Politics – Ideology and Pragmatism

Any student of politics will know that there is an almost unlimited range of political opinions and possible policies which can be assembled selectively into a Party manifesto. The underlying logic of a political Party should be that the chosen assemblage has a modicum of consistent logic to it. The last Prime Minister who came close to doing this was Margaret Thatcher – before her Clement Attlee.

Thatcher took her guidance from the free enterprise handbook of Friedrick Hayek and Attlee from the writings of John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge. They were of course opposed ideologies but you knew where you were. Opponents of Thatcher or Attlee pretty much opposed their full packages. There wasn’t much room for pick and mix.

Most politicians and governments in the post war period have not been ideologically pure and have put together programmes that were pragmatic in order to be electorally attractive. In office the appearance of competence and perceived electability has dictated actions. When the global economic crisis hit Britain in the late noughties Gordon Brown took charge and his outstanding understanding of the issues led to competent decision-making and common-sense – he was widely praised and indeed honoured globally for this. But he lost the 2010 General Election. It wasn’t enough to have been right and able. You had to be electable as well.

Margaret Thatcher ticked the boxes of the electorate even though most of them had little understanding of her underlying ideology except in the most uncomplicated terms. But the appeal of “freedom” was an attractive one and there was consistency. Selling council houses and giving consumers options among energy suppliers (for example) came out of the same core ideology called “freedom of choice”. Freeing The Falklands from the yoke of Argentinian rule was the ultimate and electorally decisive action. Link this to attacking the “enemy within” – militant Trades Unionism – and you have a coherent philosophy and one that can be and was made appealing.

Margaret Thatcher once said (in 1984) that “Politics is not an essay in public relations” it is about getting “decisions right.” I think Clement Attlee would have agreed with that. The problem is that other political leaders have and do see their role as to be primarily effective in their management of “public relations”. If this means being economical with the actualité so be it.

The driver of the current Government’s actions is arguably ideological – the problem is that unlike Attlee or Thatcher the ideology is not transparent and is rarely openly referred to. There are links with Thatcherism of course and Libertarianism and English nationalism can be characterised as variants of Thatcher’s “freedom”. The problem is that there is no credible committed and visible leadership from the top. Nobody knows what Boris Johnson (or his immediate predecessors) believes in. If anything.

To be an informed and capable pragmatist – a John Major (to some extent) or a Gordon Brown is handy in times of trouble. We could do with one now. Competence trumps ideological purity when push comes to shove. But today we have the worst of all worlds. The Government is an “essay in public relations” and not very good at it. That aside it’s one raison d’être when elected was to “Get Brexit Done” .

The fact is that in the unexpectedly choppy waters of 2020 rushing into a post Brexit world has become the wrong thing to do, for the wrong reasons at emphatically the wrong time. The public clearly agrees with polls showing “Remain” with a clear advantage over “Leave” – this despite the fact that we have actually left the European Union! To have acknowledged this and bought time – extending transition for a year or two would have been the pragmatic thing to do. But no – we may not know what this Governments’s ideology is, but Brexit is its flagship (only) policy. Those choppy waters are going to turn into a tsunami next January.

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