Thursday, August 14, 2008

The power of the ism

Remember the old BT ad, Maureen Lippmann playing the grandmother congratulating her grandchild on her results "well you've got and ology, you must be a scientist", something along those lines anyway (now fitting for results day). The political equivalent of the ology seems to be the ism, we have had Communism, Thatcherism, you name there is an ism, it simply means a distinctive doctrine, a theoretical and ontological perspective from which all decisions flow. Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, Richard Reeves, "Cameronism is certainly not an ideology, nor even - yet - a coherent political philosophy". The criticism Reeves offers, and the article for who quotes him, is that the lack of a philosophy leads to greater similarity between the parties and a focus on image management (or at least dodging bad publicity).

But perhaps there is a point that is missed by the critics. While it is probably true that there is no ideology shining like a beacon from the windows of Conservative HQ, there are a set of values that we associate with Conservatism, they may be blurred with those of Blairite Labourism, or Blairism, but this has been part of a long process, a drift away from big ideas. Ideological isms have been replaced, politics is now about pragmatism and managerialism. The big idea, according to Oliver Letwin, one claimed to be an intellectual conceptualisation of Project Cameron, is 'Rolling forward the frontiers of society' but is this a doctrine or a soundbite? If one looks at public policy over the last ten years it is difficult to see a coherent ideological thread running through them. Rather one sees specific responses to problems, or specific innovations, each of which fit to their context. Similarly the campaigning centres more on who is best to run the country, to take the tough decisions and make the right choices, who perhaps can fit best as representative of the majority, than who has the grand ideas. What happened to the grand ideas such as The Third Way, books have been written on it but few demonstrate clearly how it became a guide over policy. In fact most highlight the essential truth of Reeves' not particularly original statement, that the Third Way is a path in between the old doctrines of right and left: ergo we are all in the Third Way now.

So essentially Reeves and is right, but also both seem to miss the point. It is not the case that Cameron lacks an ism but that electoral politics lacks its isms. Is there an Obamaism, a Mccainism, as Sarkozyism, not really. Their campaigns may have slightly different values but the key question they ask is who is best to run the country, on that basis perhaps the one ism they all share is popularist managerialism - 'elect me, you will like the result' seems to be the modern slogan, just above 'elect me, I'm better than him' - some may think that isms should be central to politics but one wonders if the masses care that much.

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