By Andrew Hay
So here we go again. Another chance for all the politicians to get out their best shoes and dust off their old ideas. Another chance for all the media pundits to rub their hands as they sink their teeth into the statistics and demographic data that seem to constitute their reason for being. Another chance for smug intellectuals to fix on their most patronising expressions to tell us what we should be thinking. And another chance for those of us that haven’t got time to engage in a deep analysis of British politics to feel like we’re being blagged without fully understanding exactly how we’re being blagged.
When time is limited, we are forced to develop our own political opinions with reference to snippets of information that are formulated by politicians and presented to us in short bursts. This means that our ideas are often leant upon words issued by professionals whose primary objective is to make their ideas sound appealing. In the same way that a used car salesman polishes the worst car on the lot in an effort to distract attention away from the fact that its engine is rotten, politicians on the campaign trail are not always incentivised to tell the whole truth. When knowledge is lacking, our decisions can be swayed by the words of the people that gain our confidence by telling us things we want to hear. The trouble is that behind those flattering words and that disarming charisma, there lurks an intention to sell you something you don’t want.
As the title suggests, this article offers advice for the perplexed. What follows is a brief introduction to some of the ideas that underpin the politics of the two most popular political parties in the UK. If you know all this already, it might be a good idea to save yourself five minutes and stop reading at this point. So, bon voyage. All the best. See you later. Why don’t you treat yourself? Go and have an argument on twitter or summat!
Firstly, it is important to remember that in Britain it’s the party that is elected to power and not the person who happens to be the party leader at the time of the election. This is important to keep in mind because the fact that the party can choose to eject their leader at any point, means that the leader can never stray too far away from the ideological commitments that the party’s members hold in common. In simpler terms, if the leader of the Conservative Party acts in a way that the party deems to be un-conservative, they will be replaced. By understanding the beliefs that underpin conservatism, it becomes possible to understand the political limits within which the leader of the party must operate in order to retain their position.
At the core conservatism is the belief that modes of government that have stood the test of time are preferable to new ones. This means that the Conservative Party tend to favour policy that protects existing social hierarchies seen to have a proven track record in producing social stability. Contrary to what some of their opponents might suggest, from a conservative perspective, protecting the interests of the wealthy is not an evil act motivated by greed. It’s motivated by the desire to maintain social hierarchies that are historically proven to produce known and manageable social outcomes. In today’s world, concentrations of wealth equate to concentrations of power. Therefore, protecting the interests of the wealthy keeps political power in the same place it has resided for centuries. This plutocratic ideal might not be a vote winner but it is a mode of government with a verifiable track record. It also chimes with another conservative belief. That politics is best left to the competent few as opposed to incompetent masses. In this particular thought bubble, wealth is seen as indicative of the intellectual capacity to rule. Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to how wealth has been presented within Conservative Party rhetoric over the years and you’ll see what I mean.
Conversely, the Labour Party is founded on ideas that emanate from socialism. In contrast to conservatism, socialism rejects the idea that the proven effectiveness of social hierarchies justifies their continuation. In its purest form, socialism commits to the idea that social inequality is wrong in and of itself regardless of the outcomes it produces. Although, over time, the Labour Party has drifted closer to and further away from this ideal, the preference for social equality over rigid social hierarchies is a Labour constant. For Labour, widening the scope of democracy and expanding the jurisdiction of the state is a means of dispersing political power more evenly and interrupting convergences of wealth and power that produce unjustified social inequalities.
It would be fair to say that the Labour Party leans towards the idea that society produces the individual’s prospects whereas the Conservative Party leans towards the idea that the prospects of society are produced by individuals. From a Labour Party perspective, the wealth of a successful business owner is dependent on the fact that they are fortunate enough to live in a country that has collectively produced roads, hospitals, a system of education and an economy that makes it possible for someone to accumulate wealth in the first place. A Conservative would be more likely to attribute the wealth of the same successful business owner to the actions of the individual alone. You don’t have to look at the taxation policies of both of these parties for too long before the implications of these beliefs become apparent.
Obviously there are people within each party that hold views that cling more or less tightly to the ideals I have just mentioned. And obviously, influences from within can pull each party closer or further away from these ideals at a given moment in time. But, as I said before, if a representative of any given party drifts too far away from the ideals that are held to form the essence of the party’s character by the majority of its members, they won’t last too long. This means the party leader is never in full control. No matter how much it might look like the party leader is calling the shots, they are always restricted by the ideological commitments of the party. The party infighting that has plagued our political landscape over the past few years demonstrates how this this dynamic plays out in reality.
The point I am trying to make is that behind every political idea, there’s a history of thought. Knowledge of ideology and the rationality that underpins it is integral to our ability to make sense of what is happening in the political world.
The best way I can explain what I mean is by using another analogy. Imagine the country as a ship and imagine the government as the crew charged with making decisions about what to do in order to promote the common interests of everyone aboard. The North Star is used by the crew in the same way that ideology is used by those in government. It sets the direction of travel. In a storm, it might be more important to keep the ship afloat even if it means deviating from the preferred route temporarily. Ideals are sometimes secondary to practical concerns. Desperate times call for politics of survival. But when things calm down, rest assured that the ship’s crew will waste no time in using the North Star to re-orientate in order to continue along their preferred direction of travel. If you know the ideological beliefs that constitute a party’s North Star, then you know which way they are heading.
So if you want to understand the political options that you are presented with, don’t look at each policy in isolation. Read, watch and search out material that will contribute to a deeper knowledge of the political philosophies that generate each party’s direction of travel. Use the internet. Search Edmund Burke, J.S. Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft, Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt, John Maynard Keynes, Hayek, Polanyi, Friedman, Rawls, Nozick, Plato and Aristotle. You’ll recognise ideas that continue to shape contemporary political debate. Familiarise yourself with their arguments and consider them. The people who run our country have. Don’t just inhale the words. Think about them. Criticise them. Don’t be afraid to reject them. The important thing is to come to your own conclusions.
If you choose to remain ignorant to these ideas, then don’t be surprised to find out that you’ve been duped by someone who has dressed their opinions up as facts and made your mind up for you. Just like the car salesman who exploits your lack of technical knowledge in order to sell you a shiny banger, professional politicians are in the business of making their politics sound appealing whilst parrying close scrutiny. Don’t let them. Find out what they think and why they think it. If you don’t, then do it in the knowledge that the party you vote for could decide to take you to hell and you wouldn’t know until you’d arrived.
Advice for the perplexed: General Election 2017