Ben Dunant on how the Left in Britain and Europe have scripted their own obscurity
It remains broadly true, in Britain as well as much of Western Europe, that while the Right won the economic war, the Left won the culture war. The latter victory is inscribed in national institutions like the BBC, whose representatives remain stoutly unfazed by accusations of anti-Toryism and left-liberal bias. But this victory was claimed at the cost of an insipid gentrification: with emasculated unions and an apathetic working class, leftism has become a middle-class affectation, a cosmopolitan fad, with all the ferocity of a university debating team.
The New Labour dynasty – 1997 to 2010 – is the longest period of left wing rule in Britain’s history, but it coincided with the moment that leftist ideology ceased to exist as a mainstream force in British political life. The Labourite resistance to Thatcherite privatisation in the 1980s was fuelled by genuine anti-capitalism and class solidarity – perhaps only possible to sustain in opposition – and offered a genuine ideological alternative at a time when international socialism was still a competing force in global politics. But as defeat followed defeat, and Britain’s neoliberal makeover continued apace, for the New Labour of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson the penny finally dropped: electoral victory was only possible if they sold themselves to the middle classes, as a party that embraced bourgeois aspiration, private enterprise, and cappuccinos.
And so was born a political ethos (not quite a philosophy) which allegedly eschewed the grandstanding of both Left and Right, and instead steered Britain onto a fuzzy ‘third way’ gangplank. The state ballooned as means of ‘solving’ unemployment, while at the same time the banking empire inherited from Margaret Thatcher was coddled and left unregulated as a means of paying for the former through taxation. Naturally this settlement could last only as long as the money did – but never mind, Gordon Brown had announced the abolition of ‘boom and bust’. But run out the money did, despite sage-Gordon’s prophecies: the financial crash of 2008 spelled the cruel end of Britain’s social democratic romance. And so to the present mess we find ourselves in.
With the political status quo rendered all-to-suddenly defunct, its orthodoxies firmly in the ditch, both the Left and the Right have a golden opportunity to reinvent themselves; moreover, to reinvent politics itself, and bridge the ever-widening gap between a disengaged public and an aloof political class. But this is a pipe dream. The Conservatives, at last finding themselves in power (albeit as the majority party of a coalition), are pursuing an atavistic Thatcherite programme: Chancellor George Osbourne has banked everything on a grand renaissance in the private sector; but the big money-phoenix has yet to rise, and has shown only faltering signs of doing so.
For all the talk of radical reform and a political shake-up – the ‘New Politics’ heralded by David Cameron and Nick Clegg after their post-election settlement (a slogan mercifully ditched thereafter) – the current government is interested only in a return to business as usual, in which an energetic, internationally-orientated business community continues to fund a haggard, emaciated welfare state with a dubious record on social mobility. Britain has to change in order to stay the same, the thinking goes. Excepting Michael Gove’s utopian blueprint for a new schooling system, which has been received by state school teachers as enthusiastically as Nick Clegg at a student house party, there are few new ideas being sketched out in the offices of Whitehall.
For portents of a new political order, you have to turn to Europe. There it is the Right that has capitalised on the disintegration of social democracy. And the gains have been decisive: in left-liberal strongholds such as Holland and Denmark, to which the British Left previously looked with hushed reverence, far-right parties such as Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom and Pia Kjaersgaard’s Danish People’s Party have been piling up votes on a platform of anti-immigration, cultural renewal, and a stricter policing of minorities that have failed to integrate.
The claim of these parties to be merely upholding ‘liberal values’, to which certain minorities apparently fail to aspire, doesn’t obscure their populist agenda, which feeds off a growing feeling among the working class white majority that their national identity and cultural patrimony are being sacrificed on the altar of an over-indulgent liberalism. This sentiment has either been ignored or mocked by the Left: these grumpy white folk are simply ignorant and bigoted; their demands can be ignored and their arguments needn’t even be grappled with – and that’s the end of it. While racism and ignorance are certainly at play here, the Left adopts this snotty attitude at the cost of its own obscurity. These ‘bigots’ have returned the favour, and the disengagement of the European Left from the people it claims to act for has rarely been more profound.
The Left have only themselves to blame for the right wing sweep in Europe. As dubious as much of their pack may be, it is this new Right that has been proactive in tapping into the frustrations of the European white majority, bringing new ideas to the table, however unsavoury they may be – and so they have outflanked the Left on almost every stage. The Left can no longer afford to rest on its sense of moral superiority and the support of ‘enlightened’ sections of society e.g. the universities, much of which are stuck in a Marxist timewarp, out of step with the rest of society, and exerting a negligible impact on it. It has grown too cosy in its middle class citadel, while the Right has been out there mucking in with the masses and feeding them their ideas.
There has been much talk of the immanence of a ‘New Left’ – not just a home-grown cottage rebellion but a proper flag-waving, chest-thumping, international coming-together of people of anti-capitalist conscience. Every time far-left intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek pop up on television or in YouTube videos, they opine at length on the necessity of this alliance of progressive cells, before going home and writing impenetrable tracts on deconstructionist theory. The twentieth century dreams of international socialism are simply renewing themselves, and it’s all starting to look pretty tired and moribund; many have understandably stopped listening. The golden opportunity of a socialist overhaul – the financial crash – has been and gone, and the existing order is being restored brick by brick. Unless fresh ideas are formulated, don’t expect anything from the Left any time soon.