Here Come the Liberals: For Decades American Conservatism Defined Global Politics. Now We Are about to Witness a Seismic Change in Washington. Will Hutton Leads Our Special Report on the Profound Impact the New Thinking Will Have on Britain and the World

New Statesman (1996), November 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

Here Come the Liberals: For Decades American Conservatism Defined Global Politics. Now We Are about to Witness a Seismic Change in Washington. Will Hutton Leads Our Special Report on the Profound Impact the New Thinking Will Have on Britain and the World


British politicians, commentators and the public like to believe in their sturdy autonomy. We have arrived at our decisions as freeborn men and women. We debate our ideas furiously in pubs, on radio phone-ins or via letters to the editor. We read the opinion pages. We elect a sovereign parliament that passes the laws and regulations that we mandate.

The truth is more subtle. We dance to another country's tune. It is the United States that makes the political, cultural and intellectual weather. It is the rich American institutes that develop the ideas for XYZ plan or ABC radical reform. Our academics, especially in the social sciences, want to get published in the American journals and ensure they please the editor in question. Our politicians watch closely to see what works in the US. We enjoy their movies and use their technology. The West Wing and Mad Men are part of our culture, as are Sex and the City and Friends. We think we are free; we are painfully and excessively influenced by the US.

Which is why the election of Barack Obama matters so much. In the tidal wave of tears of joy, analysis of county by county results, the "were you awake to hear the speech" conversations, naming the puppy and the critiques of Michelle's wardrobe-and yet another article on the big things in his in-tray-one thing has been underplayed. Obama's success will transform British politics. The centre ground will move significantly to the left.

No account of the rise of Thatcherism or the character of new Labour is possible without acknowledging the force and impact of the 30-year ascendancy of American neoconservatism. They won control of Washington in the late 1979s, creating the Washington consensus. No country-from communist China to the Nordic social democracies--held out. Everybody, to a degree, bought into the market fundamentalist consensus. Tony Blair could have held out more than he did-but the room for manoeuvre was tiny.

It went very deep. Editors of the top US social science journals published articles in this idiom because they had secured their jobs by conforming to it; ambitious British academics soon learned what was accepted and what was not. Young British investment bankers training in New York learned about the value of securitisation. Treasury officials on secondment to Washington bought into the consensus that privatisation and deregulation were the only ways forward. From social policy (remember zero tolerance and broken windows) to "light touch" financial regulation, and from a belief in labour market flexibility to distrust of public service broadcasting, the cultural and intellectual backdrop was conservative.

Obama's election ends that. American conservatism is now in profound disarray, It is not just that Republicanism has been forced back to the south and the mountains states: the intellectual paradigm that it championed to nowhere but a credit crunch, a bloated and overpaid financial elite and the onset of a deep recession. No accident that Obama's lead jumped in the wake of the Lahman Brothers' bankruptcy and the part nationalisation of the banking system. Conservatism was no the ropes. A change had to come. Yes it did.

Here is a checklist of areas where the discourse is going to move left-intelligently and moderately because that is part of the Obama DNA. Firstly,. trade unionism. Barack Obama shares the view of liberal Democrats that the best way to roll back the stagnating real incomes of the squeezed middle of the United States is to strengthen the bargaining power of organised labour. An empowered upper working class across all ethnic groups is the backbone of both the Democrat party and the economy.

This president is the most pro-union since Roosevelt. He wants to help unions organise and get recognition through a simple membership card check system, which workers can use freely and anonymously to signal their readiness to join--fiercely opposed by American business. …

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