This is our truth, tell us yours
That’s all Britain is; the largest island in a small archipelago off the coast of Europe.
Geography, and its political meaning, is not something the Labour Party has talked about in the last 30 years. A whole generation of Labour activists have grown up absorbing the organizational lessons of the last time Labour debated political geography meaningfully, in the aftermath of the 1975 Euro referendum.
Oddly, Labour learned the internal political lessons, but not the external and geographical lessons. The internal political lessons it learned were that collegiate styles of cabinet governance, with the potential for major figures to disagree with the party leadership (a la Roy Jenkins, even if his political status is overstated) were to be replaced by a presidential system that replaced dissent and debate with spin and sofa government. Dissent was dismissed as division, and debate eschewed for fear it might look like confusion.
It wasn’t until I thought about this that I thought about the way Labour, on the last thirty years, has always looked west for its inspiration, to the political organizers of the United States, not east to the political thinkers of Europe. Why, I asked myself hasn’t Labour actively sought to learn from the technocrats of France, the imperial bureaucrats of Germany or the public intellectuals of Italy? (You can of course insert your own cliches and national stereotypes here, but the point remains the same). The last Labour leader to embrace European politics with any kind of enthusiasm was Kinnock, and he did so with all the enthusiasm of a failed local councillor who fancies becoming council Chief Executive because he thinks he knows how the machine works. In the process, as is almost always the case, he lost all his influence over his friends even as he struggled to convince his new colleagues he was made of the right stuff.
This question, of Labour’s obsession with the continent far away to the west is thrown into sharp relief by the poverty of Labour’s response to George Osborne’s summer budget. The obsession with details and spin has masked its purpose; to reduce the share of GDP taken by Britain’s government and used for its purposes to the level of the USA, creating an historic gap between British and European models of government and finance.
Labour isn’t talking about this. It isn’t talking about whether there’s any evidence that American of German levels of public spending produce better, or fairer outcomes. The decision to avoid debate by adopting follow the leader presidential politics left Harriet Harman, on budget day, with nothing to say and, true to form, even saying nothing proved too great a challenge for her.
Sooner or later Labour will have to embrace the risk of factionalism, even of schism, if it is to fashion a response to the Conservative small state agenda that accepts poverty as a better alternative that government spending. Abandoning presidential politics would be a good start. Making a virtue of that abandonment would be better, and relating that behaviour to how our European neighbours are governed would be best. Atlanticism has failed Labour; in order to develop a creditable alternative to Conservatism Labour needs to took eastwards.
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