This is my response to Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times today.
Those who seek to characterise politics as an ongoing battle between Left and Right , between conservatives and socialists are stuck in a binary mindset which is unhelpful , as well as superficial. It’s more complicated than that.
Surely 2020 has taught us that the main divide is between those who are competent, and those who are not ? Jacinda Ardern was not re-elected because she is a Leftie – she is back in office because she is demonstrably able. Donald Trump will not be booted out because he is a Republican, but because he is useless and unpleasant. Boris Johnson is in trouble because he lacks consistent grip ( to put it mildly) not because he is a Conservative.
The conventional view is that Britain in the 1950s and 1960s was a Butskellite country where there was little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives. I think this oversimplifies but few would argue that there wasn’t a large measure of political consensus – certainly more than today. Harold Wilson campaigned from the Left but governed from the centre. So did Edward Heath from the Right.
Margaret Thatcher and John Major did some things that Labour might not have done, but when he gained power Tony Blair did not reverse them. The rhetoric of the Right and Left of those times was far greater than the actuality of what they did. Thatcher was a shock to the political norms but it is simplistic to call her a Right Wing politician. Her ideology was free enterprise and to an extent libertarian and her methods controversial but until the mistake of the poll tax she was competent in what she did. She even won a war. And the traditional British way of political fudge (centrism if you like) survived her reign and was to return.
Brexit is not the result of the Right triumphing over the Left. Two Prime Ministers have overseen referendums on Europe with different outcomes. In 1975 Wilson knew what he was doing and his Government won. In 2016 David Cameron got everything wrong (including the fatal decision to hold the referendum in the first place) and he lost. Competence compared with incompetence again not Left v Right.
That there are ideologues around is not in dispute – there always have been. But for them to have moved from the lunatic fringe to positions of power and influence is unprecedented. I remember Oswald Moseley and some racist Conservatives like Enoch Powell as well as a few Hard Left Trades Union Leaders and Labour politicians back in the 1950s and early 1960s. They were all colourful but made little real impact. So to have a General Election, as we did in 2019, where the two main parties were lead by a daft old socialist on the one hand and a dilettante puppet of the xenophobic, nationalist Right on the other was fundamentally un-British. The centre had failed to hold, with a vengeance. The road has been closed.
The solution is clear as it was in 1990, after a shock to the system moderation and competence must return. However we are nowhere near being out of our traumatic malaise. Even if COVID disappears in early 2021 we we still be dealing with the battleground of post Brexit Britain. The break up of the United Kingdom, the return of armed strife in the island of Ireland and social unrest everywhere look unavoidable. That’s not a consequence of a Left v Right battle but of the triumph of a uniquely malignant ideology over logic and reason.