It is becoming increasingly clear that, in an era when all three parties claim to offer change from the old politics, all three of them want to do little more than continue with the very orthodoxies that have brought the political system to its present wretchedness. Economically, there is little evidence that any party intends to genuinely challenge the dogmatic idolisation of the markets and their distortion by money and power. Socially, there is little evidence that any party is willing to challenge the stale dogmas of the (always middle-class) social liberals, and their distortion of society toward the benefit of money and power. Social conservatism is a dirty phrase – economic equality dirtier still. The liberals of both sides are drunk on power, and they won’t raise a finger against the ideology that delivered it.
For those traditionally on the left, this has lead to a genuine political homelessness. For in contemporary times, any critique of metropolitan liberalism has one dismissed as an extreme right-winger, usually by a cabal on the left who, with perfectly straight faces, embrace individualism far more fanatically than any traditional Conservative movement has ever done. Thus, the social conservatism that once stood at the heart of the Labour movement (and often still does) is blotted out of history, whilst the radical right-wing individualism of liberal thought is offered as the default stance of authentic left-wing thinking. Which is bonkers, really. Indeed, if one were to accept the account of a certain Red Tory, one might even call it a little perverse: if left-wing politics was traditionally concerned with the liberty of the dispossessed, then liberalism frustrates precisely that empowerment, and indeed militates against it. Or expressed differently, liberalism is an authentic enemy of the left, not an enlightened expression of it.
Of course, there are plenty on the left, those guilty of this conflation of liberalism and Labour, who will reject this suggestion in the most strident of terms, mostly because their Fabian mates tell them to and they must be right because they’re, like, so modern and caring and everything. They will think social conservatism an authentic enemy of left-wing thought, betraying either a ignorance of or an arrogant indifference to the very roots of the political tradition they claim as their own. Middle-class people sitting in think-tanks in London, despising the social conservatism of the poor as an aberration in a modern world (you’ll always find the most vicious class prejudices expressed in the Guardian), when really it is quite often the only thing that offers them a level of protection from the dangers of this world the liberals have created, chiefly for themselves.
It would be wrong to think this is confined to Labour mind, and if there is one amusing theatrical performance to be viewed in London town at this moment in time, it is the attempt of the modern Tories to magically transform themselves into a more economically and socially ‘progressive’ party. Fortunately for them, they’ve been given much of the vocabulary ready to hand, and talk of such things as ‘moralised markets’ and ‘the mutualised state’ has offered them the opportunity to counter the dogmatic devotion to Thatcherite economics, whilst simultaneously enabling them to develop their own version of the small state economy, expressed through the somewhat cumbersome title of the ‘the Big Society’.
The irony is that the chap who, arguably, helped bring around this change in consciousness, is both socially conservative and economically left-of-centre, and this is because his critique is of liberalism per se, not just one particular strain of it. For example, cherry-picking the critique of neo-liberal economics and leaving aside the critique of the social liberalism is to kind of miss the point, which will in the end lead to a certain incoherence. For example, according to Blond ‘society’ is fundamentally rejected by social liberalism, meaning that any attempted resuscitation of the civic space that did not deal with this underlying ideology will, in the end, have to be generated not by society itself, but by the state. Apposite, then, that David Cameron’s recent vision of the Big Society includes an Alinksy-esque ‘army’ of state-trained and state-maintained community organisers.
That said, all is not at a loss. It’s a common refrain that before a thing dies it must issue its last breath, and I do happen to think that this is what we’re witnessing with liberalism. The creeping consensus of the political class will be the end of them; the more they have tried frantically to distinguish themselves on the superficialities, the more the electorate have called them out for being essentially the same, and they are entirely right to do so. Yet political disenfranchisement can’t go on forever, not whilst the state has so much power to influence the minutiae of people’s lives, and I have the sneaking suspicion that one day soon there will be a provocation too far, and there will come a robust response. The ‘long march’ of the social conservatives is on its way.