It’s a refrain commonly asserted that all politicians are the same, and you couldn’t slide a fag paper between the three main parties. I have sympathy with this view, whilst not wholly endorsing it, simply because on so many social, cultural and moral issues one sees a political uniformity that, it could be suggested, puts the political establishment at odds with the views of the people they serve.
Of course, it is overly-simplistic to suggest complete homogeneity, and so there is no difficulty in acknowledging that there are clear policy differences between the left and right on a whole range of issues. Indeed, the problem with claiming there is no difference whatsoever is that it fails to grasp both the subtlety and the magnitude of the shift that has actually occurred. For what has been ceded is not operational identity – that still exists, though on the rather more superficial level of modus operandi.
Rather, it is the moral and ideological framework of the political establishment as a whole, and the empowered types that reside there, which has metamorphosed. To revert to shorthand, what has been lost by the political and cultural elites, if not by the voters that have become exasperated with them, is a form of social conservatism.
Of course, one must be careful not to allow this label to imply a political or ideological partisanship, as if social conservatism was ever the sole possession of one particular political tradition. To do so would fail to grasp the transcendence of the virtue culture that once guided political action and shaped the centre-ground – as I have argued elsewhere, if the left of 60 years ago were to be resurrected today then they would certainly be denounced by their modern day comrades as rabid right-wingers.
Rather, it has been the cultural erosion of social conservatism wherever it exists that characterises the ideological fashion of today, and this attack has not been the preserve of any one particular party (though the modern day left has perhaps embraced it more enthusiastically than anyone else). This is the principal point to bear in mind: historically both the left and the right offered what has been lost, whilst today neither does.
This has been addressed by Phillip Blond, amongst others, in his Red Tory project, arguing that the ingredients for the erosion of a political virtue culture came about with the ‘post 1945 embrace of the state and the post 1968 embrace of the individual’. Yet, the consequences of this embrace have been disastrous for both political traditions. For the left it has meant a loss of a non-liberal account of its own thinking, an embrace of the individual over the community, and the pursuit of individual gratification (‘freedom’) over and above concerns of the common good – as such, the left no longer has a meaningful account of ‘society’. For the right, traditions of duty, obligation, responsibility and dependability have all been rendered obsolete by a political and cultural hegemony eager to dismiss such belief as moralistic and old-fashioned. As such, the right no longer has confidence in its conservatism, and so risks losing any meaningful account of the individual.
Which all suggests that both the left and right have abandoned what both would claim as their natural ground, and in their collusion have perpetrated precisely that transgression they both outwardly repudiate; the left has lost the social, whilst the right has lost the individual.
Of course, one might naturally look toward the Conservative Party to restore a certain balance, though perhaps more in hope than expectation. And, in recent months, there has certainly been a blossoming, a focussing of the will, as more and more people, emboldened by the left’s evident demise, accept the challenge that has been set. The point remains, however, that the challenge is not solely for the Conservative Party, but rather for the political class a whole – the entire centre-ground requires restoration.
It won’t be easy. The instinct for self-preservation of those whom Peter Hitchens likes to refer to as the ‘liberal elite’ will naturally bray against any such change, even whilst such reticence serves to marginalise and further infuriate an already hostile electorate. Perhaps, though, this is unsurprising, for here one can glimpse the circuitous nature of the status-quo; an emaciated democratic culture that cultivates a disinterested and uninterested electorate is, it might be suggested, the most effective means of preserving the interests of the ruling elite.
Unless, of course, that electorate becomes ever more politically engaged, spurred into action by the woeful performance of their superiors, and beats the political caste at their own game. Which, to my own mind, is where we are going. And we call this localism.