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The decline of ideology and why it matters. By Chris Bose

by on June 1, 2012

Grand ideologies and big ideas have something of tarnished reputation in British politics nowadays. The ideological clashes of the 1970s and 1980s, which pitted Socialism against Conservatism – Keynesianism against Monetarism, bear little resemblance to our so called ‘post ideological settlement’. There have since been attempts to frame policies in a ‘vision’ of what state and society should look like. New Labour’s ‘Third way’, trying to combine social justice with economic efficiency, is one notable example. David Cameron has also turned his hand to idea building. With his now departed blue sky thinker in residence Cameron and Steve Hilton tried, with very little success, to project a Burkean ideal of a ‘Big society’ of ‘little platoons’. However, neither the ‘Third way’ nor particularly the ‘Big society’ are powerful ideologies capable of defining a Government’s agenda. Moreover, this decline of ideology in British politics has accelerated under David Cameron with his preference for pragmatism over fixed principles. In his own words the PM is ‘not a deeply ideological person’.

But does this shift to a more managerial politics actually matter? No rational observer of politics would question the importance of evidence based policy making. Equally, few would wish for a return for the extreme ideological battles of the 1970s and 1980s. However, there is an increasingly strong argument that this absence of a coherent system of political ideas is to the detriment of our polity – its electorate and its leaders.

For party leaders, the failure to articulate a sophisticated narrative for Government prevents them from stitching their array of policies and proposals into a clear mission. It is this absence of mission which explains the common and damaging verdict that the public simply do not know what Cameron, Clegg and Miliband each stand for. In PR speak they lack a distinctive brand identity. This ideological lightness, combined with an increasingly homogeneous political class makes the task of distinguishing the main party leaders harder. For the party leaders, the public not knowing what they each stand for limits their ability to connect with voters.

Yet the plight of party leaders is really just a side concern. The greater disservice is done to the public. The scale of the problems besetting European citizens is of a different order to the challenges of the past twenty years. We are grappling with impacts of a globalised economic system with an awesome capacity to create both growth but also immense economic pain and insecurity. How to mitigate the harsh vicissitudes of an interconnected economic system is a towering problem in political debate. It looms behind many of our current public policy challenges: How to balance international competitiveness with labour market protection; what burden the tax payer should bear for bailing out our banking system; to what extent we should protect uncompetitive industries; how much corporation tax should be redistributed to neediest in society.

There is a tendency to deal with the symptoms rather than illness, as politicians try and buttress our island from the international tides. Whilst these attempts to cushion the impact of Globalisation are welcome, they fail to address the towering problem. This scale of public policy challenge demands thinking at the altitude which our current politicians are reluctant to do. It is not sufficient to address it with a multitude of discrete policies. It requires our leaders to revert to the first principles and consider the relationship between the state and the market. It demands a frank evaluation of what our priorities are as a nation and how we manage the trade off between growth and security. These are not only big questions in search of big answers – they are vast and complex challenges which can only be answered by building a coherent political ideology.

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