Seen from the British side of the pond American politics offers hope where here we have the continued worship of the mantra that, as Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible”.
I am a fan of the blog of Iain Dale a commentator from the mainstream of Britainâ€™s Conservative party, not because I agree with his politics but because he and some of those who contribute to his website are skilled practitioners in the dark arts of politicking. But whilst I admire Daleâ€™s professionalism as a political pragmatist (simply said the belief that the pursuit of power rather than ideology is everything) I find the whole business singularly unedifying. Daleâ€™s party, wounded by three successive General Election defeats to the wily Tony Blair, has repositioned itself without a hint of conscience in the centre ground of British politics. In doing so it has copied completely the successful positioning of Blair for whom ideology was anathema and pragmatic posturing everything. Blair was the first leader of the Labour Party ever not to have an ideological gene in his DNA â€“ for him the pursuit of power was everything, and he was brilliant at it!
David Cameron the Conservative Partyâ€™s leader has driven his party to the centre in such a way that almost any of the speeches he makes could have been made by Tony Blair (the Labour bashing rhetoric aside). In this political world the only differences become differences of competence and efficiency rather than differences of ideology â€“ indeed ideology is a dirty word. So the manifesto position of the Party is far less about beliefs (the “why” of politics) and much more about management (the “how”). The debate is not, for example, about the choice between state funded education or healthcare and the alternative of private funded services. The debate is how to make state funded services more efficient and “customer-focused”. Pure “business speak”.
In America at the moment the only pragmatic politician in the Blair/Cameron mould is Hillary Clinton and it looks increasingly unlikely that she will achieve her ambition of power. The current incumbent of the White House is certainly ideologically driven – his neo-conservatism, born-again Christina faith, affection for big business and neo-imperialism is a coherent, if for many of us abhorrent, populist ideology. And the likely contenders to take on Bushâ€™s crown are not pure political pragmatists either. John McCain may have to modify some of his strongly held and individualistic positions in order to be elected but he is solidly on record from his 25 year political career and he can hardly back away from this â€“ even if he wanted to. Barack Obama is also a conviction politician and if he does become the Democratic Partyâ€™s candidate he too can hardly back away from the strong ideological basis of his Presidential campaign â€“ and, like McCain, he is on record and his core beliefs are firmly in the public domain.
In extolling the virtues of politics from the heart â€“ something that I see in both McCain and Obama (and Bush for that matter) â€“ I am not naively assuming that pragmatism doesnâ€™t and will not play a part in their campaigns. Of course they will accentuate the positives that their focus groups tell them that the American electorate wants to hear â€“ especially the floating voters who are the key to success. But the differences between them will not be solely differences of presentation and style (however important these matters are) but genuine differences of policy and belief. Obama has the problem that McCain is not Bush and so he cannot be attacked as in any way (other than over Iraq perhaps) an inheritor of the discredited Bush mantle. McCain is arguably only loosely a Republican anyway. It will be a fascinating contest between two inherently decent men â€“ men who really do actually believe in something!
Meanwhile here in Britain we have the unedifying spectacle of a battle in the centre ground between two parties who seem only to believe in things because they are popular not because such beliefs come from their political root systems. The battle has become more a battle of two brands which stand for whatever the spinners and the marketers tell them the consumer will buy. Curiously the current seemingly terminal difficulties of Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown offer an opportunity for this mould to be broken. Brown was fully part of the New Labour project and as Chancellor he tried hard not to upset the middle ground of floating voters that Labour needed (the abolition of the 10% income tax rate in order to fund a reduction of the standard rate of tax was a most visible example of this pragmatism). But Brown, unlike Blair, does have ideological roots and it may be that he will feel that he has nothing to lose by now returning to them. Over the next two years Brown might just reveal his socialist core values and, as he is in power, he has the opportunity to take actions consistent with them. It would be a gamble, but he may judge that those in the electorate who might be put off by such a repositioning are lost anyway and that his prospective coalition partners the Liberal Democrats would probably support a far more socially just and redistributive policy platform. Now that would be a real challenge for the new cuddly compassionate Conservatives wouldnâ€™t it?