Consensus: Unfashionable, but is it undesirable?
As a politics student, my time is largely divided between the education of text books and the entertainment of my computer. Occasionally though, the roles are reversed.
Browsing through chapters of a political ideologies textbook, what is striking is that the debate between socialism and conservatism does not truly exist in the British political discourse. Returning home to gorge myself on American politics in the shape of the week’s Daily Show, however, and such partisan politics is immediately and hysterically apparent.
Ever since New Labour turned hope into disappointment and then anger, their ‘Clause 4 moment’ has become synonymous with ‘the death of ideology’ in this country. Many bemoan the lack of choice in contemporary politics since Labour shifted to the centre and David Cameron followed their lead, eventually declaring himself a ‘liberal conservative’.What these voters seem to forget is that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s shift away from the left came on the back of decades of electoral defeat for a Labour Party that did genuinely offer an ideological alternative to the Neoliberal Conservatism of Thatcher and Major. Cameron’s rebranding of the ‘nasty party’ was a necessity for the very same reason. The Conservatives were hapless and unelectable, precisely because they were so very different to ‘New labour’.
If any accusation can be levelled at our political parties then it is not that they have deprived of us choice, but that they have succumbed to the ones we have made. The broad consensus of modern British politics reflects our politicians’ crude but correct assumptions of what we have decided we would, generally speaking, like our society to be. There is much talk now of ‘shaping the middle ground’, and of course politicians have a vital role in shaping the political discourse, but they do so only within a context that we deem worthy of discussion.
All too easily we deplore consensus as robbing us of a choice, when in reality it reflects the consequences of those we made long ago. We may not have voted for bankers’ excesses and MPs’ expenses, and those on the political fringes may feel their voice does not resonate within the walls of Westminster, but at least we can be thankful that we are left only to squabble over the details of our political system, rather than the very truths upon which it was founded.
While here controversy reigned over suggestions that the 50p rate of tax on the UK’s highest earners may be cut, President Obama finds himself labelled a socialist practicing class conflict for answering the call of one of America’s richest to raise taxes from their incredibly low current state. From Italy, to Spain, to Israel and of course elsewhere in the Middle East, the fundamentals of the political arena face protest and anger from swathes of the population.
There remain profound differences between our major political parties that should not be dismissed merely because they espouse varying degrees of one policy or another. Yet, by and large, we agree as a country about the core values that should underpin the manner in which our society is structured.
Some may suggest that the occupy protests at St. Pauls are evidence of a wider displeasure with the way in which capitalism in the modern world is structured. The feeling persists, though, that this is more a response to difficult circumstances than a popular call to revolutionise an inherently unjust consensus. Even so, Ed Miliband’s calls for a ‘new capitalism’ at this year’s Labour conference were not just an attempt to play to such displeasure; David Cameron had said the same thing years ago.
You see, the neoliberal consensus that to a certain extent dominates global economics may well have failed us, but the long-term domestic solution to this surely lies in the stability and calm of the UK’s contemporary political spectrum, rather than a return to the adversarial discontent of the 1980s. A scramble for the middle ground does not confine us to a path we neither chose nor desire; it ensures our debate revolves around what is right and what is wrong, rather than what is Right and what is Left, when all around us the urge to react leaves others torn between extremes.
It is essential, of course, that this consensus should be challenged. We must not, though, take it for granted. We have come too far to sacrifice the unease and discomfort of relative agreement for the satisfaction of partisan conflict. Our parties have not rejected ideology in favour of electability; they have merely acknowledged that this country made its ideological choices years ago.
“Nothing”, said Margaret Thatcher “is more obstinate than a fashionable consensus”. She may not be the greatest advocate of political consensus, but her point here is salient. The broad ideological convergence of our time may not be so well-liked, but we should hope it is as lasting all the same.