The road to revolution (part 6)
My wife has a long-standing friend from university called Ian, a prosperous solicitor working in Manchester, in his late 60s like me, not only a lifelong Conservative, but one of those steady, unflappable people, who knows what he believes and it doesn’t change. He is considering voting for Jeremy Corbyn at the next election. I have an equally long record of quiet, steadfast support for the Conservatives, and I am also considering voting for Jeremy Corbyn.
Ian and I have not yet discussed this implausible situation. We have arrived at respective positions separately, over a period of time, mulling things over, and have been astonished to discover that we have reached the same position. How on earth is this possible? Have we taken leave of our senses?
For my part, this is not a conversion. I still disagree with much that Jeremy Corbyn stands for. I have no expectation that a Corbyn government would be anything other than an economic car crash, as well as having other unpleasant consequences. But.
If one belongs to the centre ground of politics, one can find a home anywhere from the right of the Labour party to the left of the Conservative party, and encompassing most of the Liberal party. That has always been the case and is what infuriates those who are not centrists. Thatcherites loathed the Conservative ‘wets’. Corbynites loathe the Labour moderates.
As a centrist, I want most of all a strong economy, enjoying consistent growth, because – without it – all discussion about how to distribute the proceeds are meaningless. I believe that, in practical terms rather than from fixed ideology, the free market is most likely to deliver that growth. I expect the product of that growth to be used to benefit the whole community. I believe that Labour (and before that, Liberal) governments have best delivered social progress, and that Conservative governments have best delivered economic stability and stimulus. Both of them together, alternating power, have kept Britain on a consistent and mostly successful path for the best part of two centuries.
Two parts of this process are not working. First, it requires both the yin and the yang. Since the 1970s, Britain has lacked the yang. There has been nothing to challenge the prevailing neo-liberal philosophy described last week (blog, 1 April). Second, although growth since the 2008 crash has been respectable by historical standards, its proceeds are no longer producing a social dividend. The result of both malfunctions is that society has become increasingly lop-sided, with millions disenchanted with where we have reached, and where we seem to be headed.
If a rebalancing act is required, it has – this time, unlike the last – to come from the left. We have reached our present state, not because governments have thought it desirable, but because they have believed themselves to be the prisoners of global forces that are beyond their control and have infinitely greater power. Even if they are right about that, many people would like a government that is prepared to challenge the global order. No other group but Corbyn’s Labour party is able or willing to do this, not least because it risks blowing up in their faces.
Why should a Conservative consider supporting this process? Because, for the country’s sake, the attempt needs to be made; before long, it will either be too late, or the clamour for it will take a yet more extreme form, or both. In an ideal world, a centrist government (whether Conservative or Labour) would set out to reform our financial and tax systems, just as a government of the left should have reformed the unions in the ’70s. But that didn’t happen then, and this is not happening now, so it falls to the opposing side to do it.
A Corbyn government would not attempt all it desires, and – in the long term – it would not succeed in much that it attempts, but it would be a game-changer, and the game does need to be changed. I would almost certainly be less well-off as a result, but perhaps I need to be, and in any case George Osborne’s tax reforms have already left me less well-off without producing any noticeable changes for the better.
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This series of blogs, ‘the road to revolution’ (4 March onwards), was not tightly planned and has been a process of collecting and churning random thoughts and arguments. The conclusions are not remotely optimistic.
I remain, in principle, a supporter of globalisation. I believe that it has already raised, and increasingly will raise, millions of people throughout the world out of poverty and into a more tolerable experience of life. But there is a price. That price is and will be enormous, and it will fall most heavily on the developed societies of Europe and America. I don’t believe that liberal democracy, as we have understood it for generations, will emerge from this process unscathed, or perhaps at all. I’m far from sure that sustained material progress will prove achievable, or that – even if it does – its benefits will be widely spread.
There needs to be a last hurrah, a final attempt to see if there is some way in which the best of our post-war world can co-exist with new global realities. The finger of fate seems to be pointing at Jeremy Corbyn to make this attempt in Britain. If he gets the chance, I expect he will fail. We may then enter a phase of alternating governments from both extremes, which will fail also. After that, there will probably be no further efforts. We will accept the logic of events. We, and our governments, just won’t have the power to influence anything very much. Elections will become meaningless. Life won’t get any better for most of us.
Towards the end of last year, I was talking to my 20-year-old nephew, a Corbyn supporter, about some of these issues. I said that a Corbyn government would throw everything up in the air, with no one having any idea where it would land. He replied that Brexit was already doing that, so maybe this was a good moment to put everything else up for grabs. Increasingly, I think he is right.
Whether I (or Ian) will in the end be prepared to break the habits of a lifetime and put a cross against the Labour candidate at the next election, remains to be seen. The very fact that either of us is contemplating it speaks volumes.