Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Politics and the art of the impossible

I felt rather sorry for Emily Thornberry, whose innocuous tweet caused such a stir.  I wasn't sure if it was actually the sensitivities of the Labour Party she really upset.  Their conscience has been plaguing them for the complete abandonment of the working classes in recent decades.

No wonder Ed Miliband was so cross.

On the other hand, it is clearly right - given the Ukip surge - that the political elite should be examining their consciences.

I have a feeling the sense of alienation from conventional politics, which - as a Liberal, I rather share - lies in the strange loss of ambition that seems to have gone hand in hand with globalisation.

Instead of setting out a vision which can be achieved, frontline politicians have to spend their time defending a series of compromises which the establishment has made on our behalf, often for very good reasons but not conclusively so.  And maybe because they have to: globalisation has been a paradoxically constraining force.

They have to defend the status quo in energy for fear that investment in the infrastructure the nation needs won't be forthcoming.

They have to defend rising property prices for fear that buy-to-let landlords will withdraw from the market and they will have to deal with the resulting homelessness.

They have to defend the bureaucracy around global trade because it underpins the single market, and all the other trade agreements which have constrained our political freedom of movement.

And so on and so on.  It is the politics of binding compromise, with a whiff of the politics of fear.  It is the result of the political class losing control of the levers.

They may be the right compromises, and the establishment knows they are inevitable - so they never get discussed.  It is hardly surprising that a political movement emerges, simplistic enough to fail to understand them - and to contemplate tearing them all up and starting again.

There is a reasonable longing for politicians to be politicians again, to dream dreams and say 'why not?'  To act on the national stage, to make things happen.  The art of the possible has become the art of the impossible.

But when that happens, there are circumstances when the least attractive alternatives suddenly appear to some people compelling.  After all, if the opposite of populism is just to close ranks and defend the usual compromises which have dominated our lives since the 1970s, then populism has its attractions, even for me.

Especially when those compromises involve defending institutions because of what they were designed to do, when every one knows - perhaps everyone but those in Westminster - that they don't actually work as intended.

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