"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Monday, July 31, 2006

The political spectrum

Tony Blair gave a speech in Pebble Beach, California yesterday on world leadership. He pointed out that "confusingly for modern politicians, many of the policy prescriptions, cross traditional left/right lines ... across a range of issues, there is no longer a neat filing of policy to the left or the right." That's correct; anyone paying attention can see the left/right dichotomy is largely empty and has frayed almost beyond recognition. Mr. Blair went on to say that:
"around the world, a division is opening up, almost as pivotal as the
traditional left and right, and that division is what I would characterise as: "open versus closed". Take the three isms that run throughout most political debates in Europe and the US today. They're not socialism or capitalism. They're: protectionism, isolationism, nativism, by which I mean, to do with migration and national identity.
In each case the issue is: "open or closed". The response to globalisation can be free trade, open markets, investment in the means of competition: education, science, technology. Or it can be protectionism, tariffs, tight labour market regulation, resistance to foreign takeovers. Countries can choose foreign policies that are engaged and activist, seeking to sort out the world's problems; or try to avoid their problems; refrain from controversy or picking sides, isolating a nation from the pain of the hurly-burly of the world's challenges, but also from the opportunity to shape their outcome. And not a major country anywhere is not riven by the debate on migration: do we welcome it as infusing new blood and ideas; or do we fear it as undermining our identity? Where leaders stand on these issues has little to do with being on the left or the right but everything to do with modern or traditional attitudes to a changing world."
This is in a sense a step towards a clearer framework for thought, although such two-part dichotomies are of limited value. Meta-narratives are perhaps best left behind in such complex, interdepedent and rapidly changing times. With that caveat in mind, here is a passage from the speech I thought worth noting. I note that the phrase he uses to describe the European welfare state ("hopelessly inadequate") echoes his description in May of the state of international institutions ("Increasingly, there is a hopeless mismatch between the global challenges we face and the global institutions to confront them. After the Second World War, people realised that there needed to be a new international institutional architecture. In this new era, in the early 21 st century, we need to renew it."). I presume he uses the word hopeless as an intensifier rather than a descriptive of such problems as intractable. In any event here is part of what he said yesterday:

"The truth is that if it is correct that the challenge of rapid change is
enormous; the response has to be fundamental also. But the implications of this are very hard to follow through. The traditional European welfare state and social model is hopelessly inadequate to meet the challenge of the modern competitive global market. Public services that are run by producer interests, indifferent to consumer preference will lose public consent for the funding of them. In the law and order debate, the nature of organised crime or social breakdown in parts of our communities, not to say the threat of global terrorism bent on mass slaughter, mean that traditional civil liberty arguments are not so much wrong, as just made for another age. Let me give one small example. I started a few years ago a DNA database for our criminal justice system and now all those convicted of certain categories of crime are put on it. Its concept was fiercely opposed. Its extension still is, and incidentally by a mixture of Conservatives, the left of the Labour Party and Lib Dems. Yet every month suspects are linked to 26 murders, 57 rapes and sexual offences and 3000 assorted more minor crimes through the database.
Mass migration requires rules. Biometric technology means that countries are increasingly insisting on biometric visas, which in turn mean biometric passports. A biometric ID card is a short step away. It is, to me at least, almost incredible that the proposal to introduce an identity register in the UK should be so extraordinarily controversial. But it is.

So the policy implications for leaders are huge; they confuse natural supporters; and, as a result, the resistance is strong. The most misunderstood speech I ever made was my Party Conference speech of 1999 about "the forces of conservatism". This was taken as an assault on Conservatives. Actually it was an assault on small "c" conservatism, resistance to change, which can be every bit as much from the left as from the right.
In this battle - "open versus closed" - those on the "open" side of the
argument will meet fierce opposition. Yet the "closed" side of the argument in truth has nothing to offer a nation except the delusion that the tide of change can be turned back; or alternatively a weaker version of the same delusion, namely that hard choices can just be evaded.
Faced with leading people through this process of change, the key to winning is to embed the policy in strong values. The reason why Europe has to change the social model is not because we no longer need social justice; but because today's world means that social justice can only be achieved through education, not regulation, through enterprise flourishing and creating wealth, not being constrained. Fairness, equality, opportunity for all - good, progressive values - can't be achieved by old fashioned welfare systems that breed dependency or public services creaking at the joins. The values are constant; their application has to be dynamic."


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