The politics of excitement

The Blair decade began with an exuberant rush of energy and sense of possibility. How can politics r

Ian McEwan's latest novel, On Chesil Beach, returns us to the summer of 1962, and to the hopes and aspirations of a young, newly married couple in a stilted and repressed Britain that is soon to be transformed for ever by the political and cultural turbulence of what we simply know now as "the Sixties". They are from respectable, upper-middle-class families, and yet they long for convulsive change and a new kind of politics.

"Edward and Florence would be voting for the first time in the next general election and were keen on the idea of a Labour landslide," McEwan writes. "In a year or two, the older generation that still dreamed of Empire must surely give way to politicians like Gaitskell, Wilson, Crosland - new men with a vision of a modern country . . . If America could have an exuberant and handsome President Kennedy, then Britain could have something similar - at least in spirit, for there was no one quite so glamorous in the Labour Party."

In the event, Labour won the general election of 1964, but it was no landslide. We had to wait two more years for a more comprehensive victory, in the election of March 1966. We had to wait even longer, until the emergence of Tony Blair, for a truly exuberant and glamorous leader who, for a short, tantalising period, seemed to embody all our yearning and desire for pro gressive change, beguiling us with his vision of a modern country. If he was not quite our Kennedy, he was something entirely new in British political history.

His extraordinary popularity did not last. In retrospect, it could not have lasted, because party politics is, ultimately, not about ideals and truth; it is about compromise and obfuscation. It's about being pragmatic, and working out what is and what is not possible in a capitalist liberal democracy in an age of globalisation, and of intense media scrutiny, when the richest members of any society are intent on paying as little tax as possible and the rest of us often demand of others what we are not prepared to do ourselves.

Yet those early weeks that followed the Labour landslide in May 1997, with their jingly-jangly Britpop soundtrack, now have a strange, drifting, dreamlike quality, as if we were all high on the opiate of change and possibility, as if we had all been sprinkled with a kind of magic dust. How different Tony Blair seemed from the grey man he had replaced at Downing Street: he was our first politician-as-celebrity, articulate in the language of popular culture, at ease on television, whatever the cultural register of the programme on which he found himself, relaxed in the company of rock stars and the new rich, and apparently uninhibited by the old class anxieties.

"London swings again!" announced Vanity Fair in 1997 on the cover of an issue showing the then husband-and-wife partnership of Patsy Kensit and Oasis's Liam Gallagher lying on a bed, wrapped in a Union Jack duvet. According to Newsweek, London was the most exciting city on the planet, offering a "hip compromise between the non-stop newness of Los Angeles and the aspic-preserved beauty of Paris - sharpened to New York's edge".

We were living through the historical moment known as Cool Britannia when, for the first time in my lifetime, mainstream party politics had something of the allure of rock'n'roll, and Labour was the hegemonic power. In July 1997, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, the band's record label, were among numerous arts celebrities invited along for a drinks party at 10 Downing Street. Afterwards, Gallagher, who was photographed drinking champagne and chatting with Blair in one of the defining images of that year, and indeed of the entire new Labour first term, announced that "Blair's the man! Power to the people."

Not long after that Downing Street party, I received a call from an old university friend. He is a remote and austere figure, religious and resolutely uninterested in the culture at large. But that afternoon he wanted only to talk about the new government, its promise, its sense of purpose, its "ethical" foreign policy, however misunderstood that notion turned out to be. Like so many of us, my friend believed in Tony Blair and in his mission to remake the country. He knew nothing of the dirt, struggle, grind and compromise of political life. What he did know was this: that there was a sense of optimism in the country such as he had never experienced before, and it was leading him away from his books and music and back into an active engagement with wider society.

Nowadays, once more in retreat, my friend seldom speaks about politics, except in distraction and sorrow. He would have enjoyed last week's issue of this magazine, grandly titled "Blair: the reckoning". The presiding tone was one of powerful regret, and even of rage. The political philosopher John Gray predicated that, after ten years in power, Blair would "bequeath to Labour a long sojourn in the wilderness". The barrister Helena Kennedy suggested that, with the "war, the erosion of liberty, the absence of egalitarianism", Blair had "blown it". The writer Natasha Walter was even more direct: Blair, with blood on his hands, was "truly evil". And so it went on: so much sadness and loss in this shadowland.

Much of what I read struck me as ludicrously pessimistic, the usual leftist dissatisfaction at the failures of a Labour government to liberate itself from the influence and hold of the United States and effect a radical remodelling of society.

"New Labour suffered from an exaggerated sense of expectation, just as it is now suffering from an exaggerated sense of disillusionment," says Matthew Taylor, a former director of policy at 10 Downing Street who is now running the RSA, the royal society for the arts.

"We are always that much more disillusioned by the failures of parties of the left, because we expect so much more of them," says Peter Wilby, who has published a study of Anthony Eden and the politics of the 1950s. "I recall how excited I was when Wilson came to power, ending 13 years of Tory rule. I felt that sense of excitement and possibility much more strongly in 1964 than in 1997, when I didn't have past disillusionment to mollify my enthusiasms."

More substance

This seems to me an important observation - and one that, in addition to anger at the catas trophe of Iraq, helps to explain why there will be little fanfare to accompany Gordon Brown's arrival at Downing Street. Disillusionment has mollified our enthusiasms. Our expectations are no longer so unrealistic. The magic dust has long since been removed from our eyes.

Brown understands this, which is why he has talked about a turn towards a less ostentatious and frivolous style of politics. "I think we're moving from this period when, if you like, celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous," he told the Guardian. "I think you can see that in other countries, too - people are moving away from that to what lies behind the character and the personality."

Less celebrity and more substance: is this what we now want from our politicians in the immediate post-Blair period? Can this move away from celebrity, if it is really happening at all, help to reinvigorate our interest in mainstream party politics?

Matthew Taylor, for one, believes that we are experiencing what he calls a profound shift in our politics. "People don't want politics to be about something government does to them; they want it to be about how life and society feels to them. We need to be less government-centric, and begin to speak more about the kind of society we want to live in and what we can do as citizens to achieve it. For too long there's been a social aspiration gap - between the society we want to live in, and the society we are able to create through our actions. I think David Cameron is closer to articulating this shift than any other politician. Of course, being in opposition allows him the freedom to speak as he does."

In conversation, Taylor uses phrases such as "civic altruism" and "citizen voluntarism". He asks how we can "reconceptualise social change" and calls on "citizens" to be more "self-sufficient". What he is proposing is a different "model of democracy" from what we have now: less centralised and more flexible, and one that demands more responsibility and participation from the citizen. This seems appropriate for an internet-dominated culture, which offers so many ways of social networking and methods of instant communication: the email, the text, the blog, the chatroom. After all, among the most popular sites on the web - YouTube, MySpace, Facebook - are those for which the content is mostly provided by users, and which encourage not passive consumption, but active responsibility and interaction.

"There is a long-term secular trend of disengagement from party politics," Taylor says. "In this sense, the period from 1994 to 1997, associated with the political phenomenon that was new Labour, was a blip. I think people felt in 1992 that they had been conned in some way into voting Conservative, and they didn't want that to happen again. They became engaged. But we must distinguish between cycles and trends. The new Labour phenomenon was a cycle. The trend is towards disengagement."

In 2005, the journalist John Harris published a book called So Now Who Do We Vote For?, which was about his own alienation from and disillusionment with the new Labour project. An earlier book by Harris, The Last Party, had smartly chronicled the rise of Britpop and explained how the movement, if it could be so described, began to fracture as soon as it became associated with the Labour Party and with Tony Blair in particular. The NME led the counter-attack against the government in its celebrated issue of March 1998, with the dramatic cover line: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" The subhead was: "Rock'n'roll takes on the government."

The NME is notoriously impatient and capricious. It was inevitable that, before too long, it would turn against Blair and his new Labour Party. But few could have predicted how quickly the magazine would position itself in opposition to the government; that party at Downing Street with Noel Gallagher was at once the apotheosis and the beginning of the end of the cult of Cool Britannia. It was indeed the last party.

"I was 27 in 1997, and I was caught up in the euphoria of Labour's victory," Harris says now. "When I wrote Now Who Do We Vote For? I felt terribly disillusioned with politics, and shut out and at odds with the new Labour project. I felt the lunatic Blairite fringe was winning."

He is less disengaged now. "I've rejoined the party, yes. I no longer feel that modern social democracy is a cause that has been lost. Ed Mili band, Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls - you feel that they're committed to social democracy. I'm guardedly optimistic that we can begin to have a conversation again. What I want from politics - and this is the way to get young people more interested again - is to have a clearer sense of difference, of a clash of conflicting ideologies.

"We've got to get away from fake politics. Across the world, when people feel there's something at stake, turnout rises at elections, as it did in France. Watching the French presidential elections - the dialogue taking place between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal - you had a sense of something meaningful being talked about. They were talking about what kind of society France should become in relation to globalisation. And you had a clear sense of choice between the two."

Genuine policy differences, opposing ideologies, class conflicts, a clash of ideas: these are what first attracted me as a teenager to politics in the early 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher radicalised wider society with her market reforms and ideologically driven attack on the postwar consensus. The Labour Party moved, disastrously, leftwards in response to Thatcherism, and the divided party had to split as well as suffer many defeats and humiliations before it began to make its long journey back to the political centre, a position from which it could once more contemplate winning elections.

Can party politics ever be cool again? That, I think, is the wrong question, especially if being cool means drinks parties with rock stars at Downing Street as well as winning and maintaining the support of the NME. In fact, to be cool is, almost by definition, to be fleetingly fashionable. Far better, as Gordon Brown understands, to be a politician of moral authority and of permanent ethical values.

There is no doubt that even as membership of political parties continues to fall exponentially - Labour would not tell us for this piece how many of its members are aged 35 or under - engagement with political issues, such as climate change and third world debt and poverty, continues to rise. There is a craving for seriousness, for hard political action, would that we were prepared to grasp it and act, in the image of Taylor's active and responsible citizens.

At present, Westminster politics is defined by its ideological convergence; there is very little difference between Blair's Labour and Cameron's new-model, more socially liberal Conservatives. With the arrival of Gordon Brown as prime minister, and with the nationalists so strong in Scotland, we may be entering a period of upheaval, with the Labour government defining itself not so much against the Con servatives, the official opposition, as against its previous leader. Tony Blair was our first true politician-as-celebrity, and we once loved him unwisely and too well, just as we now loathe him ardently and, perhaps, too much.

Jason Cowley is the newly appointed editor of Granta magazine

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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