Who lost the 20th century?

In the end, after a lively debate, the New Statesman’s audience decided that the left won the 20th century. That still seems slightly odd to me, given that the left has suffered considerable reverses on the economic front since the 1970s. (See previous post.) I wonder if the vote would have gone the same way if they had held the debate in Barnsley.

I’ve finally found the source of that quote about who won what; it was from the very end of the 20th century. In 1999 Professor Alan Wolfe declared, “The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war…” or, as David Goodhart put it, the two liberalisms dominated politics for a generation, the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right.

I have no data for this but observation says both these strands of thought tend to be more dominant among party activists in London. In the Conservative Party, its members in the shires are more socially conservative, while its liberal Economist reading tendency is concentrated in London. The Labour Party’s activists in its northern heartlands tend to be more interested in the economics – jobs and trade union rights. For for its metropolitan supporters, though, the social agenda is more important. That’s why, at the New Statesman debate, they declared that they had won the 20th century. In terms of what is most important to them, they did.

David Goodhart noticed something similar:

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.

So if the two liberalisms won, it therefore follows that the losers of the 20th century, or at least, of its last few decades, were the socially conservative right and the socialist/trade unionist left. The fact that we tend to apply the prefix ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ to both just serves to emphasise their defeat.

Outside London (mostly), there are a number of Labour supporters wondering why their party was in power for thirteen years, yet their neighbourhoods are decaying, their incomes are falling and their employment is increasingly precarious. Likewise, there are Conservatives who wonder why, after eighteen years of Tory rule, political correctness took root, progressive education triumphed in schools and we ended up being drawn ever deeper into Europe. Their party is in power again but it doesn’t seem to be that keen on resolving any of these issues, preferring instead to ‘mess about with things like gay marriage‘. And now their incomes are falling too.

After the Eastleigh by-election, which UKIP came close to winning, the Guardian’s John Harris wrote, “No mainstream party in England truly understands conservatism.”

As he explains:

Serial defeats for the Labour party eventually led to the arrival of the cult of the so-called modernisers, pledged to force their party to swallow the fact that Thatcher had changed the country for keeps…..the unions – and, by extension, millions of voters – were decried as hopeless throwbacks.

Then, it was the Tories’ turn to be taken over by modernisers, passionately in thrall to Blair and his disciples’ example. David Cameron’s early stabs at offending Tory traditionalists – hugging huskies and hoodies, the contemptible W10 wind turbine – were barely serious, but their effect still lingers, and the same approach was seen when he picked a fight over same-sex marriage.

His remains a politics rooted in upscale capital postcodes rather than the shires and suburbs.

As he also notes, many UKIP voters, while opposed to immigration, were also supportive of the NHS and in favour of re-nationalising the railways – in other words, they were very much at odds with the prevailing political climate. The right may have won the economic war and the left the culture war but there are a lot of people who wish it had been the other way around or, at least, that the victories hadn’t been quite so complete. There is a constituency that is to the right of David Cameron on social issues and to the left of Tony Blair on economic ones. Mix up some anti-immigration rhetoric with some banker-bashing and vague talk of getting things back to how they were and you’ll get an audience.

And that is pretty much what UKIP has done, as Max Wind-Cowie put it yesterday:

Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from UKIP’s empathy for those who have been left behind by the relentless march of globalisation and glib liberalism.

But if they looked closely enough, many of its voters might not agree with UKIP’s policies. Its founders were economic libertarians whose main gripe was regulation. I suspect that many of the UKIP old guard would be happy to see large numbers of unskilled immigrants, provided they could put them to work in unregulated sweatshops. Many of UKIP’s voters, on the other hand, seem to want more government, not less. This is the root of UKIP’s policy incoherence – it is trying to be all things to all men.

At the moment, though, few people are looking that closely. UKIP’s leaders are happy for people to project their frustrations onto their party and believe what they like. For this reason, UKIP is set to take votes from both major parties.

This wonderful story from Andrew Rawnsley explains what happened when a Labour strategist ran a focus group to try to find out why:

One senior party strategist says he listened in some wonderment as his focus group of Ukip voters spent an entire 90-minute session wailing and gnashing their teeth about the state of Britain. Not a good word did they have to say about the country today. At the end of the session, he thanked them for their time, and said he had one more question. Was there anything about Britain that made them feel proud? There was a silence. Then one man leant forward and said: “The past.” The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

A Ukip vote is not mainly, if at all, about making a choice based on an assessment of policy. More than anything, it is about expressing an emotion – usually a feeling of intense rage about how Britain has changed and how they are served by the established political parties. It is a howl against the modern world, a scream against the establishment. There’s no arguing with that. Or, if there is a way of dealing with it, none of the main parties has yet discovered what it is.

None of this is to say that all the anger against politicians is justified. At least some of what people don’t like about the modern world can be put down simply to the way things have changed – everywhere. To an extent, immigration, economic decline and even rising inequality are the results of globalisation. The extent to which politicians can solve them, without resorting to draconian policies with unforseen consequences, is limited. This, though, is an argument for another blog post.

There are two reasons why a viable party of the populist right, like those in some other European countries, has not appeared in Britain. Firstly, our electoral system is less favourable to small parties. Secondly, until now, our populist right-wing parties have been thuggish, utterly incompetent and tainted with fascism. UKIP, whatever else you might think about it, is none of these things.

Many people feel that they are on the losing side of politics. Maybe this is simply frustration about the modern world but it is no less potent for that. A political party has now appeared that can exploit that howl of rage – to the extent that it can do serious damage to the major parties. Similar political movements have appeared elsewhere in Europe. The real surprise is that it has taken so long to happen here.

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5 Responses to Who lost the 20th century?

  1. Very interesting- as an attendee at the debate I felt the vote only went in favour of the Left in order to wind up Tim Montgomerie, who had made some fairly derisory and questionable remarks about the Left’s influence on social reform, as well as economic affairs. It had an air of a protest vote about it, much as Rawnsley discovered with his focus group.

    The UKIP question is a different (and frankly more pungent) kettle of fish. With Farage admitting they’ve swamped areas with largely unvetted candidates- some subsequently airing some pretty nasty views on race and the viability of people born with a disability- I feel they are tainted with an air of not really knowing what they’re doing, if not borderline fascist views. There are ways of expressing legitimate concerns about immigration, but issuing a leaflet based on an old BNP missive featuring a photo of the white cliffs of Dover and the slogan ‘Sorry We’re (sic) Are Full’ just makes them appear nasty and incompetent. Sadly it won’t stop people using their vote to protest if they feel the three major parties have let them down, mind you.

    That said, it’s great fun testing their candidates on Twitter… they don’t have a strategy, just ill-formed opinions and short tempers.

  2. A masterful blog post. Really very good.

  3. Pingback: Who lost the 20th century? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  4. I accept that UKIP isn’t thuggish or fascist, but it is demonstrably as incompetent as its far-right predecessors – both as an organisation (as Niki notes) and in office (see here). In the event it manages to win some councils, the bonkersness and uselessness will shine through… hopefully, in time for the GE.

  5. Pingback: Choosing your voters | Freethinking Economist

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