Never waste a lull. The New Year pause in parliamentary politics gives everyone, even doddery old hacks, a chance to look around afresh. We know that the very idea of freshness – a clean break, with that new number, 23 – is a nonsense. In nature, yes, there is renewal. Already tiny green shards are breaking the soil. But in politics everything blurs, merges, rolls over. Abjuring January alcohol, we stagger on dimly under the burden of earlier follies.
And yet the illusion of a clean break helps. That sense that “things could be different” is the biggest gift of the winter holiday. And so, in a mood of guarded optimism, here are some thoughts about a better politics in the year ahead.
Before policies, people. The latter part of the year was clouded for me by the death of my mother. I found the grief oddly analgesic, a cotton-like blur which smoothed sharp corners and inhibited serious thinking.
But one thing was sharp and clarifying. My mother and I quietly disagreed about politics through most of our lives. She was a Conservative Christian and I am not. But she was also a bold, unorthodox thinker, who radiated goodness – a practical helper, an energetic supporter of others – better than her son.
That’s why, although I have no difficulty in calling out policies as wicked (such as sending undocumented migrants to Rwanda) I cannot see people I disagree with politically as inherently bad. Agreed, people who repeatedly make morally repugnant policies will, at some point, become plastered with their stink. But in this age of frenzy, it’s safer to be slow to denounce.
So I hope for a calmer, less personality-driven politics. Years of discussing who was lying, rather than where houses should be built, have been bad for the public realm. It’s something that the Conservatives, considering their leadership in the year ahead, need to remember.
During the quiet days I noticed with greater clarity how dangerous my phone has become, manipulating me into little whirlpools of sudden attention and anger, like a teased dog wheeling in circles. Social media, far from providing a digital version of the town square, is driving us away from a common conversation. Instead it produces musketry of self-righteousness. To get a better politics in the year ahead, we have to stop the inflationary use of words such as “vile”, “disgusting” and “corrupt”; we have to think longer and listen harder. Almost always, a person is more interesting than an algorithm.
For people on the left, this provokes a wider reflection. Go back to the origins of social democracy, and you find a determination among trade unionists, Fabians, founders of friendly societies and workers’ educationists to not simply demand more of the government of the day – to be a better lobbyist – but to live better. Progressives were supposed to do more than complain or protest, but to be engaged actively in their communities, helping, teaching, sharing, leading. Many people still do; but the urgency of personal moral expectation has fallen away.
The political group Blue Labour, which was founded by Maurice Glasman in 2009, is best known for its cultural conservatism but, following the example of Jewish socialism engaging with other civic movements, does try to do the same. Communitarianism, however, is so far a philosophy rather than a movement. Citizens UK, founded in 1989 on the back of the community-organising movements which began in Chicago, has achieved important advances on the living wage and the treatment of migrants but hasn’t yet broken through into the popular imagination. I don’t know why.
Younger people, seeing more clearly, are changing how they eat, travel, talk, but often only receive contempt rather than respect from their elders. It isn’t leading us towards what you might call a common national venture.
What we are seeing, not just through this immediate recession but in the inability of market economics to offer the hope of better lives to people in their twenties and thirties, is the collapse of the big offer – work hard, play by the old rules, and you will get a steadily better material life. But if the big offer’s no longer obtainable, what’s left?
Francis Fukuyama did not write a book called The End of History. He wrote one in 1992 called The End of History and the Last Man. That second phrase is crucial because Fukuyama’s real subject was about whether a materially satisfying bourgeois life is enough for most of us in the West – or, as he rather marvellously put it, whether human dignity can cope with the fact that “man is simply a more organised and rational form of slime”. Fukuyama writes that everywhere, people “will want to be citizens rather than bourgeois, finding the life of masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption – in the end, boring”.
It may seem ridiculous to bring early 1990s Fukuyama, trailing Nietzsche, into a discussion of politics in 2023. But his emphasis on dignity, and the need for purpose in a post-religious world, remains relevant in Britain, a country currently committed, it seems, only to a failing, falling-behind consumerism. There can ultimately be no long-term success in a managerial politics without moral force or that common venture.
Trying to imagine what it might be is hard. There’s not much looking good abroad. Yes, there is an energy, a pulsing sense of purpose, in Ukraine’s heroic fight against the Russian invasion. Indeed, there is a dark energy in the Kremlin as well, as it proclaims the return of meaningful big history. But John Gray was right when he called Putinism, in these pages, “a sinister klepto-theocracy”. As a relentless critic of liberal optimism, Gray sees the end of communism as, blankly, “the end of an era of political faith”.
But this seems to leave nowhere to go. Perhaps if we tone down the language a little and talk of a common venture, then opportunities open up. For me there is no getting around the NHS as the theme of the year ahead: the crisis in critical care, the loss of nurses and specialists and the agonising (literally) waiting times are reducing what was our national glory to an embarrassment.
[See also: The truth about the worst NHS crisis]
Repairing the health service would require much higher taxation and quite a lot of patience. Market Conservatives have already given up on it and the biggest challenge for Keir Starmer and Labour is to rally support for a plausible, affordable rescue plan.
Another essential common venture is the less interesting-sounding one of resilience, responding to climate chaos above all. But from money to shopping, transport to food supply, we have become, within just a couple of decades, an incredibly fragile society. A single solar flare, or a bit of underwater cable-snipping and sabotage by the Russians, could reduce us to uncivil chaos in weeks. We know it. We don’t talk about it. Who in politics even thinks about national resilience?
And, as the political year begins to pick up, these grander questions will inevitably be shouldered aside by the latest news-driven hoo-hah – a rebellious speech by Boris Johnson, or perhaps more allegations of sexual misconduct against politicians, or whatever. On such subjects there are, no doubt, plenty of columns to come. But the brief pause in the parliamentary music has been salutary and useful. Looking back, 2022 appears to me as another year when we were somehow giggling too much about the latest scandal to think about the most important things – too distracted to have the essential, calmer conversations.
Well, we can always do better. Again, I think of my mother. Whenever I was getting above myself – not a very rare occurrence – she would give me a long, old-fashioned look and say: “Andrew. Dear. That isn’t clever. It isn’t funny. And nobody’s laughing.”
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege