In this week’s New Statesman: The audacity of popes

PLUS: Vince Cable on the great stagnation of post-crisis Britain.

John Cornwell: Goodbye to all that

In our cover story this week, the author John Cornwell investigates the history of previous papacies and asks whether a new pope could lead the Catholic Church in a more progressive direction.

The conservative papacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, he argues, “denounced liberation theology” and “resulted in an increase in Roman centralisation”, which led to “the failure to deal with the clerical abuse scandal promptly”. He writes that, from the middle of the 19th century, the papacy “has obstinately resisted the advance of secularism and democracy”; he notes in particular the Vatican’s battle against contraception and the American Catholic hierarchy’s public condemnation of Barack Obama’s health-care reforms, which “insisted that Catholic institutions staffed by non-Catholics should contribute to national insurance schemes that might be used to purchase contraceptives”. He adds:

Over the 32 years of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership, the progressive Vatican II reforms have been eroded at the top in Rome, disclosing a political perspective that is increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist...

In the debates between the New Atheism and religionists, it is widely recognised that the point at which religion consistently transforms from benign to maleficent is when it fails to adopt a pluralist approach to other faiths as well as to the secular domain . . .

The tendency of the two most recent popes to lecture and dictate, rather than be part of a living conversation with their peer group, must be seen as a lost opportunity in a world facing such great socio-economic crises.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Vince Cable: When the facts change, should I change my mind?

In an exclusive essay for the NS this week, the Business Secretary contradicts George Osborne’s economic strategy - arguing that the "balance of risks" may have changed - and calls for "greatly expanded" capital spending.

This bold intervention, published just two weeks ahead of the Budget, can be read in full here - while George Eaton's expert summary of Cable's key points can be found here.

 

The Politics Interview: Jim Murphy blasts “lazy Labour”

In an interview with Rafael Behr, the Shadow Defence Secretary attacks the Labour Party’s "lazy" culture and its "sense of entitlement to win".

Murphy warns against a spread of "militant apathy" and condemns some of the party for failing to engage properly with voters. Ukip's strong performance in the Eastleigh by-elections, he argues, serves as a warning. He says:

If you don't knock on people's doors between now and polling day, you deserve what you get. They'll say “Where were you when I was struggling, when my husband lost his job, when my hours were cut, when I needed you?” . . . It's not an Eastleigh problem, it's a wider problem. It's Lazy Labour.

In the most explicit statement yet from inside the shadow cabinet of Labour's vulnerability, Murphy warns against relying on a collapse in the Lib Dem vote to deliver a majority for the opposition:

For a lot of people, it's fun to kick the Liberals but if you want a big, One-Nation mandate, it's pretty fruitless to just do that. Winning 2010 Tory voters is much harder but much more important. We could scrape over the finishing line with Labour voters plus some ex-Liberals but, given the scale of the problems we'd have to deal with, we don't want to just scrape over the finishing line.

Read this interview in full here.

 

Carla Powell: Short cuts, strong men, quick fixes

“Italy would get on better without a government at all,” declares Carla Powell, who writes this week from Rome in the wake of the Italian elections, in which Silvio Berlusconi experienced a career revival (winning near 30 per cent of the vote) and the newcomer Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement grabbed 26 per cent.

Powell writes of Italian voters’ historic tendencies to “crave a strong figure” and “naively believe the promises politicians make” – a mould of politics that suits Berlusconi well. Yet even the celebrated Grillo is not immune from the lure of making promises without solutions. Powell writes:

If you go further back into Italy’s political history, you can easily find examples of other charismatic figures who promised salvation and in the end delivered little or nothing. Some people are comparing the new phenomenon of Italian politics, Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement, the so-called grillini, to Mussolini . . .

Grillo doesn’t stand for anything but only against everything. He wants to get rid of the existing political class that has failed and that appeals to the frustration all Italians feel as the country’s problems get worse. But unlike Mussolini or even Berlusconi, he offers no solutions, nor a willingness to take responsibility for resolving Italy’s problems. In other words, Grillo is an entirely negative phenomenon.

. . . Italy needs something and someone new. The elections failed to promote that and we face another period when the same old faces will be trying to build coalitions that cannot last, between parties that want to evade our problems rather than address them.

 

Rafael Behr: No wonder Tory ministers are off-message: not even Cameron knows what the message should be

In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr dissects the chaos in the Tory party in the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election as senior ministers defy Cameron's moderate image and lurch towards a Ukip-inspired agenda:

Fear and blame are vast resources at a time of economic crisis but it is a duty of mature, democratic politicians not to exploit them. That doesn’t stop the Conservatives from trying. In the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election, in which Ukip pushed the Tories into third place, ministers have been lashing out at familiar foes. Iain Duncan Smith found himself anguished afresh at the scourge of “benefit tourism”. Meanwhile, Theresa May and Chris Grayling remembered their horror at the European Convention on Human Rights and their determination one day to prise it out of British law.

A more profound problem with Tories chasing the Ukip vote is that it contradicts Cameron's new central idea, which is to present Britain as an open economy keen to compete in the "global race":

Tory MPs don’t anticipate the global race selling any better on the doorstep than “the big society”, which was the Conservative leader’s unwavering ambition before he wavered. Yet there is a deeper problem with the theme, which is that the Tory account of Britain’s economic plight, as set out before the 2010 election, was the opposite of global. It was insular and parochial. Cameron explained with lethal simplicity how Labour had spent all of the money – maxed out the credit card – and how only national belt-tightening could lead to recovery. He and George Osborne are now learning that international forces determine whether the UK economy grows or shrinks. Their problem is that a message crafted out of that insight sounds like a lame excuse for failure – the very charge that was levelled against Gordon Brown when he talked about a global crisis.

Read his column in full here.

 

In the Critics

  • A dazed and deeply confused Kate Mossman is forced to wait two hours for Justin Bieber to take the stage at the O2 (read here.)
  • Paul Morley relives the experience of listening to his first Sony Walkman on the London Underground in 1979.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Rufus Norris’s Broken and Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier.
  • Historian Richard Overy reviews David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences.
  • Jon Day reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.

And much more... Read our full "In the Critics this week" blog here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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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.