Armando Ianucci wrote an article in the Guardian this weekend past entitled, “Politics was once about beliefs and society. Now it’s a worship of money”. It contains the following paragraphs:
“It used to be that we went into elections being asked some pretty big questions about what sort of country we wanted to live in. Did we aspire to free health treatment, safety at work, votes for women, a stronger navy, an end to child labour, higher standards of literacy, a welfare safety net, the dismantling of an empire, the nationalisation or privatisation of the nation’s resources?
For the first 70 years or so of the 20th century, politics debated the power and limits of the state: the manifestos of the parties reflected how much or how little each party felt the government should involve itself in the lives of the individual. Everyone accepted there was such a thing as society, and we were given regular chances to define it. Politics was about passion, and imagination, and foresight. Now it’s just accountancy.”
Now, I’m not interested in giving Ianucci a hard time. I rather like his work (his eponymous show was a work of underrated genius). I’m only really citing the above quote because it is such a brilliant distillation of a strain of left-wing thought; what I would describe as the conservativism of the Left.
First of all, this strange notion that once upon a time politics was pure and meaningful, as opposed to how it is now, which is supposedly corrupt and awful. Politics always has been about money, pretty much since money was invented as a concept. Furthermore, it was Marx himself who said that everything in the world essentially boiled down to economics. So for the Left to be letting Natalie Bennett off the hook for being innumerate (which Ianucci’s article does), as if an ability to understand basic fiscal policy is strictly a product of modern politics, is really very bizarre.
We are always hearing from prominent figures on the Left about how disastrous it would be if the Tories get back into government. Why? If politics is now no longer about big ideas, and all of the large Westminster parties are “exactly the same”, why does it ultimately matter whether it’s Cameron or Miliband in Number 10? Politics is either still about big ideological divisions or it’s “all stuck in the mushy centre ground” – it can’t possibly be both simultaneously.
To crave some mythical time when politics was “pure” is strangely old school Tory in a way. It is certainly conservative and in no way progressive. Looking back at the supposed golden era that Ianucci wishes to sanctify, the “first 70 years or so of the 20th century”, this is what I see: the Tories wanting to keep everything the same while Labour shouts off between elections about running the country via an unfunctional economic model. It was grubby and ugly a lot of the time – more so than today, because there was far less chance of being exposed by the press due to a “gentleman’s code” that presided over such things. Getting stuff done was tough and often brutal, just like it is today, just like it will be in the future.
Most of the things the Left really wanted in the 20th century – a health service, a minimum wage, higher standards of living across all socio-economic groups – were achieved. Progress has stalled in the last decade for numerous reasons (the 2008 crash being the most prominent amongst them), but that’s no reason to think the battles of the last 100 years have all come unglued. They have not. Things are not getting markedly worse – they are getting steadily better. Yes, things aren’t moving fast enough, I agree. But for the Left to argue that everything is crap, as it so often does, is to rubbish all of the things it achieved in the “first 70 years or so of the 20th century”, this period they at the same time wish to consecrate.
The Left needs a narrative about moving forward towards a better society, one without hysteria or false nostalgia. Things weren’t better in 1945; I wasn’t there, but I have no doubt that’s the case. Establishing the NHS was difficult and involved a lot of grubby politics (the treatment of GPs being a prime example of this). Today, the Left will need a way to keep hold of the things it cherishes that involves being able to change them a bit to do so every once in a while. This shouldn’t be as difficult as it currently feels; conservatism should be the preserve of the Right.