scrutiny in the House of Commons. There is also a strong suspicion that he lied when he described the reasons and processes behind this.

Secondly we had John Bercow, the speaker of the house, shamefacedly ignoring the traditions of neutrality of the speaker and being vocally and proudly partial. While this might be seen as useful to some MPs at the moment, as it suits their long-game, we may strongly regret tolerating this precedent in the future when less benign options are being processed.

Thirdly we have our opposition parties trying to avoid an election. Some, like the liberals, have a sizeable component of MP’s who never stood under the banner of the party they now purport to represent. To these parties it is more important to overturn Brexit than it is to even know public opinion, let alone follow it. They clearly think the public has made a mistake and want to correct it but are fearful that the public might not yet have got onboard with the message. Their priority is their agenda, it is not working in agreement with the outcome of a democratic process.

It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung (The Solution)

Die Lösung

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht 1953

Even if the opposition parties do get around to thinking they should put a democratic veneer on this charade we will still have problems. A second referendum violates the basic democratic principle of “one person – one vote” – they are saying “those of you who voted last time don’t count we want the vote of a new populace“, as Brecht suggests.

When we do this once we can do it again, and we are damaging faith in democracy itself. If the state starts to ignore democratic decisions then the whole basis of democracy is undermined. There has been precious little regard for our political leaders over recent years, it seems there soon will be even less. Why vote when your vote may not count or the system is so rigged that change is not forthcoming ? I think none of the main parties can expect to see their popular base growing and I would be very surprised if we didn’t continue to see populist parties, on the left and the right, who listen to the public (or at least pretend to) growing in strength. The blame for this can squarely be placed at the doors of the existing parties. To misquote Shakespeare :-

A plague on all your houses.