My column for ConHome: Fantasy Politics – The Party that I really want to join

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. This week, as the football season draws to a close, I kick some fantasy politics around, imagining a world without the existing parties. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

It’s the last full week of the football season. ‘Tall’s Talents’, my fantasy team, currently languishes in position number 469,197 in the English league. I’ve had something of a Man Utd season. Time to return to home turf: fantasy politics. It’s a fun game. Simply imagine there’s no parties. (It’s easy if you try.) Start with a blank sheet of paper and map out the positions you think matter on the big issues. Here’s my attempt…

The economy and public services: this is the main fault-line in British politics between left and right. Should we (mostly) leave things to the market or do we need the government of the day (quite often) to step in? Are you a free-marketeer or an interventionist? ‘Boss control or state control?’ as an old Liberal Party poster used to define the divide.

Our role in the world: where did you stand on Syria? Where do you stand on the Ukraine? Do you think the UK should always be willing to act, to send our troops into the line of fire – or to impose the toughest sanctions – in order to uphold international law? Or do you think we just should not get involved, that it’s not our fight, and we’ll do more harm than good?

Society and morality:  do you like modern Britain? Are you comfortable with multi-culturalism, or do you feel awkward on a train if you can hear only foreign languages being spoken? Are you in favour of legalising drugs, or do you think we need to wage war against them more vigorously? Libertarian or authoritarian?

There are my three key areas: where do you stand on them?  There’s a good chance you’ll look at them and think these snapshot definitions are caricatures, even parodies, of much more complex positions.

For example, you might say that the distribution of food is best left to the free market, but the provision of health-care requires government intervention. You might also say that the botched war in Iraq shows what can go wrong when we intervene militarily abroad without thinking of what follows ‘mission accomplished’, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up to Russia alongside our Nato allies. You might very well think both of those things: I do.

You might also be fervently against against immigration – and therefore believe in a high level of state intervention, telling people where they can’t live and telling employers who they can’t hire – while at the same time arguing the government should no longer ban narcotics. Nigel Farage manages simultaneously to hold both those opposing views: I applaud the latter.

My point is this: your views in these areas will most likely be nuanced, issue-contingent, context-specific. And quite possibly contradictory. Perhaps you’re a pro-lifer who supports the death penalty? Maybe you think defence spending should be higher yet the role of our military should be minimal? Or you condemn rent controls as Venezuelan socialism but support ‘Help to Buy’ as a necessary housing market corrective?

Yet when we enter the polling station in a year’s time and get handed our ballot paper, we will have a single box in which to mark our cross with a stubby pencil beside the name of a political party to register the range of opinions we each hold. Still, as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. It is what it is and we must make the best of it.

But in my fantasy politics we would not start from here. Our choice would not be restricted to the range of political parties we currently see. Tim Montgomerie wistfully remarks on his Twitter profile: “Wish there were a National Party”. Such a party, he argues, would be “socially just, economically conservative – combining German Christian Democracy with British Euroscepticism”.

It would include Merkel and Cameron, but not Farage. The Ukip leader, he argues, would be most at home in the ‘Patriotic Party’, advocating economic libertarianism and international isolationism. There is something to this. Certainly it will be interesting to see how Ukip cobbles together its 2015 manifesto, somehow bridging its leader’s radical right inclinations given its best electoral prospects lie in Labour areas where voters still look to the state for social security. It’s a hell of a circle to square, so it’s no surprise Farage ‘point-blank refuses to specify a single Ukip policy before 22 May’, as he told one interviewer.

As for my fantasy party, no surprise here. It’s the party Tim Montgomerie terms ‘The Liberals’, suggesting we’d “like the whole of the UK to become a lot more like London”. By which I assume he means a booming city that’s a magnet for the young and ambitious, whose wealth helps subsidise the rest of the nation, and where the superb state schools are engines of social mobility for children from poor families. There are worse models, to be honest, even if I’ve chosen successfully to avoid living there for my first 37 years and intend to do so for whatever years I have remaining.

Given the choice (and I’m a liberal so choice is what I everyone to have) I’d prefer the label ‘Free Liberals’, as coined by the Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe in his own take on ‘Fantasy Politics’:

Free Liberals (c.15% support)

Core agenda: Cutting taxes, pro-immigration, social liberalism
Voters: Younger, urban, middle- and upper-class voters
Would draw on: Lib Dems, Conservatives, Labour
Foreign corollaries: FDP (Germany), VVD (Netherlands)
Possible leaders: George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson

Osborne, Clegg and Mandelson, eh? I’m not sure it’s quite a putative ‘People’s Army’. But for those who like the idea of a mixed economy, where the free market and government services peacefully co-exist; who believe in the UK as an engaged, internationalist country that actively seeks out allies abroad; and who are happiest in a country where we let citizens live and let live – well, you can count me in, anyway. It’s a fantasy I’d like to see as reality.