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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Is British politics ideology-free?
Essay
By Bob Tyrrell
Analysis, BBC Radio 4

British politics look like it is becoming an increasingly ideology-free zone.
Tony Blair and David Cameron
Blair and Cameron: Are there ideological differences?

Tony Blair says he is beyond ideology and David Cameron says he does not do 'isms'.

In rejecting either Simon Hughes or Chris Huhne as their new leader the Liberal Democrats also seem to have opted against a decisive move either to the left or the right.

David Willetts is the Conservative's shadow education secretary and one of the party's leading thinkers.

He describes the political debate today as rather like a contest between different blends of coffee or whisky - "who's got the better blend of a competitive economy and social justice and community".

Far from regretting the absence of big ideological clashes he also welcomes the fact that politics is no longer a case of "one party that solely believes in a modern market economy and doesn't understand society and the other party that is solely committed to some sense of social obligation to others and doesn't understand a market economy".

it's very hard really to drive a government solely based on evidence
Geoff Mulgan, ex-No 10 adviser

Several factors might be driving this centrist politics. Britain's rigid class structure, onto which the old ideological politics easily mapped, has loosened up.

The extensive use of focus groups means all parties are getting similar sorts of messages from swing voters.

The election history of the last twenty years, from Michael Foot in 1983 to Michael Howard in 2005 seems to prove that parties fighting their political battles away from the ideological centre ground and the mainstream issues get punished.

Politics more like plumbing?

When one examines this notion that politics is getting to be more like plumbing, three inter-connected elements reveal themselves.

First, that politics is becoming more pragmatic, with arguments increasingly settled by recourse to the objective evidence.

In this guise politics is becoming more like a contest between rival management teams offering much the same product and using similar management approaches.

One may be for a bit more centralisation and target-setting by the HQ, and the other for greater autonomy for the operating divisions, but no one is suggesting changing what they do or how they do it.

Second, and a counterpart of the rise of pragmatism, politics is less ideological.

In this guise politics is less dogmatic with all sides open to ideas whatever their origin and with the historical role of ideas and philosophies little in evidence in the policies pursued by parties. To coin a phrase 'what works is what counts'.

Third, there is increasing agreement about what is important. In this guise there is a consensus on the political agenda, the big differences in the visions for society have gone and many of the big choices have been settled.

Is pragmatism enough?

On first inspection, given that we live in an increasingly rational scientific age, the case for pragmatism seems unarguable. But there are at least two objections. Is this really what people are looking for in their politics? And can it ever be a complete recipe for government?

The policies of Thatcher and the Tory party and to a large degree of Blair are the result of particular values and excluding other choices
Hilary Wainwright, Red Pepper magazine

As far as the former is concerned, David Willetts has few doubts. As he says, these days "you have to explain much more explicitly than in the past why you're doing things.

"So even if it is not exactly ideology, people want a certain grounding of principles, some coherent understanding of society, some set of beliefs about how the economy works, which provide a framework within which they can judge what you're saying.

"So although it might not quite be ideology, some sense of principle, some sense of, dare I say it, a theory is quite important. Otherwise it just looks like one random policy after another".

Frankly the facts can never speak for themselves. You might profess to follow a pragmatic approach of doing what works, but values guide both your decisions on what to attend to and your interpretation of the evidence.

Geoff Mulgan is now the Director of the Young Foundation but for eight years until last summer he ran No 10's in-house think tank. He was brought into government to increase the influence of evidence-based policy but even he acknowledges that politics without value judgements is impossible.

"I think all governments and parties are operating in an environment where there is far more evidence, where the public are far more attuned to the idea that you test things, you measure them and some work and some don't.

"But it's very hard really to drive a government solely based on evidence and it's values which determine what is important, it's values which determine what are your non-negotiable lines which you won't cross.

"And even the fields of public policy which have the most evidence - like welfare reform perhaps or some issues around health - the evidence is never quite enough to tell you what you should do."

Politics as an ideology-free zone

What about politics as an ideology-free zone? How much scrutiny does this bear? No one is arguing that we still have an ideological politics consisting in an open clash between radically different visions of society.

But, it is entirely possible that there could be consensus in politics but that this has arisen to obscure both the presence of a dominant ideology and the choices associated with the alternatives.

This is the case made by Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper. Her claim is that ideology is playing an unacknowledged part in politics today. Whilst politicians on both sides like to present themselves as un-ideological, the truth is that their ideologies are just becoming increasingly similar.

"I think a lot of people would say that the policies of Thatcher and the Tory party and to a large degree of Blair are the result of particular values and excluding other choices.

"They are a result of saying that the market is a preferable mechanism of coordination; that the fact that the market is very dominated by big corporations isn't a problem".

But let's not get carried away.

On the Left, New Labour does not propose the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange and no one in the Conservative Party is advocating the reduction of taxes and spending to US levels.

Moreover, whilst the story of New Labour's journey from the left wing economic wilderness to the centre ground is familiar, the other side to the convergence coin is the way the Right has accepted many tenets of what was fairly extreme left-wing thinking on race, equality and gender politics.

Indeed, it would probably shock many on the Right to be told that they now speak the language of Red Ken Livingstone's GLC in the 1980s. The Boards of major companies now worry about the diversity of their workforce.

The politics of choice

Affirmative action to improve the position of disadvantaged minorities has even found its way in a qualified form into the Conservative Party's parliamentary candidate selection procedure!

But does this prove the consensus point?

On the face of it is powerful evidence, given added credence when we remind ourselves how rarely the big choices we face are given open and some would say honest treatment in current political debate.

For those who say political choices are all about 'the small stuff' try these for size: can we have freedom of speech and legislate for the right of religions to be respected?

Can we have choice in the provision of public services like hospitals and still ensure that everyone gets the same standard of treatment?

Can we afford to fly EasyJet on weekend breaks to the sun and avoid global warming?

There may be a 'pragmatic middle ground' in the trade offs we choose to make, but that there are trade offs and that there are choices is impossible to deny.

How should Tories respond?

But there is another subtle but enormously significant role played by ideologies in our society and politics.

As Michael Freeden puts it: "An ideology is a competition over the control of political language and political thinking.

Whoever competes successfully over the control of political language, political words, political ideas has metaphorically speaking society by the scruff of the neck."

And he might have added that if a political party's ideology loses currency whatever it does or says will fail to resonate with the electorate.

The Conservative Party is an interesting example of this syndrome.

It has been called the 'Economics Party' after its concentration on free market reforms in the 1980s. Some in the Party have even admitted they've come to be seen as the 'Nasty Party'.

The fact is we sniff something about a party and its ideology from the place a policy has within its grander scheme. The discovery during their election campaign last year that focus groups liked policies until they learned they were Tory was a devastating illustration of the bad odour surrounding the party.

How should the Conservatives respond to this dire state of affairs?

Pivotal moment

A political future of spin, smoke and mirrors... or something altogether more significant?

They seemed to signal their radical intent by electing David Cameron as leader. He has elevated policy issues, such as the environment, to the top of the Tory agenda that barely got a look in for years.

Meanwhile other traditional Tory whipping horses, such as Europe, asylum seekers and law and order rarely get a look in these days.

In his most arresting soundbite to date David Cameron said that there is such a thing as society it's just not the same thing as the State. What should we make of all this?

A desperate attempt to throw off the nasty party tag and a regrettable but electorally necessary turn in rhetoric?

Is this new, compassionate Conservatism plausible or will it end in new levels of public cynicism, reinforcing everything that is wrong in the anodyne politics of convergence?

Does this staking of a claim to talk about society herald an original but recognisably Conservative approach to policy or simply make the New Tories a decaffeinated blend of New Labour?

We are at a pivotal moment in British politics.

Boundaries

For example, if David Cameron is serious about society being important but not synonymous with the State the sort of thing he must mean is that he is keen to see voluntary bodies, community groups and similar 'social entrepreneurs' competing in the provision of many of the services provided by State bodies.

So, how best to help a long term unemployed youth? Goodbye Job Centre Plus programmes, hello local community support and networking group.

This could be a revolution in the Conservatives' approach to social policy, as big as Margaret Thatcher's revolution in economic policy.

But there have been other moments when politics has been poised for radical and clarifying change and the promise hasn't been realised. Does the current generation of political leaders have the political will to put their ideas into practice?

We'll soon find out what they're made of.

There will always be choices and values in politics.

Whereas in the past Labour expressed its values in social justice, the Conservatives in the economy and the Liberal Democrats in civil rights, today those boundaries are less clear.

In that sense all major parties will agree what matters. What works is where the disagreements will be, and there is a chance these could be bitter and, dare we say it, ideological.

Analysis: Politics for Plumbers is on Radio 4 on Thursday 13 April at 2030 BST, repeated on Sunday 16 April at 2130 BST.
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