Monday, November 30, 2009

The Left is winning again

In all the hand-wringing that goes on in left circles about "What's happened to the left?" I like to intrude with a simple hypothesis that the problem for the left was that it won.

It didn't win in the sense that there was a mass global outbreak of communism, or even fairly hard edged social democracy. But ultimately in the period from 1900 to 1970 there was a global settlement that was fundamentally Left. In Australia that was reflected in the so-caled Australian settlement introduced by Alfred Deakin and managed through to a Menzies Government that was highly interventionist and enacted massive social programs in extending pensions, higher education, state aid for schools and health care.

In his Crikey entry today Mungo McCallum has suggested that the problem for Malcolm Turnbull is there is no "right" party for him. Mungo makes the valid point that there never really has been a philosophical basis for the Liberal Party, writing;

Some breathless commentators have described it as a “battle for the soul of the Liberal Party”, which is frankly hogwash. The Liberal Party is a purely pragmatic body formed with just one purpose in mind: to oppose the Labor Party.

Until 1909 the conservative forces in Australia were split into two warring groups: the Free Traders and the Protectionists. But with a vigorous Labor Party on the rise, the sworn enemies united in a pact against the common threat. The recriminations were so severe, even violent, that they killed the speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, who fell from his chair with a cry of “Dreadful! Dreadful!” This was the inauspicious start of the Liberal Party Mark I, whose centenary was celebrated a few weeks ago.

Gerard Henderson is fond of pointing out that the Liberal Party of Robert Menzies was not some great small "l" liberal party of popular imagination, and did some pretty draconian things, like trying to ban the Communist Party, committing to two overseas wars and introducing conscription. In reality Menzies continued the great tradition of governing to keep Labor out, and his success was in reforming conservative politics to be more appealling to the mainstream - not more "liberal".

It was in the 1970s that the new conservative movement started to flourish. While the original thinkers like Ayn Rand and Fred Hayek that these conservatives draw upon had bee around a while, the start of a genuine philosophical movement that not only opposed the centralising tendencies of the left but also sought to promote the idea of "individual freedom" really only gained ground in the 1970s. There is extensive writing on this topic in the US, some of which I'm reading. But it is possible to conclude that the economic shock of the oil crises - shocks that were undoubtably made worse by the rigidities of the social democratic welfare state - created the framework for these ideas to gain purchase.

And so it was that through the 1980s and the 1990s the dominant global ideology became that of the free-market, smaller government and less state intervention. Even the parties of the left pursued this course. For the first time in three quarters of a century the left wasn't the only philosophical game in town. But the new right never really gained the kind of ascendency it imagined.

The question now is whether the conservative forces i the Liberal Party really do believe in the philosophical position or are merely (as Mungo thinks) habitually opposing what Labor offers. In the case of Nick Minchin I think it is definitely the former. His approach to all policy areas seems to be that the self-interest of players is the best outcome - no matter how "unfair" that contest may be.

Also in Crikey the more extreme Guy Rundle suggests that Malcolm Turnbull's choice of he loses the leadership might be to try to bring on a split - to take back the Liberal Party for the less ideological and more pragmatic approach of Deakin and Menzies and almost everyone else!

Splitting isn't really something the conservative side does, usually they reform after injections of talent from the other side. After the three great Labor splits (Hughes, Lyons and the DLP) the Liberals had their own one person split when the retired Don Chipp got together with some disaffected South Australians (Steel Hall) and the quixotic Australia Party to form the Australian Democrats. It hardly amounted to a split.

It would be fun to see what would happen in 2010 if Malcolm tried this on. I suspect young Mr Ridd would fair far worse against a Turnbull Liberal (or Australian Republican) Party and a Minchin Liberal (or Conservative) Party.

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