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Editor’s blog – The death of political ideas, one retread after another

By Dean Carroll

Perceptive American author Tom Wolfe wrote in his 1975 book The Painted Word of the demise of art and how it transmogrified itself from a visual experience to simply an illustration of the theories of prominent art critics. His thesis was to argue that the move away from realism to conceptualism meant art had “made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture”.

Using the same thought process, it is possible to view politics as something that has moved away from realism and practical policy delivery on the ground to simply an illustration of political theorists aimed at the most prominent media commentators. All budding political scientists learn about the policy triangulation that has resulted in catch-all parties being different in name only and the trends of insulation and delegation, which have resulted in central banks being made independent of political control and budgets being outsourced to unelected quangos.

At the same time, the growth of supranational and inter-governmental organs like the European Union, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund – and the decline of Western empires – has created a status quo whereby elected national leaders and their political opponents have little ground left to fight over.

This scenario in which national political leaders have become not much more than functionaries, who will vaguely promise anything to get in power but will be unable to change little in reality once there, has been played out across the West. Even United States President Barack Obama said “yes we can” only to see the separation of powers in America immediately respond ‘no you can’t’.

In the United Kingdom, the pretence of power and ideology obfuscation in recent years has reached epic proportions. The Conservatives have desperately pretended to be green, the Liberal Democrats have pretended to be Tories and Labour has pretended to be all manner of things to all manner of people.

Moving swiftly from the left to New Labour – and “New Labour Plus” as I once witnessed David Miliband comically try to rebrand the toxic administration after the disastrous Iraq war – we now have the utterly meaningless ‘One Nation Labour’. So why is Ed Miliband persistently championing a Conservative Party concept from the 19th century – which is nothing more than paternalism and a fairer society – as his big strategic idea?

Well, aside from the fact that his wonkish ‘predistribtuion’ phrase did not play well with the media let alone apathetic citizens – despite having the same ethos as a One Nation stance – Miliband finds himself in the same position as many national leaders in the West. Denuded of power by inter-governmentalism and paralysed by an economic crisis that could eventually pan out to be the worst since the creation of democracy itself, the Labour leader is a rabbit caught in the headlights.

If he were to win office, as prime minister he would have no money to pursue any significant policy changes due to the country’s crippling debt levels. Even if he had a budgetary surplus, his options would be limited as a great deal of policy is made by the EU and other transnational forums these days.

Miliband has admitted previously: “Millions of people have given up on politics, they think we’re all the same.” I hate to tell you this Ed but you are doing nothing to change that popular view and in all likelihood there is nothing you can do to change it. It could well be that politics has ‘made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture’.

For politics to evolve into something more responsive and collaborative than retreads of century-old political rhetoric, brave leaders would have to admit that power is now so dispersed that there is only so much they can do. Sadly, the chances of this happening are about as likely as Wolfe taking an art critic out to dinner. So prepare to hear more of the same in the coming years. It seems we are stuck in a political feedback loop of our own making.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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