BRITISH POLITICS AND THE MARCH OF THE CORPORATE
Throughout the post-war period, and very probably for a lot longer than that, we have been accustomed to thinking about politics in terms of “left” and “right”. In this article, I explain, first, why this is no longer a useful template, if indeed if it ever really was.
Second, I’m going to provide you with an alternative template which, I think, gives us a much more useful insight into how politics really works. This template divides politics. not into Left and Right but between the Libertarian (or individualist) and the Corporatist (or collective).
My conclusion, in brief, is that a modest move to the Right in British politics has been very much less important than a very pronounced move away from the Libertarian and towards the Corporatist.
This is the product of much thought, because I’ve long been dissatisfied with the traditional “Left-Right” definitions. I invite you to consider it, to think about how it applies to the political scene and, of course, to contribute to the discussion here.
Let’s start with the traditional “right-left” alignment, pictured in fig. 1. This is how most of us have been taught to think about politics, and is typified by questions like these: “did Tony Blair move Labour to the right?”; “is UKIP a right-wing party?”; “is David Cameron more/less right-wing than Mrs Thatcher?”; and so on.
The general assumption is that the “Left” favours state intervention whereas the “Right” prefers private enterprise. Starting in the centre and moving Leftwards, then, we might progress via social democracy and socialism to communism, presumably ending up with Stalin’s Russia (or Fidel’s Cuba) at the “Far Left” of the chart. Going Rightwards from the middle, we go past Conservatives and Neo-Cons before finishing with a “Far Right” regime like, say, that of Mussolini’s Fascists.
Here, of course, is the first big snag – the extremes of Left and Right look pretty much the same. Was there all that much difference between, say, the U.S.S.R. in its heyday and Fascist Italy? They differed, certainly, but in many more important respects – such as the suppression of liberty – they had much more in common. And where do we put Hitler – does “National Socialism” really belong on the Left or the Right? Those who automatically place Nazi Germany on the extreme Right might be hard pressed to explain how Nazi butchery was different from the Stalinist brand. And was the Gestapo much worse than the KGB? I rather doubt it.
At a much less extreme level, can we really say that David Cameron is more or less Right wing than Mrs Thatcher – isn’t it likelier that he is to the right of her on some things, but to the left of her on others?
In short, the traditional Left-Right analysis is so full of holes and inconsistencies that it provides very little in the way of useful insights.
My suggested alternative “direction of travel” is pictured in fig. 2. Instead of Left and Right we have Top and Bottom, labelled “Libertarian” and “Corporatist”.
By “Libertarian” I mean a situation in which the maximum degree of choice is permitted to the individual, whilst “Corporatist” is its polar opposite, where organisations (of many different types) exercise power at the expense of individual choice. To be extreme about it, you could place anarchism at the very top of the chart and, at the extreme bottom, George Orwell’s 1984.
I’ve used the word “Libertarian” because “Liberal” has been corrupted beyond redemption. Those on the so-called “Left” of politics often call themselves “Liberals”, but so, too, do those “Right”-wing enthusiasts for unfettered private enterprise.
The term “Corporatist” is not by any means limited to large private sector enterprises. Rather, it refers to any organisation capable of exercising power over the individual, a definition which includes, for example, government departments, government itself, political parties, any form of “collective” and, indeed, some religious organisations.
The characteristics of a “Corporate” entity are pretty well understood, but will bear brief reiteration here.
First, and perhaps because human beings have a natural need to belong to a group, corporates tend to have a cohesion based on loyalty to the organisation. The danger here, of course, is that loyalty to the organisation can all too easily transcend other loyalties.
An example here might be the use of gagging orders to prevent former members from “blowing the whistle” on the organisation. The widespread use of gagging orders in the NHS, which came to light in the aftermath of the Stafford scandal, was a classic instance of the imposition of organisational loyalty in way which was detrimental to the broader community. One of Benjamin Disraeli’s most famous remarks – “damn your principles, stick to your party!” – aptly typifies the way in which internal loyalty to an organisation can all too easily triumph over broader loyalties.
The second characteristic of the corporate body is the power that it can exercise, through numbers of loyalists, through wealth and influence, and through a sense of purpose which, being specific to the organisation, may be inimical to the broader public interest.
Together, internal loyalty and external power can all too easily result in insularity, in which the realities of the outside world come to be seen as less important than what is happening within the organisation.
Reflecting this, the fourth characteristic of the corporate body is the tendency to expansion. The tendency to growth is implicit within most organisations, and is a dynamic which operates largely independently of conscious intent.
Today, for example, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office employs roughly fifteen times as many people as it did a century ago when, as the Foreign & Colonial Office, it was responsible for administering almost half of the globe. Likewise, the combination of the departments of War, Air and Admiralty into the Ministry of Defence in 1964 was intended to reduce bureaucratic overhead yet, by 2010, the MoD employed some 75,000 civilians, a number which exceeded the combined uniformed strength of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force!
These are just some of the reasons why we should treat corporate power with suspicion.
Where, then, does Britain stand on the gradient between the individual and the collective? Fig. 3 tries to put some context into this by sketching the movements of the two main parties over recent decades.
This diagram has two axes – Left versus Right, and Libertarian versus Corporatist.
From the era of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, Labour moved to the Left before swinging sharply to the Right under Tony Blair. This did not (as some have claimed) turn Labour into a Right-wing party, but it did remove most of the ideological differences between Labour and the Conservatives.
The Tory party, meanwhile, moved to the Right as the generation of Ted Heath was replaced by the followers of Margaret Thatcher, and it might be argued that the party has moved somewhat further to the Right since then, at least in terms of public spending and the introduction of private enterprise into the public services.
There has, then, been a Rightwards move in the centre of gravity of British politics since the heyday of Heath and Wilson. Going back still further, the term “Buttskellism”, compounded of the surnames of R.A. Butler (Conservative) and Hugh Gaitskell (Labour) was coined to indicate the lack of any real ideological difference between the two parties in the period from 1950 to 1963. Such a term could not have been employed in the 1970s or 1980s, but something similar might, I think, have been compounded not that long ago, perhaps as “Blaguism”, derived from Tony Blair and William Hague.
In my analysis, the move towards the Right has been far less marked, and much less significant, than the swing from Libertarianism towards Corporatism. Labour, traditionally a pretty Libertarian party, became much less so during 1997-2010, when “sofa government” and the party machine tightened their grip at the expense of the Party Conference, local parties and even the Cabinet. There has been a similar direction of travel in the Conservative Party, which not so long ago was fiercely defensive of individual liberties (as, in fairness, many of its members still are).
Overall, then, the Rightwards drift in British politics has been far less pronounced, and much less significant, than the swing from Libertarian to Corporatist, from individualism to the collective.
Before looking (in Part 2) at what the implications of this swing might be – and I believe that these implications are overwhelmingly negative – I’ll leave you with a chart which attempts to locate the current standings of the parties on my “Political Grid” (fig. 4).
As we have seen, both Labour and the Conservatives have moved a very long way from the Libertarian towards the Corporate. The Liberal Democrats remain, in my analysis, somewhat to the Left of Labour, and are somewhat more Libertarian (or less Corporatist) than the larger parties.
The most interesting position here, I believe, is that of UKIP. Nigel Farage’s party, though well known for its loathing of the European bureaucracy, seems to me to be pretty anti-bureaucratic at home as well. Whilst I see no reason to locate UKIP either to the Right or the Left of the Conservatives to any meaningful degree, the party does seem to be far more Libertarian, which is very probably why UKIP appeals so strongly to those who feel excluded from the traditional politics of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
I’m going to conclude this discussion for now by extending a warm invitation to comment.
In part 2, I will endeavour to explain why the general drift from the Libertarian to the Corporatist has been so corrosive, not just of liberties but also of economic performance.