The Poverty of the Political Imagination

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What concerns me is the smallness of the thinking of the current generation of political leaders. British politicians have never been noted for their intellect. John Major best typified the thinking of British politicians when he spoke of the need for the ‘vision thing’. This smallness of thought is an accelerating trend amongst the political classes. We have a prime minister who was regarded by his tutor a one of the brightest in his class yet all he has given us is a vague vision of the ‘Big Society’, which turned out to be little more than an election slogan. However it is in the so called ‘nudge unit’ that his true vision is exemplified. There is to be no challenging of the political or social consensus or any powerful interest group. Instead there are to be small changes in policy, so small as to be unnoticeable that will persuade people to improve their behaviour.

I guess for a conservative it is comforting to know that the current society is ‘the best possible’ of all of societies. For an extremely wealthy man and his circle of friends there is no need for any change that might diminish or threaten their wealth. The homeless and hungry are so because of their idleness. Any attempt to improve their circumstances is wasted because they any attempt at improvement would be self defeating. They share the attitudes of their predecessors who opposed putting bathrooms in the houses of the working classes, as they would only use them to store coal.

This time of year we are all constantly treated to showings of the Dicken’s fable ‘Scrooge’. At the beginning of the story Scrooge is visited by people collecting money for the poor. Scrooge’s reply is that are there no workhouses? He refuses to give any money as he believes that idle poor deserve no better than the cruel workhouse. In the course of the story he learns the error of his ways and repents his meanness. The story is always seen as a story from our cruel past, rather than seen as an accurate depiction of the cruel present. Can anything be more contemptible than the well feed rich who are our rulers condemning the poor to a lifetime of suffering for their assumed idleness.

Both our Prime Minister and his deputy relied on family connections to find well paid work in the world of commerce and media. How can they condemn those that lack those advantages to advance their career?

II

When analysing the causes of our current social malaise, economists are all too ill equipped to suggest solutions. One of the best analysis of our current malaise was put forward by the columnist Simon Jenkins, who said that our political decision makers suffer from the curse of indecision. This is not only a UK phenomenon, the current crisis has brought out the worst in political classes of the West, they cower before the dysfunctional all powerful market proclaiming their own powerlessness. Rather than a Roosevelt we have an Obama, or a Merkel rather than a Kohl, all who in unison proclaim their powerlessness before the all powerful market. The religion of pessimism has them firmly in its grasp, as all they can suggest is a minor amelioration of people’s misery by appeasing the all powerful market.

Appeasement always takes the same form, cut government expenditure, reduce taxes to release the energies of the powerful giants of industry to rejuvenate the the economy. Failing to notice that our leaders of industry are as frail and impotent as our politicians. They are like so many Wizard of Oz’s, small men who when viewed through the distorting lens of the business corporation appear as giants. Such men are reassured by the fairy tales of such as Rand, Friedman and Hayek who portray them as the movers and shakers of our society, when in reality they are diminished human beings interested only I n increasing their ‘take’ from the business. Others such as politicians believe in this myth and like some pre-historic priest make gifts to these new Gods of the market in the hope that they will smile benignly on them; gifts such as generous tax breaks, indulgence the worst of tax avoidance schemes.

Our legislatures engage in endless rounds of meaningless activity to disguise their inability to tackle the real problems of society. In the face of the worst housing crisis in history all the government can do is offer some funding for new house buyers. A policy that won’t upset the supposed giants of the construction industry, as it does no more than provide a few more new homes at great profit to that industry. Facing a much worst crisis the post war governments of the 1950’s and 60’s embarked on the largest house building project in British history. A project way beyond the imaginations of our current rulers. The great industrial power house that is the USA is scarcely any better at decisive and imaginative policy making. How would the former giants (Fulbright etc.) of Congress view a Congress than can only unite on such trivia as agreeing to classify the tomato sauce that goes on pizzas as one of the five vegetables/fruit that Americans should eat everyday? Its irrelevant that food scientists would regard this decision as a nonsense. What matters is that the powerful food processing industry should be appeased, it must be protected from legislation that might be harmful to its profits.

What has happened? In the 1940’s and 50’s the House of Commons would fill when there was an expectation of a debate between the two titans of right and left, Churchill and Bevan. Who today would willing rush to the Chamber to hear a debate between Cameron and Miliband? In the USA former Presidents such as the two Roosevelt’s and Kennedy bestrode the globe like colossus, now their like has disappeared from the American political scene. Eisenhower the much under rated President warned of the power of the ‘industrial military complex’, while today President’s Bush and Obama seem only to willing to do their bidding.

What has been lost is the vision of a better world that inspired these men to achieve great heights. Certainly they were flawed individuals, yet their vision enabled them to over come their flaws and offer real leadership to their nations. Our current society would disqualify Roosevelt from high office because of his womanising and Churchill because of his excessive drinking, preferring modesty in behaviours and thinking. What is required is a new religion of optimism, which would inspire a new generation of leaders to create a better society. Not a religion of pessimism that forces politicians to view themselves as flawed weak individuals who can best serve their society by doing nothing, believing that their meddling would only make things worst. All that is allowed in policy making is measures to appease the Gods of the market.

III

It is dispiriting to look to our political classes for leadership. They all proclaim their helplessness in face of the current crisis. One suspects that they find comfort in this shared sense of helplessness, if their rivals espouse helplessness, there is no pressure to come up with solutions. In the UK the coalition government have the good luck to have their understanding of the current crisis shared by the opposition. The opposition share the belief that their priority should be cutting the size of the government deficit. Given that neither have an effective policy for achieving that, any future government will waste its energies on cutting the deficit to the exclusion of everything else. Policies that one would expect of a Social Democratic Party such as reversing the privatisation of the health and education services will be excluded on the grounds that they would cost money and do nothing to reduce the deficit. A mean shabby policy that suits our mean spirited times.

If we consider the raw material of our leadership classes, they appear no worse and possibly even better than those of the past. Charles Kennedy was forced out of the leadership because of his alcoholism. Yet by common consent one of our greatest leaders Winston Churchill was a depressive and heavy drinker. Given such unpromising raw material why did Churchill achieve a greatness, that is impossible for the current generation of politicians? Churchill was moved by a religion of optimism, he believed that the English had a unique heritage and future and it was his destiny to help the English attain this greatness. He believed in the genius of the a English speaking peoples. A contrast to the preference of the current generation for small minded and modest thoughts. Ed Miliband epitomises this trend, he believes in ‘under promising’ and ‘over achieving’, such philosophy has no place for the grand vision that motivated Churchill and his political rivals.

I see a solution to the current impasse in the writings of Georges Sorel. He concluded that what mattered was not the embedded truths of an ideology, but the myths that inspired people to action. He used the history of socialism to demonstrate the truths of his proposal. What changed society was not the superiority of socialist thinking, but the willingness of socialist activists to endure untold pain and suffering to attain their ends. A socialist could die happy in prison knowing that his sacrifice was merely part of the struggle that would lead to the success of the working classes. Such activism was responsible for the introduction of cheap social housing and a health service free at the point of use. Greed the main motive of the capitalist classes could never produce martyrs willing to die for the cause, which is why for much of the twentieth society they were on the defensive. They had rely upon the organised church to provide a spiritual vanguard for capitalism. Bishops were always able to distort the Christian message into one of support for a capitalist ideology by sanctifying the political and social leadership of society, as being God given.

What our current political classes need is a new religion of optimism to enable them to overcome their inertia. Flawed individuals can achieve greatness, our greatest leaders have been depressives, alcoholics and womanisers. Unlike the current political class they did not believe that their frailties disqualified them from greatness. Our current leaders having such a pessimistic view of themselves and humanity, that they believe they have no moral right to prevent the nastiest and most anti social of behaviours. Behaviours that in more enlightened times which were discouraged by government action are now encouraged. Restrictions on gambling despite the misery it can cause have been removed. The same applies to excessive alcohol consumption. In the recent past
our legislators debated banning boxing because of the damage it inflicted on its participants, now our government is encouraging the spread of the most violent of sports, cage fighting. The philosophy of our politicians is that anything can be permitted for which there is a demand, now matter how demeaning, damaging or barbaric. With such a philosophy they are unable to turn their their gaze upwards and encompass a different vision of mankind. A new religion of optimism is needed to drag them out of the mire.

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