The new cosmopolitan politics: a smart career choice?

by Stephen Tall on January 28, 2006

‘Politics as a career’: that was the rather general theme I attempted to speak to today at the Oxford University Students’ Union alternative careers fair. I was acutely conscious of the irony of a Liberal Democrat – in this week of all weeks – talking about such a concept. (It can’t be long before my “I-smoked-a-crafty-cigarette-behind-the-bike-sheds”-shame is exposed in the News of the World.) Perhaps the bigger irony, though, is this: I do not think of politics as a career, and would discourage anyone from seeing it as one.

It is undoubtedly the question I am most often asked by people I meet when they find out I’m a councillor: “So, do you want to be an MP?” A few years ago, the answer might have been yes. But the more I grow up, the less sure I am. Why? Because, in the words of Alistair Campbell’s famous sideswipe at Gordon Brown, I think you have to be “psychologically flawed” to put yourself voluntarily through the hell of being a parliamentary candidate.

Any activist who’s lived through a general election campaign knows quite what a bruising experience it is. It gets personal and unpleasant. This is true across the political spectrum, and applies both within and between political parties, as well as to the public at large. As an activist you can observe all this at arm’s length, vicariously, at one remove. As the candidate, there is no escape. The closer together the parties stand, the more determined they are to shout louder. The lower voter turn-out sinks, the more shrill become the campaign leaflets. Frankly, the conduct of political discourse in this country demeans everyone, and it is slowly but surely destroying the quality of political life.

We, the British public – and especially its media – are anaesthetising political debate, forcing our politicians to be bland automatons who must slavishly toe the party line, or else be tainted as rebels, mavericks or cranks. Or, worse, lauding as rebels, mavericks and cranks those who are little more than ornery contrarians who long ago gave up any pretence at thinking original thoughts, and now get their cheap thrills by being thorns in the side of their party for the sheer heck of it.

The intellectually curious all too rarely go into politics these days. Why would they? Far better to confine yourself to the more rarefied worlds of think-tanks, academe – or even the quality end of serious journalism – where you can explore complex ideas in a serious arena with like-minded colleagues (and retain your right to a private life). Better that than have one isolated, controversial phrase plucked out of a long argument, and see it plastered over opposition campaign leaflets. (It’s not happened to me yet, but it can’t be long.)

There are exceptions, politicians prepared to think beyond their parties’ pre-conceptions and prejudices – David Laws, Frank Field and Alan Duncan, for example – but all are treated with suspicion by their respective parties, regarded by some as not quite ‘one of us’. And just look at the ministry of talents that Harold Wilson was able to draw upon in his Labour cabinets – heavyweights like Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Richard Crossman, Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle – and compare it to the lightweight, motley collection who meekly comprise Tony Blair’s cabinet. Politics is becoming more staid, more dull, more safe.

I joined the Labour Party when I was 16. I voted for Tony Blair as Labour leader (and, God help me, John Prescott as Deputy) in 1994. I voted for Labour in the 1997 landslide. It’s the done thing when talking about reasons why you defected to say something like, “My views haven’t changed; it’s the party that’s left me.” That’s partly true, though in my case youthful socialist exuberance had long since given way to mature liberal reflection. But it’s certainly true that the Labour Party I joined believed in ‘my kind of politics’: devolution, House of Lords reform, Freedom of Information, proportional representation, and civil liberties. The Labour Party I left in 1999 had, in the main, forgotten these liberal indulgences, and has shown even less sign of remembering them in the seven years since.

I was elected a Liberal Democrat councillor six years ago, and have always felt comfortable within the party – despite disagreements with some of its policy positions – because I’m confident the values which form the core of my beliefs, my political being, are shared by the vast majority of fellow members.

The point I’m seeking to make here is that the political divides we’ve constructed are frequently artificial. Yet our political system is tribal to a fault. Yes, for sure, there are divisions between parties (and within them). But there is a lot of overlap too. It’s one of the bizarre realities of today’s de-aligning politics that many Labour members oppose much of their own Government’s education reforms. Yet I, as a Lib Dem member, support many of these reforms while my party opposes the Government. That this is so shouldn’t really surprise me or anyone else. With all three mainstream parties signed up to the delivery of a broadly liberal capitalist economy, policy disagreements will inevitably be more nuanced, the party divides less clear cut.

A political party is, in any case, no more than a vehicle for your own ideas and ideals. (The aspect of politics which depresses me most is when, for some, their party becomes an end in itself.) So what are these ideas and ideals? I’m going to borrow a binary division from one of the few genuinely intellectual political figures in recent years, Robin Cook, whose death last year robbed radical, progressive politics of one of its too few powerful voices. He divided politics into two categories: chauvinists and cosmopolitans. Let me unwrap those a little by throwing out some free association terms which might pertain to each label:

Chauvinist: reactionary, isolationist, anti-European, anti-immigration, anti-asylum, thinks one party has all the answers, pro-hanging, anti-abortion, convinced ‘prison works’, little Englander, centralisation, nostalgic for a past world.

Cosmopolitan: outward-looking, internationalist, pro-European, pro-immigration, pro-asylum, pluralist, anti-hanging, pro-choice, believes in rehabilitation, multi-culturalist, devolutionary, anti-ID cards, anti-war, tolerant, progressive, forward-thinking.

Chauvinist and cosmopolitan: these, to me, are the big societal divides today. The terms are so much more instructive than the tired, clich├ęd left/right axis so beloved of journalists whose brains ceased functioning in the 1980s. And it is, for me, a cause of optimism that – whatever the travails of my party in the last few weeks – those progressive, cosmopolitan, liberal values are being so commonly embraced: whether by the ‘old Labour left’, like Brian Sedgemore; or the ‘new Tory right’, like David Cameron.

I’ve attempted to avoid too much partisan politics in this piece, but allow me also to say why I think the Lib Dems have cause for optimism too: because those shared values which are becoming more prevalent are what this party was founded to promote. Some political commentators are (overly) fond of saying that the Lib Dems’ dilemma is that we have to work out if we’re going to be a party of the ‘left’ or the ‘right’. What they appear not to have realised is that our real dilemma is that both Labour and the Tories have recognised they need to become more ‘liberal’ in order to appeal to modern Britain. But, of course, every problem is a challenge is an opportunity.

And, for the Lib Dems, the opportunity is great because neither of the two other parties quite get what it means to be liberal.

Labour wants social justice, and understands the need to give the poorest in our society a helping hand. But they fail to comprehend why liberals like me object to our civil liberties being trampled on because they devotedly believe that the state (at least so long as it’s in Labour hands) is always and everywhere a force for good. In contrast, liberals believe that governments, of whichever hue, have just as much potential to hurt individuals as private business does.

The Tories are, under ‘Dave’ Cameron, increasingly understanding that civil liberties – the need to protect the individual from the pernicious effects of state interference – are a key issue (even though I suspect most of them were awoken to its implications by the ban on fox-hunting, rather than concern for society’s real downtrodden). But remarkably few of them actually, really, truly believe in social justice. They know they have to pay lip-service to it, or else they will be held in contempt by the three-quarters of the public who also appreciate its centrality to the health of society. Indeed, a large part of what Tories like about Mr Cameron – at the moment – is that he can speak fluently a language they can only barely comprehend. ‘Dave’ can talk about Third World debt and climate change, and do so pretty convincingly, while his fellow Tories look on bemused, but grateful, happy to have out-sourced the ‘being nice’ part of politics they know is required of them, but which they think irrelevant compared to their chauvinist fetishes of hating Europe and loving tax cuts.

This, then, is the Lib Dems’ two-fold opportunity.

1. To help Labour understand the value of civil liberties – that social justice requires individuals to be empowered by government, and not subject to it. And to help the Tories to understand that citizens cannot truly be free to lead their own lives, liberated from the nanny-state, unless those at the bottom of the pile are given the opportunity to make the most of their talents.

2. And the best part of this is that we are likely to have the chance in the coming years to force both Labour and the Tories to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. It is probable, but not certain, that Gordon Brown will lead a Labour Government after the next election, but with a much reduced majority. It is possible, but not likely, that David Cameron, may be able to form a majority administration, or at least lead a minority government. And it is quite feasible that there will be a hung Parliament in which the Lib Dems will hold the balance of power. In any one of these three eventualities, my party will have greater influence than it has been able to exert at any time since the 1920s.

There is, therefore, plenty to be excited about in the new politics which is currently feeling its way into being. The liberal momentum is gaining traction, moving our society in an irreversibly more progressive, cosmopolitan direction. The Lib Dems’ task is to give this liberal momentum a resonant, credible, consistent, authoritative, enduring voice within the British political system. That is more than reason enough for me to continue to be as closely involved as possible in liberal politics. Just don’t call it a career!

* This is an adapted version of the talk I gave today at the OUSU Alternative Careers Fair.