Michael Fry: Europe’s Left and Right race to the middle ground

Political party ideologies are dying out as our leaders cherry-pick the policies they are told the public want

WHICH European government, after abolishing compulsory military service for its young men and legalising gay marriage for those of them so inclined, now wants to guarantee them a national minimum wage when they finally settle down to a job?

If I hasten to add that this programme applies to the girls too, I think anybody would admit that it represents a pretty left-wing outlook in modern social and economic terms.

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So which government, then? One of those in Scandinavia, perhaps? Maybe some place ruled by reformed communists in eastern Europe? It surely cannot be anywhere in southern Europe anyway, where all the states will have to spend the next few years being nasty rather than nice to their citizens, till they have paid off their debts.

That last point gives a clue to the answer. When you come to think about it, the rich and successful countries are the ones most likely to loosen up, cast off old taboos and prohibitions, and generally place their faith in the liberated energies of their peoples, confident that if individuals, families and communities can do what they want, within the law, then they will on the whole do the right things. Indeed, this is the entire basis of democracy as opposed to any elitist or authoritarian political system.

The richest and most successful of the big European countries is Germany: and Germany is the answer to the query I posed. For the past five years, the dominant political force there has been the Christian Democratic Union party. It originated in the idea that a revival of the nation’s religious inheritance was the best way to get over the evil legacy of Nazism, even though neither the German Protestants nor certainly the German Catholics had much of a liberal tradition. The party’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was socially conservative. But his latest successor, Angela Merkel, is the author of the new buzzy, trendy agenda, including those titbits above.

This week, at the Christian Democrats’ national conference in Leipzig, Merkel has again exhibited her talents in the task of quietly rallying support for what she wants. Still, I wrote in my last column about such qualities in this formidable woman, and I do not want to go over them again here. A different thought that struck me while watching her keynote speech on television was her similarity to David Cameron – even though these are two politicians who have, so far as we know, little time for each other in personal terms and who in particular diverge widely in their views on the key European questions.

But Mr Cameron and Mrs Merkel stand much closer in their social liberalism and in their use of it to blur the last century’s distinctions between Left and Right, between conservatism and socialism. Objectively, as a Marxist might say, most of the distinctions have vanished anyway. Few people today vote according to the class they conceive themselves as belonging to, if indeed they have any idea about that in this era of the universal middle class – and the notion of voting as your parents did just seems absurd. At a different level, the parties have in the same way cast off their ancestral attitudes. They cherry-pick their policies as their pollsters advise them. If this produces an ideological mush, it is almost the point of the exercise.

So when it comes to cuts in the defence budget, or to tolerance for the sexual preferences of individuals, even among their political colleagues, Mr Cameron and Mrs Merkel take much the same view – one that would once have belonged to the Left. The status in the ideological mush of the minimum wage is instructive. In Britain, the Tories furiously opposed it when New Labour brought it in, but it did not produce the dire effects predicted by orthodox economic theory (big surprise). When the Tories came back, amid the collapse of orthodox economic theory, they accepted that the minimum wage should continue without a murmur. Much the same in Germany: Chancellor Merkel has stolen the idea from the Social Democratic opposition.

There is a further result nobody had really looked for from this move by the heavyweight parties to the centre ground of politics. It is that the smaller parties, which had always managed to hang on there, are being squeezed, perhaps fatally. A virtual wipeout of the British Liberal Democrats at the next general election is on the cards. It has already happened in Scotland, after all. Meanwhile, in Germany the equivalent Free Democratic Party is down to 4 per cent in the opinion polls, below the threshold it needs to get into the next Bundestag – where it has been, often holding the balance of power, ever since the Federal Republic started after the war.

And then, as the big parties vacate their former extremes, new forces appear to exploit the gap in the political market. In Britain, murmurs swell about the authenticity of Mr Cameron’s Conservatism. The Conservative Party is a mythical sort of beast that can take any shape it likes, but there is a different question about whether it can also cope with the wide disaffection with politics that prompts people to abstain or to vote UKIP, for example, and deny Mr Cameron an absolute majority. There is already evidence that UKIP could replace the Lib Dems as the main vehicle of protest, at least in England.

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The German establishment gets extremely worried about its own skinhead protesters, and the discovery this week of a plot to firebomb Turkish shops has sent shivers down the national spine. But by any standards the recent tradition of protest on the Left has been much more vigorous, from the Greens (now almost respectable) through the survival of a Marxist minority after reunification, to the anti-capitalists who have camped out at various places in Germany, just as they have in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square or in front of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

Yet, if anything, such people confirm the death of ideology. They may be against capitalism, but what are they for? Socialism? Don’t make me laugh. Is there even any big policy they favour, to put the world to rights? Unfortunately all our policies, our big policies anyway, are set for us by the international money markets. This no doubt means that the Camerons and Merkels of this world will continue to cherry-pick, and gather quite a harvest of cherries.