The centre cannot hold
The latest disasters to befall Change UK—Chuka Umunna’s decision to join the Liberal Democrats and the party’s decision to change its name for a third time—are a good excuse to reflect on the sad fate of one of the most ill-starred parties in British political history.
It’s not that long since Change UK was poised to revolutionise British politics. There are lots of reasons why that never came to pass: Heidi Allen proved to be an incompetent acting head; the party failed to brand itself a “Remain party” but instead dithered around trying to reinvent the centre; it called itself Change but demanded that, as far as Europe was concerned, things stayed the same. But the biggest reason of all was the results of the council elections at the beginning of May, in which Change did not take part. There was only room for one anti-Leave party in the middle ground of British politics, and the Liberal Democrats’ strong council-election performance ensured that it would be that party. From that point on people who felt as strongly about remaining in the European Union as Nigel Farage’s supporters felt about leaving gravitated to the Liberal Democrats.
Though exceedingly brief, the Change UK episode is nevertheless significant because it resolves a long-standing debate in the Labour Party. Ever since the Corbyn coup in 2015, members of the parliamentary party have been arguing about whether they should stay and fight or leave en masse. For a while it looked as if Tom Watson might follow Chukka Umunna and others out of the party. Change’s implosion has settled the argument in favour of stay-and-fight, even if, unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if the stay-and-fighters have much chance of winning. Mr Corbyn’s decision to humiliate Emily Thornberry by, for example, dropping her as his stand-in at Prime Minister’s Questions, is designed to demonstrate that he has the support of 80% of the party’s members whereas she is basically on her own.
It’s also significant because it provides an important lesson about the nature of modern parties. Change UK was an attempt to create a party from the top down. MPs from both Labour and the Conservatives abandoned their ancestral parties and focused on attracting more MPs to their cause. But the days when politics was mainly fought between professional politicians in Westminster have disappeared along with Francis Fukuyama’s essay on “The End of History”. The Labour Party is now a movement as well as a party, thanks to the arrival of several hundred thousand committed Corbynistas. The same thing is happening on the right: the Brexit Party can draw on dozens of pro-Leave movements that have grown from the bottom up and are driven by genuine anger about the status quo. Centrists don’t just need to build a traditional party infrastructure, with MPs, local offices and dutiful but tame members. They need to create all the accoutrements of a mass-movement: think-tanks to provide a constant source of ideas, foot soldiers to campaign on the ground, keyboard warriors to fight the Twitter war.
The obvious kernel for such a movement is the People’s Vote campaign, but it is intertwined with the Labour Party. Many of the People’s Vote campaign’s leading figures are Blairites who are continuing to fight a Labour civil war, not least Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spin-doctor. He was expelled from the Labour Party for acknowledging that he had voted for the Liberal Democrats but is nevertheless still a member of Labour’s squabbling tribe.
Another lot trying to shake things up are the so-called new progressives—the broad collection of people who embrace the politics of social justice and identity. I can understand why young people are attracted to the social-justice movement. They are the victims of one of the greatest acts of intergenerational justice for decades: the fact that the baby-boom generation has gobbled up the fruits of post-war prosperity (free university education, second homes, generous pensions) then discovered fiscal rectitude when it comes to designing policies for their successors (student loans, defined contributions, green taxes). But the social-justice movement certainly has not produced a compelling text comparable with the liberal classics produced by the same sense of injustice in the mid-Victorian era such as John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” or Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy”.
One reason for this is that the new progressives seem to be determined to drive down the intellectual blind alley of identity politics. Identity politics seems to be confused about the very thing at its heart—identity. Some of the time identity seems to be socially constructed: hence the preoccupation with gender fluidity, for example. We are told that gender is a social construct and people can jump from one gender to another according to choice. Some of the time identity seems to be taken as an adamantine fact: a person’s identity as a woman or a member of an ethnic minority seems to trump all other considerations. Thus Catharine MacKinnon, a leading feminist theorist at the University of Michigan, has argued that members of each ethnic, gender or cultural group have their own distinct moral and intellectual norms. “The white man’s standard for equality is: Are you equal to him?”, she argues. “That is hardly a neutral standard. It is a racist, sexist standard…But if you present yourself as affirmatively and self-respectingly a member of your own culture or sex…if you insist that your cultural diversity be affirmatively accommodated and recognised in ways equal to the ways theirs has been, that’s not seen as an equality challenge at all.” This sounds a little like the social biologists of the late 19th and early 20th century who argued that the world is divided into various racial-cultural groups that are locked in an inevitable struggle for dominance and that each group uses epiphenomena such as truth and morality as instruments of group power.
But I suspect the problem is more general than this: we’re suffering from a general atrophy of political thinking not just in political parties and movements but across the board. Academics have either been captured by identity politics or else have chosen to retreat into tiny specialisms. In America in particular the noble science of politics has been captured by political scientists who are deploying ever more powerful quantitative techniques to ever more trivial ends. The most interesting political theorists writing for the general public today are still Isaiah Berlin’s (somewhat aged) pupils such as Sir Larry Siedentop and John Gray. The chair that Mr Berlin once graced at Oxford lies empty. Public authorities in general, encouraged by pressure groups but also, I suspect, driven by their natural sympathies, have taken to closing down debates on subjects that are deemed too controversial such as diversity (which has been built into social policy without any serious debate about its advantages versus its disadvantages), and, increasingly, various aspects of sexual mores.
How long will this great stagnation of political debate last? In fact, I suspect that we could actually be on the verge of a golden period of political thinking. The collapse of the neo-liberal hegemony, the rise of a raw but sometimes exciting populism, the growing revolt against progressive totalitarianism on campus and, increasingly, in corporations… All this will lead to a recrudescence of interesting political theory. The human mind is too fertile to be tamed by high priests of various kinds—in the parties, media and the corporations—trying to enforce yesterday’s tired orthodoxies.
I suspect that this recrudescence will come from the peripheries of today’s established political and intellectual empires (it’s a long time since I’ve read anything thought-provoking or original from publications with “New York” in their titles or from professors with chairs in the world’s ancient universities). It will come from repentant liberals and conservatives who want to understand why the great intellectual traditions that they once embraced degenerated so rapidly over the past couple of decades. I’m particularly struck by the mea culpas about (neo)conservative over-reach that regularly appear in the American Conservativee and the Claremont Review of Books.
It will come from the collision between different intellectual traditions. Conservatism has always been at its most exciting when it tries to tame the individualistic excesses of liberalism (Walter Bagehot liked to say that he was as liberal as it was possible to be while still being a conservative and as conservative as it is possible to be while still being a liberal). I’d also hope that the collision between progressivism and older traditions will also be fruitful. Gay marriage, one of the most sensible social reforms of the past couple of decades, was produced by conservatives such as the British-born American journalist Andrew Sullivan who wanted to provide a conservative solution (marriage) to a progressive question (why shouldn’t I be allowed to express my sexuality in the public sphere?)