Okay, hands up anyone who predicted that Ann Widdecombe and Claire Fox would end up in the same party. I certainly didn’t. Yet last week, the former Conservative shadow Home Secretary (Widdecombe) and erstwhile Revolutionary Communist (Fox) were announced as candidates for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
These are the strange times we live in. It’s hard to look at British politics right now and not see a system in meltdown. Remarkably we have not one but two hard-Brexit parties – the Brexit Party plus UKIP; and not two but three anti-Brexit parties – the Lib Dems, Change UK and the Greens (plus of course the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales). Then, of course, there’s Labour and the Conservatives straddled painfully across the fence. It’s quite conceivable that all nine of these parties will win seats in the forthcoming Euro-elections (and, with the exception of what’s left of UKIP, in the next general election too).
In fact, we’ve never been closer to a wholesale realignment of the post-war party system. The Conservatives are already in existential crisis territory – and if Labour is finally forced off the Brexit fence, then we could see the existing cracks and splinters in both parties develop into wholesale disintegration. That would mean multi-party politics across the whole of the political spectrum, but under first-past-the-post (FPTP) rules. Expect the next general election to be the most unpredictable in British history.
Call yourself post-liberal?
Almost anything could happen except, it would seem, the one thing that needs to happen – which is the emergence of a sane and sensible post-liberal party.
As I’ve explained before, the polling evidence keeps showing that the most under-served portion of the electorate are culturally conservative voters who lean to the Left on economic matters. As I’ve also explained, post-liberalism shouldn’t be confused with anti-liberalism. Rather, what post-liberals recognise is that while freedom matters, it’s not the only thing that matters – and especially not when it’s hitched to a self-serving ‘open-vs-closed’ agenda designed to benefit those already best-placed to take advantage of globalisation.
Despite the emergence of numerous new parties and movements in Britain and elsewhere, it’s hard to find any that qualify as post-liberal. New centrists such as Change UK or the Macronistes in France offer establishment liberalism in undiluted form. The radical Left, as exemplified by the Corbynised Labour Party, is a toxic cocktail of cranky foreign policy, extreme political correctness and the sort of borrow-and-spend economics that would pawn the country to the money markets. As for ‘national populism’ on the Right, that’s all about exploiting and exacerbating resentments, not offering any positive way forward. Can you think of any populist movement overseas that would provide a model for what we’d want see over here? Trumpism in America? Le Penism in France? Orbanism in Hungary? No. Non. Nem.
Five reasons why populism isn't up to the job
These forces wouldn’t have been unleashed if the failures of the political and economic establishment weren’t so obvious – and yet they only provide an outlet for anger, not any kind of solution. What the world needs now is a democratic, inclusive and post-liberal alternative – and Britain has a key role to play in building it.
Whether Brexit goes ahead or is smothered to death, the need for the fresh start that post-liberalism can provide is pressing.
Furthermore, post-liberal thinkers are finding their voice in the UK – both in the Conservative and Labour parties. An honourable mention should also go to the modern-day Social Democratic Party, which has yet to make a significant electoral breakthrough – but which has a post-liberal platform and a growing membership.
But can post-liberals afford to divide their forces? Has the time come for them to join together in a unified political movement? It’s easy to think of reasons why not. Here are three to start with:
Firstly, breaking through as a new party isn’t at all easy – not in a FPTP electoral system and especially not when you can’t rely on the simplicities of single issue politics or the attention-grabbing tactics of an anger-based campaign.
Secondly, post-liberals also believe in loyalty to institutions, thus for those rooted in traditional Toryism or the Labour movement, it goes against the grain to sever oneself from time-honoured connections.
Thirdly, the current disruption of politics might bring about a positive realignment within the existing parties rather than to the party system as a whole. At the very least , there’s the chance for renewal that comes from a change in party leaders. Theresa May’s leadership is already tottering and there’s talk of Jeremy Corbyn wanting to retire. Red Tories and Blue Labourites can therefore dream of better times around the corner – just imagine how much better things would be if, say, Johnny Mercer and Lisa Nandy were leading their respective parties. So, with change of one sort or another on its way, why not stick around for another throw of the dice?
Then again, it’s the hope that kills you. Also not good for your health is repeatedly banging your head against a brick wall. Sooner or later, you have to decide when to stop – unless, that is, the wall decides for you.
Political parties, especially long-established political parties, are not stand-alone institutions. They are part of a much wider system encompassing economic and cultural interests deeply opposed to the values of post-liberalism. You might imagine that you’re working for change from within, but, honestly, how’s that working out for you? Has our politics become more responsive to public concerns? Has it become humbler in the face of its manifest inadequacies? Have we seen the political establishment rise to the challenge of Brexit? Have we seen our politicians set aside their factional interests to work for national reconciliation? Have they inspired you lately? Have you been wowed by the effectiveness of government or by the constructive engagement of the opposition?
A party for the politically homeless
To put it another way: have you lived through any point in our political history when you’ve been less impressed by the system, less inspired by those chosen to lead?
No, I didn’t think so.
As well as asking yourself what you think about your party, it is also worth pondering what your party thinks of you. Of course, the big parties are broad coalitions, so you can’t expect everyone in the tent to be the same as you. But even if they don’t agree with you, they should at least respect you – but do they? The nastiest things I’ve ever read about Red Tories or Blue Labourites have come from within their respective parties.
But even worse than the contempt is when they try to steal your clothes. There’s been at least two occasions when the Conservative leadership has dressed-up in Red Tory red – David Cameron’s Big Society phase and when Theresa May was persuaded to give Nick Timothy’s ‘Erdington Conservatism’ a go. Meanwhile, Labour leaders don Blue Labour blue everytime they worry about losing their working-class supporters – most notably during Ed Miliband’s One Nation phase. Still, whatever the occasion, it always but always comes to nothing. A sincere engagement with post-liberal ideas is simply too challenging to the core ideologies and embedded vested interests of both parties. Like any other presentational fad, the moment passes and some other gimmick takes its place.
Of course, it’s not as if post-liberals all believe the same thing. Some are socialist, others capitalist; there are post-liberal remainers and post-liberal leavers. And despite their stereotyped reputation as ‘faith, flag and family’ stick-in-the-muds, there’s a wide range of perspectives on those issues too.
So a unified post-liberal party would itself be a broad tent. However, I’d argue that someone from Blue Labour has more in common with a Red Tory than with a Corbynite or a Blairite; and that, equally, Red Tories have more in common with Blue Labour than with the liberal, libertarian or reactionary wings of the Conservative Party.
Liberalism: the other God that failed
I’m not saying that agreeing a joint platform would be easy; I’m saying that post-liberals of all shades share enough in the values that matter most to make cooperation on policy not only feasible, but positively fruitful. After all, its not as if the country’s current situation calls for the same old tired ideas.
Though loathe to let go of long established loyalties, I’m not sure it calls for the same old tired parties either. As I’ve already said, post-liberals have a natural affinity for venerable institutions, but if we’re being realistic, political organisations are the least of these. If no one had ever put country before party we’d still be stuck with Whigs and Tories – if not Roundheads and Cavaliers or even Yorkists and Lancastrians.
In times of trouble you have to decide what to hold on to. If that forces a choice between outward forms and essential truths, I’d rather go with the latter and make a virtue of it.