Tuesday 12 May 2015

Reasons to be less cheerless

There was William Morris in 1888, putting the finishing touches to his first medieval fantasy novella, Dream of John Ball.

Morris, the great socialist and wallpaper designer, was by then thoroughly disillusioned with Liberalism, and he dreamed that he had hurtled briefly back to the Peasants Revolt. There he had encountered the preacher who inspired it, John Ball, and spent the night with him in a darkened church, surrounded by the bodies from the first brief encounter with the enemy, talking about the future.

Afterwards, the encounter gives Morris an extraordinary perspective on history:

"I pondered all these things,” he wrote, “and how men in fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat. And when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Morris was right, and he seems to have hit on a profound truth about politics. Change is deeply paradoxical, and – although the grammar of progress eludes most politicians – we achieve what we achieve sideways, like crabs.

When we win we are also at the moment of disappointment; when we lose then paradoxically things happen as a result. It’s confusing, but that is how it works.

Don't get me wrong.  This isn't a reason to be cheerful exactly.  Nothing so extreme.  But it might be a reason to see the current political setback more objectively.

So here are my three reasons to be less cheerless.

1.  Things will happen quickly.  David Steel said that the Lib Dems would take two decades to recover.  I don't think he's right, and for all the reasons Duncan Brack set out.  It was less than 18 months between the ignominy of fourth place behind the Greens in the 1989 Euro-elections and the 'dead parrot' verdict on the party, and victory in the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990 ("well, the parrot twitched," said a Tory spokesperson).

Within four years, and two years after the disappointing general election of 1992, you could walk from Land's End to Winchester on land represented at some level or other by Lib Dems - a huge yellow swathe across Wessex, capital city: Yeovil.

2.  The Labour Party is crumbling.  An amazing map, developed I think by Vaughan Roderick from BBC Wales, compared Labour constituencies in 2015 with former coalfields.  Apart from London, the comparison is extraordinary.  What I take from this is that Labour has now shrunk back down to its absolute heartlands, apart from its seats in the capital.  This is graphic evidence that there is no longer a coherent Labour proposition, no uniting conceot, no obvious purpose.

This does not, of course, guarantee that the Lib Dems will provide a way forward either, but the opportunity is there to be grasped.

3.  We are due for a major intellectual shift.  I have had a go at this idea before, but these major economic shifts happen regularly every 40 years - 1831, 1868, 1909, 1940, 1979, which means we are due for something similar in around four years time.  They are hardly uncontroversial shifts when they happen - the People's Budget split the nation; so did monetary economics and the end of exchange controls.  But they are big shifts, and they are permanent for four decades or so.

They can't happen out of the blue.  There has to be some work, some proposals, some emerging consensus, some direction before the shift can take place.  But it will happen, and probably in this parliament.

So hold onto your hats.

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Richard Gadsden said...

Something that really struck me when I looked at the results: Labour has lost North Wales. They still have five MPs there, but all five seats are marginal (four to the Tories, one to Plaid). Across Clwyd (seven seats), the Tories actually outpolled Labour, though the seats split 3-4 against them.

Labour still rule Wales, but that's entirely Cardiff-Swansea-Newport and the Valleys. The half of Wales that lives north of the Heads of the Valleys is not Labour any more. Much of it is actually Tory, which is why they have 11 Welsh MPs.

My suspicion is that the Labour-dominated Welsh Assembly has centralised Wales around Cardiff, and people that don't live within shouting distance of Cardiff are getting more and more anti-Labour as a result. It's like the way that only the Central Belt of Scotland voted all that Labour (even Aberdeen and Dundee were always marginals) back when Labour did well in Scotland - because everyone else got ignored.

The rainbow coalition could be on to something in Wales in 2016 - that is the "we're fed up with everything being run from and for Cardiff Bay" coalition.

David Boyle said...

Yes, and although people voted against a potential coalition - we are now ruled by an interconnected one. The irreconcilable differences inside the Conservative Party, complicated by the need to appease the SNP to keep Scotland in the union. It doesn;t exactly make for strong government...