Readers of a certain age may recall Maureen Lipman’s character of the Jewish mother Beattie in a series of advertisements for BT. In one episode she refuses to share in her grandson’s disappointment at passing only two GCSEs, the second of them being sociology: “An ology! He gets an ology and he says he’s failed!”
In modern political discourse, however, any ology is seen as a bad thing, carrying with it the scandalous possibility of intellectualism. Such Conservatives as David “Two Brains” Willetts and Oliver Letwin, a former fellow of Princeton, are especially derided. The most unforgiveable ology of all, however, appears to be the one most useful to a politician: namely, ideology.
In their attacks on the Government’s policies, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, rarely miss an opportunity to denounce them as “ideological”, as if that in itself discredited them in the eyes of all sensible people. Thus Balls recently referred to “the Government’s ideological assault on our welfare state and public services”. You get the drift: it’s “our” welfare state versus “their” ideology.
At one level, the thinking behind such a formulation is transparent. Like almost all modern politicians, Balls and Miliband are driven by market research; and focus groups unvaryingly reveal that the British public have an aversion to any policy which can be described as “ideological”. This, in part, was why Margaret Thatcher, who definitely was ideological, never used the term. She would instead describe herself as a “conviction politician” – an ugly phrase, but one much more appealing to the average voter. We want politicians with convictions (of the non-legal sort), don’t we? Just so long as it doesn’t involve an ology.
At another level, however, the Mili-Balls formulation is a little perplexing. After all, both of them claim to represent a rejection of the Blairite idea of removing all ideology from the Labour Party and turning it into an amorphous “big tent”. Both are men of a strongly academic background whose common decision to read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University must indicate some appreciation that without fundamental ideas or principles, political discourse lacks the very thing that makes it compelling.
Moreover, men of the left have always had an especial fondness for ideology, since none can have been anything other than profoundly affected by Marxism, which seeks to capture every human activity within a single, over-arching philosophy of action. Marxism, however, has been thoroughly discredited as the basis for government. Its collapse in Russia, China, and now, it seems, even in Cuba, has had a profoundly demoralising effect on the non-Communist left throughout Europe.
While socialist parties in the developed world did not seek to emulate the Soviet or Chinese models, nonetheless the apparent political success of those regimes (much more propaganda than reality, of course) gave a kind of encouragement to socialist movements across the globe. In this sense, it was not in the least surprising that New Labour – with its characteristic abandonment of Clause IV socialism – should only come into being after the collapse of so-called “real existing” socialism in eastern Europe.
In this context, we can see the assault on Conservative “ideology” on the part of the post-Blairite Labour leadership as a form of jealousy. While the British parliamentary left, with a very few isolated exceptions, has lost its old ideology and has been thrashing about in a desperate search for a new one (the Third Way, anyone?), there remains a highly directed core within the Conservative Party, with a coherent philosophy for action. In essence, it regards the rolling back of the state by Margaret Thatcher as an unfinished revolution. More precisely, it wants to apply to the public services the principle which saw the removal of the dead hand of Whitehall from the control of British industry.
This is certainly true of Andrew Lansley’s programme of reform for the NHS. While he does not go so far as to suggest that the NHS might no longer be free at the point of use (it will continue to be funded through the collection of taxes), he does argue that the more removed its decision-making is from Whitehall and the grip of the public-sector unions, the more flexible it will be in responding to the wishes of local users – just as such companies as British Telecom became infinitely more responsive to the public once they were no longer part of the apparatus of the state and were also made to compete with other suppliers within the private sector.
For the vast majority of Britons who recall BT in the days of its national monopoly, it now seems like the purest common sense that it should be a regulated ordinary business within a thriving and competitive private sector. But when it was privatised back in 1984, that was denounced by the Labour Party of the day as an “ideological” measure and, moreover, one that it might well reverse.
Of course, it is difficult to say when a political or economic idea becomes part of an ideology. Moreover, most Conservatives – unlike the traditional left – do not consider themselves to be ideological. They prefer to say that they govern in tune with the traditions of the nation and according to the true nature of human society, quite divorced from the political process. This, I suppose, is what Margaret Thatcher meant when she declared, with characteristic simplicity of expression, that “the facts of life are Conservative”. Yet she was an avowed and adulatory reader of Friedrich Hayek, the most brilliant 20th-century exponent of classical liberal thought; he was also the author of Why I am Not a Conservative.
When the two Eds attack the current Conservative-led coalition as “ideological” I suspect that they are in fact using the term as a synonym for "Thatcherite", in part because they might (mistakenly) believe that everyone in the country shares their view that she was a disastrous prime minister and in part because they know that the Prime Minister, for his own reasons, wants to distance himself from her political legacy.
Indeed, shortly after he became leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron declared that “there has been a tendency for some Conservatives to treat Britain, particularly our public services, as an ideological laboratory, [but] when it comes to tackling the big challenges our society faces, I will not be the prisoner of an ideological past”. This was all part of Cameron’s attempt to present himself as “heir to Blair”, with the idea that just as Blair broke with the Labour Party’s “ideological past” in the form of Clause IV, so he would do the same, in mirror image, with the Conservatives.
The difference, however, is that the Conservatives had actually won the battle of ideas in the 1980s. They might have wished to run away from the notion that they were divisive as a governing party, but they had – and have – no intention of returning Britain to the status quo ante Thatcher. Neither, of course, do the Labour Party leadership.
Still bereft ideologically, as they have been for the past 30 years, they are little more than an alternative elite, with no coherent philosophy for government. Like their old boss Gordon Brown, they are intellectuals drifting in the political ocean without an ology. What would Beattie say?