Battle of Britain

By , 6 November, 2008, 1 Comment

Now that (hopefully) your election-induced hangover has subsided, let me break some news: for all the symbolic resonance of Obama’s victory, there is more ideologically at stake across the pond in the British general elections, due to materialize by the end of 2010.

As here in the States, the financial crisis has nailed the coffin of uber-deregulation and sent the British right scrambling for new principles. There, as here, the opposing party is taking up the cause of government oversight and hoping to ride it to electoral victory. But unlike the Democrats, who have ties to interventionism that are relatively recent, growing out of the New Deal and the Great Society agendas, Labour, as Gordon Brown said last month, has interventionism “in its D.N.A.” The party was created in at the turn of the last century in the same historical environment that produced the Soviet Union. It was created TO represent the working-classes, to achieve a democratic socialist agenda.

That agenda has been chipped away at in the last twenty years, in part because the end of the Cold War decimated the socialist ideology on which the party rested; in part, because it turns out Britons–historically enterprising, the inventors of finance etc–really do want to live in a market society. Yes, Tony Blair tried to make this point, but the Third Way never went deep enough. Blair shifted to the center and hoped the party came with him. He embraced the market, but he never showed us how the market could address the issues of public welfare and social security that Labour, by definition, must address to justify its existence.

Enter Gordon Brown. Politically, he’s a dud. But the financial crisis has given him the opportunity to do what Labour has been promising ever since all-out socialism lost its tractability 25 years ago: to protect the poor with economic interventionism without completely trampling the private sector. Instead of pretending (incorrectly) that the market can solve even lefty welfare goals, Brown is reclaiming a role for government in the places where the market needs help.

Economically, it is working–the credit markets are slowly stabilizing, and though a recession is still happening around us, we will weather the storm.

The political ramifications are still up in the air: Brown may be able to take credit for making smart economic choices in the long run, but I doubt it will be enough to save him from defeat in 2010. Instead, I’m predicting something akin to the Goldwater effect that hit the US Republican Party in 1964–defeat marked the end of the anti-New Deal Republicanism, sparked a lot of thinking and produced a tidal wave and a new generation of conservatism that hit its stride in 1980 (and lost its mojo on Tuesday).

Just as Goldwater, in his failure, gave closure to the exiting GOP generation, Brown’s economic victory and political defeat will provide that catharsis for his generation of Labour Party boomers. Just as Goldwater turned out to be the wrong face for the movement that became modern American conservatism, Brown will go into the night as the wrong face for post-Cold War leftist interventionism. But the ground he is staking will provide the jumping-off point for younger leaders to reshape the Left for the 21st century. The question, as the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee wrote not long ago, is who those leaders will be.Link
That’s a global process as much as it’s a British one: Labour’s conundrum parallels the woes of France’s Parti Socialiste and Germany’s SDP. Which is why, along with his Continental counterparts, Brown is calling for a new Bretton Woods, a rewrite of the international financial system that makes room for regulation in the current market environment. It’s the international equivalent of what he is doing at home and if it materializes, it could signal the revival of the global left, even if it’s not in Brown’s political lifetime.

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1 Response {+}
  • rafigagum

    here’s to the revival of the global left, otherwise known as pga. we hadn’t died, you media lot had just stopped noticing us beavering away

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