2011: a year of unintended consequences

From OccupyLSX to Leveson, the British political system is not working well.

There are certain things which are less interesting in themselves than for the impact they have on other people.

Take for example the "Occupy LSX" protest. Whatever the protest stands for -- and there are varied and sometimes conflicting views on this -- its mere existence was enough to cause a mild crisis in the Church of England and to expose starkly the casual idiocy of those who managed a great cathedral. Now it is forcing the opaque and undemocratic Corporation of London to the High Court to defend its attempt to use legal coercion to evict the protest. And so we have the merry spectacle of a powerful and essentially private body -- with no real electoral legitimacy whatsoever -- trying to bandy "public interest" and "free expression" arguments as if they knew or cared what those concepts meant.

Or look at Julian Assange. Whatever the merits of his continual refusal to return to Sweden to be questioned about serious sexual assault and rape allegations, and notwithstanding the silly and counter-productive litigation tactics he adopted at the start of his extradition case, he has now inadvertently got the issue of the illiberal European Arrest Warrant (EAW) regime squarely before the Supreme Court. The question to be decided is a narrow one, and it is more likely or not that he will lose, but there are serious general questions to be asked about the use and misuse of EAWs and -- almost despite himself -- it may well be that this generally irresponsible charlatan will form the basis of a progressive shift in the judicial treatment of these over-powerful legal weapons.

And most of all, there is the Leveson inquiry. It cannot be over-emphasised how this inquiry did not come about as a natural consequence of a working political process. Indeed, had it not been that the Metropolitan police just had to do something back in 2005 when it was obvious the mobiles of the Royal Household were being tampered with, then there would not have been the convictions of Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman and -- significantly -- no seizure of Mulcaire's notebooks. In turn, there would not have been any civil litigation which uncovered the "For Neville" email and so no Gordon Taylor case. And without that litigation, there would not have been what was uncovered by last year's New York Times exposé and the dogged journalism of Nick Davies and the Guardian, and without David Cameron's lousy judgment in appointing Andrew Coulson there would have not been a political need to call an inquiry. All for the want of a less clumsy hack of Prince William's phone, the News of the World and the credibility of the British tabloid press were lost.

Along the way, each entity with the formal power and public responsibility to address the unlawful and unethical practices of the tabloid press failed to do so. The Metropolitan police closed down the investigation for no good reason; the Information Commissioner's Office took as little action as it could; and the Press Complaints Commission nodded along to what the tabloids told it. But once the scandal emerged then this lack of activity could not be sustained or justified. Something had to give.

What made the difference was the revelation that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked. Contrary to the self-serving misdirections of those who appear to have learned nothing from the public outrage, the true significance of that sensational news was not because there had been deletions. It was instead that, at a stroke, it was apparent that hacking was not restricted to celebrities. Anyone caught up in a news story over a five to ten year period may well have had their phone hacked: soldiers, terrorism survivors, grieving or concerned parents, as well as missing school children. The spite and intrusions of the tabloids were no longer the trivial problem of famous people.

However, the true value of the Leveson Inquiry will probably not be in its proposals. No two media pundits seem to agree what would work to make the tabloid press ethical. It certainly would not be new laws and codes and enforcement bodies: all those were in place, and the abuses happened anyway. So the Leveson Inquiry undoubtedly will not so much be important for what it proposes, but what it has allowed to be revealed about others -- currently the tabloids, and soon the police. It will show what was actually going on all the time, whilst the formal public bodies did nothing to stop it.

There is something rotten about a political system where the true nature of power relations -- the very stuff of politics -- is routinely exposed by external events. No political system is perfect; but it is not wrong to expect a political system to be able to work in some fashion. Power will always tend to corrupt, and those with power will always tend to abuse it. One good test of a mature political system is to recognise and check these tendencies. But few, if any, would say that the British political system is now working at all well.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.