History and ideology are back in a polarised Britain

  • World
  • Sunday, 07 Oct 2018

Polar opposites: Corbyn presenting a vision antagonistic to May’s at the recent Labour conference.- Reuters

THE British prime minister and the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition gave speeches on the same day recently, outlining their vision for their country’s economy – and by implication, its society. They had little in common.

It’s hardly surprising. Prime Minister Theresa May is to the right of her Conservative Party; Jeremy Corbyn is on the far left of his Labour Party. But there is more than that: the antagonistic visions of May and Corbyn indicate a great disruption in the politics of the world, where the forecasts of a convergence around free-market liberalism as history ends (Francis Fukuyama), and an end of ideology (Daniel Bell) have been exploded.

Britain, where the political party system first developed from the struggle between monarch and parliament in the 17th century, makes the clash of philosophies and practices most clearly visible.

At his conference in left-voting Liverpool, Corbyn told the wildly supportive hall that “the whole edifice of greed-is-good deregulated financial capitalism, lauded for a generation as the only way to run a modern economy, came crashing to earth, with devastating consequences.”

He offered, instead of greed, state-supported cooperation, a “radical plan to rebuild and transform our country,” with workers on companies’ boards sharing in profits, and a promise to invest heavily in green energy, creating 400,000 new jobs.

Labour was ready to lead the country out of the Tory mess, he said, and he hoped that when the conference met again in a year’s time, he would be prime minister.

Yet his proclamations raised the spectre of a country governed by the far-left enthusiasts who are now the majority in Labour. Corbyn, and his closest colleagues in the leadership, have learned much from the public relations skills of “New Labour” and “Blairism” which they otherwise loudly despise. But they are serious socialists for whom Marx is a guiding spirit and the organised working class is the vanguard of society.

As he gave his leader’s oration in Liverpool, Prime Minister May was preparing to deliver her speech later the same day at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York. It was a pitch for greater investment and trade between the two Anglophone states as the time for agreeing to a deal with the European Union on Brexit trickles away. Thus where Corbyn married capitalism and greed in his rhetoric, May’s invocation of the same system was of one uniting freedom and social progress.

“Where free markets have been properly regulated, and trade and investment unleashed,” she said, “we have seen unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity, rising life expectancy, greater access to education, falling infant mortality and reductions in absolute poverty...”

On whether this global economic system is “fair and can really be made to work for everyone”, she responded with “a bold and optimistic yes.”

From Labour, a view that global capitalism has broken the British state, which needs root and branch reconstruction; from the government, a reassertion that the rules of the global market, suitably amended, can answer public disaffection and again raise incomes and fund generous public services. This is a far cry from the early 2000s “third way” approach of Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton in the United States – centre-leftists all, able to convince majorities that markets could work for everyone’s prosperity.

Britain today is the cockpit of this non-consensual time.

But the past weeks have also seen US President Donald Trump restate his belief in America – and me-first nationalism – and draw laughter from the UN General Assembly; while French President Emmanuel Macron drew loud applause from the same gathering for a flat rejection of Trump’s governing philosophy. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has built a vision of a unique “Eurasian” destiny into his country’s future.

In China, President Xi Jinping has inherited and is strengthening a fast-growing system of corporate capitalism, calling it “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. Each of these is sui generis: tailored for the nation, while seeking global success.

Observers who have long complained that all political battles were shadow boxing around a soggy center, may now reflect on being more careful what they wish for in the future – or, depending on temperament, rejoice that the soggy center no longer exercises the magnetic pull it once did. In either case, globalisation – far from imposing uniformity – has caused an efflorescence of different strategies. – Reuters

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