Letter from London 28th Augusr 2006
Superficially beliefs used to drive British political parties much more predictably than they do today but, in reality, the truth has always been that there are only two manifesto alternatives. You either propose to do “better things”, or you propose to “do things better”. Historically it was usually the former option which ruled, at least in the rhetoric. The parties were distinguished by their radically different ideologies and the “better things” that divided them were polar opposites – socialism versus liberal conservatism; public ownership versus free enterprise and so on. In government these ideological imperatives were usually tempered a little (or a lot) - although there were occasional reforming administrations which drove forward a radical mandate for change. The 1945-1950 Labour government (Atlee) and the 1979-1983 Conservative (Thatcher) period are rare examples where a strong measure of ideology ruled. But these are the exceptions and most of modern British history has been characterised by middle ground consensus. In particular once the welfare state was in place there emerged a consensus that it was worth preserving. The battle for government providing public services and a measure of economic security to its citizens was won – so the debate then became about how to make it work better, not whether it should exist all.
The Labour Party took a while to cast off its dogmatic socialist baggage but it was Tony Blair’s first great triumph that it did so to such an extent that he became electable. This was symbolised by the removal from the Labour Party constitution of its Clause IV which had committed it to “…the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” (i.e. to public ownership of much of the economy). In effect this change only formalised what had long since been the consensus – that Britain is a mixed economy and that it is not the task of Government to be directly involved in industry or in (most) of the service sector. The early Thatcher years, dominated by worship of the free-market and (according to her opponents) by greed had challenged this consensus, but under her latest successor (David Cameron) the middle ground has been reclaimed as Conservative territory. Cameron knows that the days when you could win elections from the fringes have probably gone for good and that by appealing to the prejudices of your core supporters (as all recent Conservative leaders have done on such matters as immigration and taxation) you make yourselves unelectable. So at the next election Cameron is most unlikely to run with any radical new policy initiatives – he is more likely to claim that he will do broadly the same things as Labour, but do them much more competently - that he will “do things better”, not do “better things”.