A world that's to the right of Thatcherism

May 4, 2007

Kenneth Minogue's vision of a UK without political compromise would be disastrous, says Anthony Giddens

Kenneth Minogue's review of my new book, Over to You , Mr Brown , in last week's Times Higher was spectacularly ill-informed as well as self-contradictory. I am supposed to be an advocate of "triangulation", although I never use the term and have no time for the underlying concept.

Triangulation, as he sees it, is a notion that makes politics innocuous, since it holds that one can combine mutually antagonistic ideas and thereby draw their radical sting.

At the same time, however, I am said to be a socialist who conceives of the "modern state as a vast factory", and who has a "hatred of freedom". In other words, I am a dangerous enemy into whom Minogue wants to sink his claws.

This is risible stuff. I don't want to reply to it in kind. Rather, I shall try to dig out from his observations what kind of world he himself wants.

This world is way off at a tangent from what passes for conservatism today.

David Cameron comes in for just as much flak as Tony Blair. They both make the mistake, Minogue says, of wanting to win elections and listening to the voters in order to do so. In Minogue's peculiar prose, they "pirouette around the same tiny bit of turf". "Compassionate conservatism" seems to be even more noxious to him than new Labour, since "it is the ultimate in political bribery, offering the voters everything".

So let's delve into the Weird and Wonderful World of Minogue (WWWM). In this world, there is no middle ground of politics: political life should be red in tooth and claw, a battle between extremes. Politicians would not attempt to woo voters to their cause, because that would be pandering to what they actually want. Instead, presumably, they would get whatever is deemed good for them. What Minogue says is good for them is the following.

There should be a minimal state, since the state is fundamentally an instrument of servitude. Markets should be allowed to let rip, no matter what their social consequences. We should not worry about inequalities, since they are the inevitable outcome of markets, which naturally reward those who are industrious and talented. Nothing should be done to "help the less clever and the less energetic", who must stew in their own juice.

The WWWM is static and ahistorical. The issues that worry most of us - globalisation, intensifying economic competition, new social divisions - don't rate a mention. Politics remains a struggle between Left and Right.

In the mad monk-like universe of WWWM, the European Union is evil incarnate, alien to our Anglo-Saxon way of doing things. Our own voice cannot be heard above "the muffle of the Franco-German hegemony". The EU "merely obliterates our individual voice".

Let me make the case as to why the WWWM should remain a fantasy. In the first place, where politics becomes too polarised it is a threat to the body politic. It is much more dangerous than where politicians recognise the need for compromise and horse trading. Thatcherism was a more moderate version of the WWWM. Tony Blair has seen off four Tory leaders who clung to Thatcherite ways. To give the Tories hope electorally, Mr Cameron had to move much closer to new Labour ground. That is not just a weak-minded convergence to the middle, but a result of the fact that Labour has shifted the centre-ground of British politics to the Left.

Those who dogmatically deny that the state can bring any benefits to citizens are, in my view, just as blinkered as people who say the same about markets. I'm a fan of markets, as I say in the book, but not to a degree to satisfy Minogue. State intervention and regulation are not only needed for markets to run efficiently; they are the condition of blunting their damaging effects. These damaging effects include inequalities, where they become pronounced. Such harmful consequences can be themselves economic as well as social and moral. For instance, the fact that nearly 20 per cent of the workforce in Britain lack skills or qualifications lowers our competitiveness in the global economy.

If and when Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, I'm not sure what his attitude towards the EU will be. I hope it will be positive and that he will become a forceful European leader. Most of the problems that face us today can't be dealt with by nations acting alone. Should Brown pull back from the US, and at the same time maintain a sceptical attitude towards Europe, the UK would risk losing influence over both - we would be a country of 60 million people adrift in a world of 6 billion. Minogue's best-case scenario would be my worst-case one.

Anthony Giddens is a member of the House of Lords.

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