John McTernan: Politics of grievance taking over

Where’s the leadership that was shown by Thatcher and Blair? Now it’s YouGov that is setting the agenda, writes John McTernan

Margaret Thatcher believed where government existed it should do things. Picture: Getty
Margaret Thatcher believed where government existed it should do things. Picture: Getty

The Today programme is in many ways a bellwether of the nation. In the past, its programmes were dominated by mendicants, and its unofficial slogan was ‘The government must do something.’ There was no problem, big or small, local or global, that couldn’t be solved by government action. A law, a ban or some spending was the answer – often all three.

Times change and now the Today programme is all about ‘Who’s to blame?’ In part it’s the consequence of the tabloidisation of news. As audiences fragment and news organisations seek to win a share in a much more competitive market they get more populist to try to get more popular. But there’s a much more significant factor – a substantial change in the way we view political leadership.

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In what we will increasingly see as the Thatcher-Blair era there was no doubt what political leadership was about. Action. Change. Direction. On every given issue you could tell in advance what the prime minister would think about any issue. The question Thatcher famously asked of any policy was ‘Is there a more market-based solution?’ Liberating in its clarity. But despite her libertarian rhetoric, Margaret Thatcher believed firmly that where government existed it should do things. At the time of the Falklands War she received a detailed briefing from naval chiefs about all the reasons that the islands could not be liberated. Her answer was to ask what the navy was for if they couldn’t do this, and what sort of country would Britain be if we couldn’t protect our people from invasion.

Similar clarity from Blair saved the lives of Kosovans and Sierra Leoneans.Whether we like it or not, that era of heroic leadership is over. Instead we have UK party leaders who avowedly don’t want to be Tony Blair but who have not found a way to escape from his shadow. Sometimes they rule out intervention. Other times it is OK to intervene as long as there are no boots on the ground in any action, or in any post-conflict reconstruction. Often it is simply hesitation. Over Libya, Syria, IS, the genocide of the Yazidis – indeed any complex foreign policy issue – there is no consistent narrative, let alone a set of clear principles.

The underlying philosophy is a combination of quietism and declinism. “Let’s have a quiet life. We’re not the kind of country that can or should intervene abroad. Anyway the voters don’t want us to act.” Parenthetically, it is one of the most deeply depressing facts about the Coalition’s position on the genocidal murderers of Islamic State that No 10 is constantly keeping an eye on the polls. A morality that effectively says “It’s up to YouGov”.

Yet the “quiet life” philosophy isn’t even discussed, it’s just silently assumed. And that leaves a vacuum, one that is exploited by other politicians – the most successful being Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond.

Without suggesting that they share politics, it is remarkable how similar they are. Both admire Vladimir Putin, though I suspect that he is not all that impressed by his fans. But like Putin they have fashioned a rhetoric of being outsiders – though both Farage and Salmond are long term insiders. And they share a taste for challenging conventional opinion.

But it is not brash populism alone that unites them, nor being career insiders who successfully portray themselves as outsiders. It is the fact that they promote a politics in which there is a single solution for all problems – leaving the union. In Salmond’s case the UK, in Farage’s the EU. It doesn’t matter whether it’s jobs, health, housing or innovation both Nigel and Alex know who’s to blame – the government. Just, conveniently, the next level of government up. They cause all the problems – remove them and all will be well.

This is the emblem of the besetting sin of modern politics. Some think that the answer to Ukip and the SNP is a better kind of politician, a different character. But despite the blandness of the current crop of party leaders, we still have no shortage of bombast in British politics.

What we lack is the lifeblood of politics – ideology. When Thatcher and Blair led the country they both used every major decision as an opportunity for instruction. They told you what they were doing and why they were doing it and often why there was no alternative. Thatcherism and Blairism were both powerful ideologies – framing and explaining the world. For them, at their best, politics was the downward transmission of ideology. Today’s politics is the opposite. Mainstream politicians have abandoned ideology and given up on transmitting a consistent and distinct politics. Instead they have become obsessed with minutiae. Most politics is now the upward transmission of grievance. Got a problem? Don’t worry, your MP will write a letter to the Minister – even if your MP is a Minister themselves.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the land of the bland the man with the monumental grievance is king. Hence the success of Farage and Salmond. The answer to them is not a new form of politics, it is a return to an older form. The one where arguments are taken to the people, as Jim Murphy has done on his Irn-Bru crates. And it does not lie in passion – that is a means of transmission, not an end in itself. The answer lies in having a politics that has an underlying analysis.

Facts bounce off Farage and Salmond because they have a totalising solution – one that fits all problems. For them politics is not a conversation, it is a fixed conclusion. Facts bounce off the voters because they are not deployed to support fundamental arguments – they are used as a substitute for any argument. Back to basics also means building a political argument from the bottom up. It’s what Sir Keith Joseph did for Margaret Thatcher and what Blair and Brown did for New Labour.

The failures to make the case for the UK and for the EU both show a lack of political leadership which must be urgently addressed.