Last week’s post about the equality paradox attracted a fair amount of discussion in various places, especially the quote from Douglas Murray:
The right won the economic conflict and the left won the culture wars.
Another way of looking at this, which came to me after a discussion with Dave Timoney in the comments thread, is that the decades since the Seventies have seen the dominance of two strands of liberalism; the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right.
The day after I wrote that, David Goodhart wrote this in the FT:
What if a lot of people feel that there’s no point in voting because whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.
The two liberalisms – the 1960s (social) and 1980s (economic) – have dominated politics for a generation.
The political re-alignments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave us our two main political parties. As it reached out to the increasingly powerful middle classes, the old Tory Party of army, church and king adopted economic liberalism to appeal to business interests. The Labour Party fused middle-class radical liberalism with working class socialism and trade unionism, attracting prominent radicals, like the Foots and Benns, away from the old Liberal Party. As one Labour friend of mine put it, Hampstead got gay rights and civil liberties, Halifax got trade union rights and unemployment pay.
These fault-lines still run through both parties and have surfaced in the Tory Party a number of times since the last election. Privatising the forests was dropped after a traditionalist backlash. The immigration cap was fiercely opposed by many of the Conservatives’ business supporters. Rachel Sylvester wrote in the Times about The Economist v Country Life split. On one side, The Economist reading, cosmopolitan, predominantly London-based business types are mainly interested in economic issues. On the other, the more provincial and rural Country Life tendency wants the party to concentrate on the traditional Tory values it feels have been abandoned. George Osborne, says the Telegraph’s James Kirkup, is firmly in The Economist camp. David Cameron hovers between both trying to keep the peace. The Economist v Country Life is a neat way of describing a tension that has existed in the Conservative Party ever since it was formed.
It would be wrong to assume that the traditionalists are all older members. The Telegraph’s Ed West, a youngish whippersnapper, commenting on Adrian Beecroft’s proposal to scrap unfair dismissal laws, complained that the Conservative Party was being right-wing about all the wrong things:
What is it with the Conservatives? They seem to be Right-wing only where no one wants them to be Right-wing. Theirs is a conservatism that cares nothing about British sovereignty, marriage, natural justice, defending the borders, law and order or the armed forces, but that cares deeply about reducing the rights of British workers. Contrary to the idea banded about in the less thoughtful areas of political discourse, conservatism is not about protecting the rich: it is about creating an environment that is safe, sober, crime-free, respectful, educated, gentle and high in social capital and trust. In other words, about protecting the poor and weak. Until the Conservative Party realises this, they will continue to haemorrhage support.
Could these rumblings be a sign that the long period of liberal ascendency is facing challenges from both right and left?
The financial crisis has led many people to question economic liberalism and has revived the left-wing critics of capitalism. Could there be a swing away from social liberalism too?
David Goodhart thinks so:
With their emphasis on freedom from constraint the two liberalisms have had too little to say about our dependence on each another. They have taken for granted the glue that holds society together and have preferred regulations and targets to tending to the institutions that help to shape us. As the philosopher Michael Sandel puts it: “In our public life we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before.”
And the two liberalisms have reflected too closely the interests of the mobile, secular, graduate elite that dominates Britain, both politically and culturally. It usually favours loose, wide commitments and has generally embraced globalisation.
This is not the experience of the majority. Almost half of the UK-born population live within five miles of where they lived when they were 14. For those who do not make it into the magic circle of secure professional careers, the two liberalisms have been a mixed blessing over the past 25 years.
He may be right. Liberalism is about individual rights and freedoms, be they economic or social, but when people feel threatened, they fall back on community and seek affiliation with others. If the gloomier predictions of the fallout from Greece’s probable default are even half right, a lot of people across Europe are in for some very tough years. Individualism is fine in affluent times. Hardship may revive old loyalties to nation, class and family.
Michael White, another wise old sage, thinks we should at least consider the possibility:
Goodhart’s “post-liberal” roadmap….would be to reverse the Thatcher-Blair paradigm, the mix of Tory economic liberalism with Labour’s social liberalism. We need to be tougher on welfare and immigration, tougher on conservative values like discipline and character in school, more supportive of communities and patriotism: in short less of leftie social liberalism and of Maggie’s economic version, more of the reverse.
[T]here is also opportunity in the new fluidity for all those aspiring third and fourth parties that are elbowing their way into the mainstream debate – from the Greens setting their sights on the Lib Dem votes to Ukip (doing the same to the Tories) and assorted nationalist aspirations, most boldly expressed by Alex Salmond. There is no God-ordained reason why the parties that dominated Westminster in 1912 – Tory, Liberal, Labour and nationalist – should expect to do so in 2012 and our uncertain future.
In other words, the political realignment which gave us our two main parties could fall apart.
I haven’t been around quite as long as Michael White or David Goodhart but I’ve seen plenty of false dawns and false dusks. People have been saying that the two-party system was about to collapse for as long as I can remember so I would be reluctant to predict its imminent demise. That said, we haven’t had an upheaval like this since the Second World War. If parts of Europe regress to third-world status who knows what might happen?
It could be, then, that the more statist sides of both left and right reassert themselves. Voters across Europe might decide they want more regulation, both economic and social, not less. There is a mood across the political spectrum for clamping down on high pay, tax dodging and corporate excess but also on crime, migrants and welfare claimants. Whoever first came up with that saying about the economic victory of the right and the cultural victory of the left might have spoken too soon.