There is a gaping hole in the center of British politics where the ideas were | William Davies

OWhat do Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer imagine happening in Britain today, as crops fail, food bank queues grow and profits soar sharply ? How do they understand the unique combination of social, economic and ecological crises in 2022, which is already taking its toll on the lives of many people? The truth is, we don’t really know, and maybe they don’t either.

Truss, of course, made a consistent ideological position – taxes and red tape have stunted the growth of the British economy – but it is a thesis so easily rebutted, so removed from everyday life, so obviously rooted in the Thatcherite nostalgia, that it is worthless. to explain where we are. Sunak, who clearly believed he could waltz through a leadership race with the same professionally run Instagram sets that raised him there in the first place, may have been mugged by political reality, but the effect was to drive him further towards authoritarianism. fantasies of the conservative right.

And then there’s Starmer, who has spent the summer in a series of battles with his own MPs over the right to stand on picket lines, and who struggles to define Labour’s position on certain policy issues. increasingly hot economy. Whenever he or Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves hits the airwaves, they are met with a barrage of questions about public sector wages, nationalization and unions, which they answer defensively and timidly. They may believe (like Tony Blair) that such traditional Labor issues should not define a modern progressive party, but they have not defined any alternative vision. The contrast with Gordon Brown’s thoughtful interventions on the cost of living crisis is obvious.

If mainstream politics seems surreal and inadequate, it is partly due to the mysterious absence of a phenomenon that for most of the past 150 years has been treated as an integral part of politics and politics: ideas. Ideas came in various shapes and sizes and from various sources. Some, like those who formed Keynesianism, are associated with a single individual. Others, like those that underpinned Thatcherism, were forged through an alliance of think tanks (like the Institute of Economic Affairs) and public intellectuals (like Milton Friedman and Keith Joseph).

In these cases, ideas about economic reform have been developed with the explicit aim of systemic transformation. For Keynes, the goal was to overthrow the outmoded shibboleths of laissez-faire economics that had led to the disaster of the 1930s; for the Thatcherites, it was precisely a question of replacing the Keynesian regime put in place after 1945. But even in the absence of such political radicalism, the ideas were important. New Labor was inundated with often corny narratives about the “knowledge economy”, “globalisation” and “the networked society”. As leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband both sought to rekindle the credibility of their parties by seeking the advice and endorsement of political gurus.

During the 1990s, political scientists and political economists developed a fascination with ideas, not just for what they contain, but for what they do in politics and policy-making. US-based scholars such as Peter Hall, Sarah Babb, and Mark Blyth have argued that shifts in intellectual consensus are a crucial ingredient of economic transformations. It is when the status quo somehow breaks down (as happened in the UK in the 1970s or on the left after 1989) that ideas and intellectuals become most important in identifying paths forward and establishing a new normal. Few would argue that the UK status quo is working well in 2022, indeed Truss, Sunak and Starmer point out quite the opposite – but there are still no new ideas. Why?

A crucial factor is the precedent of the most disruptive political campaign in recent British history: Vote Leave. Although Dominic Cummings is a shrewd strategist, he never posed as an intellectual. indeed, it pours scorn on those numbers, just as Vote Leave did on the pundits. Vote Leave offered no roadmap to a better “economic model”, and little explanation or evidence of how Brexit would improve the UK. He focused entirely on signaling, connecting with people through the strength of symbols and innuendo. It was post-politics, and it worked, as Boris Johnson and Cummings showed again in 2019.

In fact, it has worked so well that Britain is now grappling with a policy whose consequences are clearly dire, but which no frontline politician yet dares to question. In this context, Truss, Sunak and Starmer have chosen to concentrate all their efforts on signaling who they are and what they identify with, and on saying as little as possible about their conception of the world and its crises. Where Starmer engaged closely with political thinkers, including Claire Ainsley and Deborah Mattinson (now her director of policy and director of strategy, respectively), was primarily to find ways to connect with lost voters, rather than developing a political program. As all media becomes social media and parties become perpetual campaigns, all politics becomes identity politics. This is why the question of who is photographed standing on a picket line – instead of the real demands of these workers – has become so important to Starmer.

Many think tanks that influenced Thatcherism and Blairism are still thriving, but not in the same way. Shrouded in secrecy as to their funders, the big New Right think tanks of the 1970s are now better understood as lobbyists for… well, who knows? Left-liberal think tanks, such as the IPPR and the Resolution Foundation, do invaluable work as critics and analysts of Britain’s dysfunctions, but none can claim to be the ‘mastermind’ behind the Labor leadership.

Starmer’s aversion to big ideas may stem from his ongoing battle to distinguish himself from his predecessor: Corbynism was characterized by an unusual flowering of critical economic thought, from John McDonnell’s council of economic advisers to The World Transformed, although the Starmerites undoubtedly would. ask what it was ultimately used for at the party.

Reality will eventually catch up with whoever finds themselves in power in the years to come, just as it finally caught up with Johnson. The last six years have demonstrated that politics without ideas is possible, but not necessarily desirable, neither for the country nor for the rulers. An abstract narrative solves nothing on its own, but – if it manages to capture reality – it helps to coordinate the instruments of government, campaigning and communication, especially when the future is most uncertain. The alternative, to borrow Cummings’ helpful metaphor, is government by a broken shopping cart, teetering aimlessly.

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