Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Do you remember "normal" politics?

I was planning to write this post for a number of weeks before I learned of the recent death of Baroness Thatcher.  This post should not then be viewed as a direct comment on her death, but it may be somewhat more timely following her death.

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Do you remember when politics was normal?


Here's what I remember normal politics to be like.


In most democratic nations, there were two major parties:  one was centre-left, the other was centre-right.  Both were essentially centrist. The politicians in each parties treated each other with a reasonable level of respect, both in private and in public.


The two parties alternated in government on a reasonably regular basis.


When the centre-left party was in government, governments acted to promote greater levels of social reform, economic equality, social inclusion, and "nation-building", sometimes boldly, sometimes gradually.


While centre-right parties were far less bold in promoting social reform while in government, neither did they try to "turn the clock back" in terms of social reform. Essentially, they sought to put the reforms of their centre-left colleagues on a more solid administrative and economic foundation (very occasionally euthanasing policies and programmes which were poorly thought-out), while providing a social breathing-space for public opinion to catch up with public policy.


In all this, whether the government was centre-left or centre-right, the public experienced good government from both sides of politics.  It was a bit like a dance, with one partner in the dance taking a leading role at any one time, but with the partners changing roles in a regular basis.

It worked.

From the late 1970s / early 1980s, a different model of politics emerged. 

Both centre-right and centre-left parties began drifting to the right. 
  • For centre-left parties, this was largely because of a desire within these parties for greater economic literacy in their own policy development.  
  • For centre-right parties, it was largely because of the increased influence within these parties of the "greed is good" / "selfishness is a virtue" philosophy of the author Ayn Rand.
Parties of the right saw their policy in turning back the clock on social change, returning to an era of less social and economic equality than our current era.  Cynically, and in an Orwellian abuse of the English language, these changes were labelled "reform".


Parties of the centre (formerly of the centre-left) saw their role in terms of damage control.  Rather than promoting greater and wider social equality, they saw themselves as merely easing the pain (at least to the most vulnerable) caused by the policies of the right-wing parties.


All parties began to see the other side of the political debate as "the enemy" rather than as "the competition".  Respect between the political sides diminished.  It became more like an all-in pub brawl than like a dance.


It sounds pretty dysfunctional.  In fact, it sounds like an absolute mess. 


It is a mess. 


And that mess is the political situation we've inherited, at least since the early 1980s.  The result can often be seen in mediocre government by parties of the centre (formerly centre left), and in some frightening cruel government by parties of the right (formerly centre-right).


There have been some signs in some countries of politicians - of a variety of perspectives - seeking to break out of this dysfunctional mess,
  • with the occasional centre-right politician trying to rediscover a more inclusive social vision, worthy of a Sir Winston Churchill, a Sir Robert Menzies, a Malcolm Fraser, or a Dwight Eisenhower,
  • and with the occasional centre-left politician rediscovering a bit of the old boldness that motivated a Franklin Roosevelt, a Clement Attlee, a Pierre Trudeau, or a Gough Whitlam.
But it will be a long haul.

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