Is this what the end of history looks like? Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, which was developed at the end of the Cold War, represented the triumph of free market western democracy over communism, fascism and feudalism. Three decades after the free market revolution of Margaret Thatcher, our political system in Britain has been transformed. For domestic British politics, the end of history seems to have embodied the triumph of neoliberalism over democratic socialism, social democracy, social liberalism and one nation conservatism. The democratic battle between the Keynesianism of the left and the free market of the right seems to be over in Britain. One of Margaret Thatcher's most famous free market slogans was "there is no alternative" a phrase that was often referred to by the acronym of TINA. Thirty five years since Thatcher came to power and in the age of austerity; TINA still dominates the political discourse in Britain. This is bad both for Britain and for our democracy.
Since Thatcher's government, we have seen a steady hollowing out of party politics. Politicians today take great pride in the fact that they have no guiding philosophy or ideology. Valueless pragmatism is the name of the game in 21st century politics. It is very common to hear politicians attack their political opponents for being "ideological" or "political." The person who embodied the hollowing out of politics more than any other was the New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. New Labour used focus groups to develop policies as well as having a great emphasis on the need to spin and manage the party's media presence. Blair no doubt saw ideology as a relic of the past that surely must have died out at the end of the 20th century. But far from phrases such as ideological or political being insults; isn’t it these things, what are supposed to fuel democracy? Democracy should be a politically driven competition between different ideas and philosophies.
Today the main political parties in Britain all represent different versions of the neoliberal consensus of the last three decades. A kind of fifty shades of neoliberalism. The Conservatives were obviously the first party to adopt the neoliberal framework as Thatcher went to war with the one nation Tory old guard within her own party. This was followed by Tony Blair co-opting the Labour Party into the neoliberal consensus. The one-time party of socialism and social democracy became staunch defenders of the free market and many public service reforms under a programme called “the third way.” Far from being an alternative to traditional social democracy or the free market; the third way in reality represented a slightly more moderate version of the policies begun by Margaret Thatcher. Finally, the Liberal Democrats have increasingly adopted free market based policies influenced by the neoliberal Orange Book. The Orange Book has gone against the grain of the Lib Dems’ philosophy of social liberalism; which has been dominant in the party since 1906. Orange Book liberalism has seen its zenith under the coalition with the Conservatives, with many contributors to the Orange Book holding senior posts in the Coalition Government.
In 2014, apathy in British politics as well as mistrust of politicians is very high. These factors are probably partly influenced by the fact that there is no discernible difference between the philosophies of the main three parties. No senior politician in Britain today seems to articulate a real vision of the future. Clement Attlee had his "New Jerusalem", Margaret Thatcher had her "Property Owning Democracy" but where is the big political vision of 2014 coming from? Where is the essence of democracy, the ideas and the visions?
Politicians of all political stripes need to re-engage with the people, and perhaps no group needs more engagement than the working classes. Over the past 20 years, the working classes have been increasingly alienated by British politics as politicians from across the spectrum have sought the votes of Middle England. There is a danger that this gap in the focus of the main parties may be filled by extremist parties. In particular, the right wing nationalist party, UKIP are seeking to reach out to disenchanted working class voters. UKIP are exploiting the political void left by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Surely, the main three parties cannot abandon many working class voters to UKIP and the politics of fear. The political mainstream need to invoke the spirit of Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and David Lloyd George; politicians who inspired millions of working class people to get involved in politics. Whoever can successfully reach out and harness the working class vote will determine the outcome of general elections.
A second group that politicians desperately need to re-engage with are young people. The voters aged between 18 and 25 represent the literal future of Britain and its democracy. Yet the same age group is suffering immensely in the current economic climate. One in five young people are unemployed. That's a youth unemployment rate of 20%. The average rate of unemployment during the years of the Great Depression was 17%. We must face the reality of the situation that in this country we have mass youth unemployment. This is an entire generation of people who feel unable to contribute to our economy and unable to take the first step on the job ladder. Politicians are often (quite rightly) concerned with the issues of older voters, however many young people feel neglected by our current politicians and feel turned off by politics in general. This is going to be very bad if fewer people have faith in politics and if young people do not think it can make a real difference to their lives.
A healthy democracy is one that flows with new political ideas. Big ideas, guiding philosophies and political passion will re-engage many voters who have been turned off by the politics of recent decades and will ensure a revival of democratic participation. The Liberal Democrats need to reassert their historic social liberal philosophy over the Orange Book. Whereas, Labour need to rediscover progressive politics. In fairness to the Conservatives, they are the only party in British politics that are able to follow their true conservative ideology as it is the only one that naturally seeks to expand the reach of the free market economy. Thus modern conservatism is the only ideology that naturally seeks to advance neoliberalism.
We need to bring back the battle of ideas and with it politicians who seek to make a real difference, according to their own set of ideals and philosophies. The strength of our democracy depends upon it. Britain desperately needs a progressive alternative to the neoliberal consensus, and it is ultimately up to the Liberal Democrats and Labour (and perhaps even some Conservatives) to provide one. Politicians must be proud to be political again. Politicians need to have a defining vision. But above all in the age of austerity what people really need is hope. Hope for a better, fairer future for them and their friends and families. Hope that will encourage them to become active in our democracy again. Because if Britain's politicians are not willing to revive democracy and engage many of those alienated in recent years; then the future of politics will indeed be hopeless, especially from the perspective of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society. For British democracy to remain strong, we need to revive big ideas, we need to re-engage with alienated groups and we need progressive visions to help everyone in society; not just the ultra-wealthy.