Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Death of Ideas: We Are at a Political Watershed, and Are Hungry for Initiatives That Will Remake Our World. but Not since the 18th Century, Dominic Sandbrook Argues, Has Britain's Intellectual Cupboard Been So Bare

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Death of Ideas: We Are at a Political Watershed, and Are Hungry for Initiatives That Will Remake Our World. but Not since the 18th Century, Dominic Sandbrook Argues, Has Britain's Intellectual Cupboard Been So Bare

Article excerpt

At this turning point in our political history, when the global economic crisis has made a mockery of the free-market ideology that has dominated western politics since the age of Reagan and Thatcher, and Britain's Labour government seems to be staggering towards the exit, we should feel we are in exciting times. This, surely, is a moment when the electoral landscape is about to be redrawn and the boundaries and ambitions of political debate established for decades to come, just as they were at the advent of Thatcherism in 1979 or after the Attlee landslide in 1945.

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But one thing is missing, perhaps the most important thing of all: the big idea. If we are at a watershed in modern history, where is the torrent of initiatives that will remake our world? Where are the thinkers who will banish the post-Thatcherite orthodoxy and come to define the 2010s as John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman dominated previous political eras? And why do our political leaders--intelligent, thoughtful men and women, educated at Britain's finest institutions--seem so painfully and embarrassingly short of new ideas?

A cynic's answer would be that it was ever thus--that when Gordon Brown switches on his robotic auto-response, listing statistics that supposedly show Labour's achievements, he is merely following in Clement Attlee's footsteps; that when David Cameron delivers the smooth pieties about change and renewal, he is doing just what Margaret Thatcher did in the run-up to 1979. But that is simply not true.

When Attlee won power in 1945, for example, his Labour government was suffused with crusading zeal and an intellectual mandate to build a "new Jerusalem" on the foundations of Keyne-sian economic management, full employment and a generous welfare state. And even during the last great watershed in the late 1970s, politics was alive with ideas and ideological division in a way that now seems almost prehistoric. As the late Ben Pimlott once wrote, the Tory revival of the 1970s was driven by ideas--the free economy and the strong state--that "came from outside, creating a groundswell of sympathetic opinion before their adoption by the Conservative Party leadership". Thanks to organisations such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute, Thatcher's handbag was stuffed with policies on everything from selling off the family silver to scrapping the NHS and replacing comprehensive education with a voucher system. Many never saw the light of day, but they added up to a formidable laundry list driven by the belief that, as her ally Ronald Reagan put it in his first speech as president of the United States, "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."

Historians still argue about the extent to which Thatcher and Reagan understood the ideas associated with then political careers. Did Thatcher really slam down a copy of Hayek's Road to Serfdom with the words "This is what we believe!", or is it just a compelling folk legend, told by senior Tories to impress their young? But there is no doubt that they fed off ideas to an extent almost unimaginable today, just as the guiding lights of the Attlee government--Ernest Bevin, Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison, as well as the prime minister--drew on the extraordinary ferment of ideas in the late 1930s and 1940s, epitomised by William Beveridge's landmark report on social insurance.

That Labour's ideological cupboard seems so glaringly empty is perhaps not surprising. Any party that has been in power for 12 years is bound to find itself intellectually exhausted; if nothing else, its senior figures become so used to defending the records of their departments that their narrow, negative rhetoric becomes almost second nature. Nobody doubts that Ed and David Miliband, for instance, are bright and thoughtful. The problem is that, buried under mountains of paperwork, they simply do not have time to think deeply about Britain's current situation. …

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