The Blog

Are We Really Out of Ideas?

Westminster may indeed be bored, narrow minded and unimaginative but Britain is not and if this looks like a summit it probably isn't.

Climbing the Catalonian mountain of Canigou is a frustrating experience. Upon conquering what you had believed to be the top, another pinnacle is painfully revealed to have been hiding behind the first. Each false summit hides another false summit. The mountain is made up of hills behind hills behind hills and as a result climbers and birdwatchers alike are regularly seduced into delusions of triumph on the way up. Unsuspecting ramblers are regularly subjected to seven episodes of excitement and six sobering episodes of acrimony.

Attempts to smuggle politics into such a narrative can be hazardous but to many working in and around Westminster the last 20 years have felt like a kind of political epilogue. The modern politician is now perceived merely as a manager of public life and only as a leader in times of crisis or within the Machiavellian context of his or her own party. The privatisation of national industry and public services, the independence of the Bank of England and the regulatory outsourcing of power to the European Union have all served to undermine the importance of the domestic politician. But the overarching suspicion is that third way politics, more specifically the Labour Party's diminished levels of enthusiasm for socialism, have reflected a broad political and philosophical consensus. Mud is of course still slung. Labour are often accused of wanting to take Britain back to the 1970's by the opposite bench, who are themselves accused of acting as an ideological tribute act to their 1980's predecessors. This context seems to suggest that the battle for modern politics was fort for and won in 1979 and everything since then has merely been a process of adjustment or worse, an on-going careerist soap-opera.

An eloquent emissary of this political purgatory is Janan Ganesh, who has used his column in the Financial Times to declare that "our politicians are clean out of ideas" and that this is a good thing because it reflects Britain's relative success. "Our politics is blander," he writes "and that is no tragedy." Is it true? Can it last? Is this really the boring anti-climatic conclusion of political philosophy?

Firstly, it is fair to say that this narrative is useful for those currently enjoying the status quo. While many may be disappointed that history had to end with so many people reliant of food banks, those benefiting from the current state of affairs would love it if the debate about Britain's future could be concluded here and now. The newspapers that represent them will tell anyone and everyone why change is unnecessary or impossible and in doing so maintain a useful graveyard of the imagination. As the old saying goes, there are always a thousand reasons not do something, and when the press reminds us of this everyday it's easy for progress to feel unattainable. For these reason readers should always be suspicious when someone tries to blow the final whistle. But this of course, is not enough to dismiss the thesis.

The confines of debate are narrow, the public are bored of the politicians and the politicians are wary of big ideas. This is certainly all true... in Westminster. But if we have learnt anything over the last 12 months it is that politics is bigger than Westminster; although it's easy to forget when you're working there.

Boredom, as characterised by Adam Phillips in his wonderful 1993 essay on the subject, is a "mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire." This might be a good way to consider the electorate. Last year unprecedented numbers of people turned up to vote in the Scottish referendum and in doing so they proved that if something significant and radical was on the table then politics really was something worth bothering with. It showed that there is a largely untapped desire to fully engage in current affairs when there is a sense that change is actually possible or that something precious can be definitively saved at the ballot box. The Scottish voters had been bored and were searching for a way back into the public sphere and the same feelings are prevalent across the rest of the UK too.

Meanwhile, many are quick to dismiss the millennial generation as apathetic but others suspect that their lack of involvement reflects the ballot papers, manifestos and newspapers skewed in favour of their parents and grandparents. As a result their dissatisfaction with the stagnant political stage is rarely reflected on election nights but it would be wrong to assume they're not hunting for something different that they can really believe in. And as climate change and income inequality move towards centre stage as era defining issues, it is increasingly clear that they cannot be solved by the old political dogmas of the 1970's and 80's.

Westminster may indeed be bored, narrow minded and unimaginative but Britain is not and if this looks like a summit it probably isn't.