The state of Britain: cause for some optimistic pessimism

by Stephen Tall on July 1, 2012

David Rennie has been the pen behind the pseudonymous Bagehot column, which appears weekly in The Economist, since 2010. During that time he has been deservedly recognised as the most acute commentator, bar none, writing on British politics. Not that I’ve always agreed with him, not least his indulgence of hoary old cliches with which to whack the Lib Dems.

He has now transferred to the US to personate another Economist pseudonym, Lexington. However, his final missive is a must-read ‘state of the nation’ take on the Britain he found when he returned two years ago, and the Britain he feels he now leaves. It’s a long-ish piece, well worth reading in full, but here’s the conclusion:

… Bagehot — who leaves Britain this week for a new posting in America — finds himself oddly encouraged by the nature of British pessimism. This columnist came to Britain after 12 years in the new world and Europe. From afar, the British seemed to have found a distinctive way of handling globalisation: a mid-Atlantic compact based on greater individualism and tolerance of competition than the French, say, balanced with a more generous welfare safety net than might be found in America. To simplify, Britain looked American at the top and European at the bottom, and it seemed to work.

Bagehot thinks that compact is intact, if fragile. In much of Europe, competition is seen as a necessary evil and the opposite of solidarity. In Britain, competition is still tolerated so long as the rules of the game are just. (This difference of view has deep roots: several southern European languages talk of “disloyal” competition when English uses the term “unfair”.)

In other debt-ridden Western countries, including much of the euro zone, vested interests and tribal voter blocks are hunkering down to resist reforms and defend dwindling privileges. Yet the British still yearn to live in a meritocracy: 87% told Policy Exchange that in a fair society incomes should depend on hard work and talent.

Though the British are immigration-obsessed, overt racism is all-but taboo. Consider how the United Kingdom Independence Party, a populist outfit that wants much tighter curbs on foreigners, has played down issues of ethnicity or religion as it rises in the polls, recently ditching calls to ban Muslim headscarves. Even those who would quit the EU are guilty of excess optimism along with excess gloom: Eurosceptics cling to the rash belief that Britain could secure free-rider access to EU markets by walking out.

If the British are obsessed with society’s unfairness, that is because they want it fixed—a finer ambition than clinging, fatalistically and cynically, to a crumbling status quo. Bagehot bids farewell to an unhappy country. But it is an unhappiness that looks to the future and wants to improve it. Britain is lost in this crisis. With luck and grown-up leadership, it will find a way out.

It’s an optimistic conclusion, and I think there’s a lot of merit in Bagehot’s sense of a UK ‘mid-Atlantic compact’. But it prompts in my mind an awkward question as to how far our political system can take some of the credit.

What would truly pluralist politics look like?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a PR-toting liberal pluralist who believes fairer votes would pave the way to greater voter choice and a more mature way of doing politics.

And yet… part of the reason British politics has remained centrist — at least by Bagehot’s definition — is that we have had only three major UK-wide parties able to aspire to form a majority government, with each vying to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of voters. While Labour in the early 1980s, and the Tories in the early 2000s, flirted with a more extremist version of their usual ideologies, each eventually tacked back to the more moderate course they knew gave them the best chance of winning an election.

If proportional representation were introduced, however, it would result in ‘disruptive innovation’ within our politics. Each of the three parties would likely split into their two competing wings (at least): Tories/UKIP, New/Old Labour, Economic/Social Liberals. For sure, they’d be likely to re-align again after an election when it came to forming a coalition, but as a result of ‘purging’ themselves of the other part of themselves they found most irritating each new half-party would become more narrow.

For example, I’m pretty unabashedly a ‘classical liberal’ on most issues, most interested in ways of increasing equality of opportunity by freeing the individual with the least possible state involvement. Yet I genuinely appreciate (mostly!) the ‘social liberal’ impulses held by many Lib Dems which focus more on the state’s role in delivering equality of outcomes. It’s that creative tension which, when it works, helps ensure the party adopts a balanced approach with general voter appeal. The narrower a party’s base becomes the more it risks becoming a self-reinforcing echo chamber for its own activists, detached from mass voter concerns.

Broad churches or zealous sects?

There is, of course, a counter-hypothetical to this post-PR political world: that as parties split and into sub-parties united around what a smaller critical mass of members actually believe in — rather than adopting a soggy centre which just about holds a larger range of diverse views together for the sake of electoral maths — this will in itself engage more voters. Forget three broad churches with often agnostic congregations (says this argument) and expect instead a multitude of small churches full of zealots. Well, perhaps so… But that’s not a prospect which over-fills me with joy.

The UK is (alas for us liberals) broadly a small-c conservative nation. Yet we liberals (and any of you who are conservatives) are dispersed across all parties and none. Somehow, mysteriously and oh-so-imperfectly, we have kept each other in check.

Our political system may be broken, our finances bankrupted, our media in disgrace and our football teams in the doldrums: but the ‘mid-Atlantic compact’ holds, just. However inadvertently, that’s down to us. That may not be grounds for pride, but perhaps for a cautiously optimistic dose of British pessimism.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.