When the leaves start to wet the tracks in September/October, the season of delayed trains and annual conferences of the main political parties begins in England. The usual inner reticence of the islanders then gives way to ideological clamour with a desire for torrents of frenetic applause.
It tends to be a season of relaxed political mores and non-committal personal relationships. From the conference intoxication and the thrumming opinionated intimacy of conceived illegitimate children, a season of temporary political alliances and dangerous acquaintances.
What goes unnoticed is that British politics and public discourse in the era of the ‘European Exit’ resembles an intellectually arid desert, where robots wander now, sometimes clowns with a chip programmed into thirty-second media clips. They lure voters to them.
“From Keynesianism to Thatcherism to New Labour, ideas have always been the lifeblood of (British) politics. Now, in a time of crisis, our politics is completely rudderless,” sociologist William Davies recently lamented in an essay for London’s Guardian.
With the generation of British politicians who lived through the second world war and post-war reconstruction, intellect, reflection and humility seem to have walked out of the public square and left the parliamentary benches. They have been replaced by superficial, extravagant social media projections motivated by the opportunism of immediate personal or social impulses.
From the rain of incompetence to the gutter of surrealism
Mainstream British politics teeters between fiscal incompetence and its surreal media presentation in the season of autumn party conferences. In the same breath, the cabinet will announce sweeping tax cuts and massive energy price subsidies. Prime Minister Truss then fails to explain on the BBC airwaves why her actions almost led to the collapse of the island’s pension funds.
Davies argues that behind the sorry state of British politics lies the absence of a phenomenon that has been considered integral to politics as the art of governing for most of the last 150 years, namely ideas and ideas.
“Ideas of different shapes and sizes have come from different sources. Some, such as Keynesianism, are associated with a strong individual. Others, such as those underpinning Thatcherism, were forged by alliances of thinktanks and public intellectuals (such as Milton Friedman and Keith Joseph),” Davies recalls.
The absence of idea-generating and thought-generating platforms is partly attributable to the way in which the two main parties have let their “intellectual vein” out in recent years. And perhaps also to the half-forgotten MP compensation scandal of spring 2009.
At the time, the Daily Telegraph, the most widely read large-format newspaper, bought for £110,000 a complete copy of the private expenses MPs were reimbursed for. It discovered dozens of questionable payments among them. Most went beyond the ethical (digging a moat or a duck box on a private pond), some (falsified travel expenses) beyond the law.
The scandal then drove nearly three dozen members of both houses from their seats. The scrutiny that every accounting item was under at the time filtered out candidates who were taken out of their private comfort zone by the scandal from further elections.
Even more impactful on the establishment of coherent currents of thought ‘of different shapes and sizes’ were the tectonic changes within the main political parties associated with shortened election cycles – Britons went to early elections twice in a row in 2016 and 2019.
The night of the Brexit long knives
If the two main political parties operate as an umbrella coalition of minority political movements on the left (Labour Party) or the right (Conservative Party), then any change of leader leads to the realignment or outright demise of entire party factions that generate leaders and that might normally be given the time and space to articulate the coherent thought patterns that Davies calls for.
The way in which then prime minister Boris Johnson dealt with his opponents before the last election in 2019, when he outright expelled dozens of opponents of his version of Brexit from the Conservative Party, was reminiscent of the actions of leaders of totalitarian parties. Candidates for the parliamentary post signed declarations before nomination that they would support Johnson’s version of leaving the European Union without reservation.
Among other things, the grandstanding of the two main British political parties (the Conservatives on Brexit; Labour on the arrival and departure of Jeremy Corbyn) deprived them of a revivalist and revivalist battle of ideas and intellect.
As Davies himself observes, politics without ideas is possible, but not desirable, in the British environment. A government operating in such a way that its agenda is ad hoc resembles (to borrow a phrase from the architect of Brexit, Dominic Cummings) a shopping trolley with a broken wheel wobbling around a supermarket.
This article was translated from the Czech original published at časopis Přítomnost.
published: 10. 10. 2022