Friends of the political establishment should be disturbed by Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP this morning. It was a surprise to all; unaccompanied by the familiar rumours and cryptic-burblings in the media that normally precede major political “moments”. The announcement was bold and resolute, made in considered and perspicuous language, and formulated to persuade rather than deceive. In short, it was the antithesis of the type of politics it was designed to subvert.
It is nothing new to say that Cameron’s brand of Toryism is vapid; without serious intellectual heritage or direction. Radically undermining the family unit through cruel and sadistic benefit and tax changes, whilst simultaneously increasing the public debt, Cameron’s administration has been a clumsy experiment in neoliberal political management, utterly devoid of ideological guidance, relying on specious sound-bites to spasmodically jitter from crisis-to-crisis. We all know this and Carswell critiques it more brilliantly than I ever could so I refer you to him.
What I am more concerned about are the consequences of Carswell’s arguments for the Labour Party, where my allegiances lie. I fear that in the long run Carswell’s announcement will reveal less about the internal struggles of the Tory Party than it does about the intellectual inadequacies and impoverishments of the Left.
In his announcement this morning Carswell took a decidedly un-conservative position. He rejected the assumption that consensuses are the product of collective reason and experience – they are simply constructions that serve a sectional interest.
Invoking Paine more than Burke, Carswell noted how his party sustains itself on this myth. We might be told that certain constraints are non-negotiable, and certain assumptions must be held, but this is just a rhetorical guise to conceal their partial and transient character. On Carswell’s account the cross-party deference towards the financial services, or to the EU, says less about the philosophical or economic merits of such a position than it does about the insular world of modern British politics. Put simply, there is an alternative to the status quo.
A familiar trope of the Left, you might say. But then why has it been left to an irritable right-winger to state it?
How confused have our politics become when Labour are arguing that our relationship with Europe should roughly remain the same? That, while the EU may be a Hayekian fantasy of unaccountable bureaucracy and anti-inflationary consensus, we should stick with it for the sake of economic stability.
And that we should be grateful for the occasional token directive enforcing gender equality or upholding workers conditions – as if these social rights were the invention of a benevolent Belgian bureaucrat, rather than the product of a long and bloody struggle in this country which often meant rejecting our European neighbours for a genuinely internationalist outlook. If we had a referendum on the EU we would be seen as eccentric and esoteric, the argument runs, unable to deal with “modernity”.
We should be big enough to take that criticism. Like Carswell I remain optimistic. Consent for the consensus, even the passive variety, is waning. As ever, Labour is one step behind the electorate; the glib New Labour promises of consistency and competence are insufficiently rousing to achieve major electoral success. It might just be that an irritable right-winger is exactly what we need to shake up the Left.