The Social Democratic Paradox.
There are few things more annoying and juvenile than people who parrot Monty Python sketches and lines: it is not clever, not funny and absolutely does not win an argument. However, taken as satire, Life of Brian is an outstanding achievement, and it is real satire at that – a genuine distorting mirror of already absurd human behaviours, rather than a lazy shorthand for ‘topical humour.’
One acute example is the satire on fragmented political groups (‘People’s Front of Judea’) and the intellectual left as a whole, and especially the conversation about “what have the Romans ever done for us?” which mirrors exactly the blinkered and self-defeating attitudes of political group-think.
This in turn manifests itself in the UK (and in the Scottish independence debate) as the tiresome question of “what did they Labour government ever do for us?” or “Labour are just like the Tories, aren’t they?” These assertions need to be challenged: all claims that he Blair and Brown governments were no different from Major, Hague and Howard are patently absurd.
Like any government subjected to a rational examination, these governments had their faults, and with the extreme example of trusting the Bush White House too much at the head of the list. Other examples may be a reluctance to see the needs of deprived people not in families, the increase in people in prison, and the lack of a progressive drugs policy, i.e., one that breaks from the long-since-lost “war on drugs.”
So why do so few people appreciate these successes and still ask, ‘what did Labour ever do for us?’ There may be two answers to this question.
The first relates to the UK electorate and its relationship to social democratic politics. It can be contended that Brits are not radicals, nor revolutionaries, but instead they want good services and reasonable taxation, delivered through careful incremental progress. This what the Blair-Brown governments delivered for 13 years, and incidentally what a Miliband government is likely to do (which will come as a relief after the demented radicalism of the Tories/LibDems coalition.)
To be successful and above all to get re-elected, this process requires a degree of stealth – in taxation and execution of policies. Recent research by British Social Attitudes shows that the public is less and less sympathetic to the plight of those in receipt of welfare benefits: http://www.bsa-29.natcen.ac.uk/read-the-report/welfare/introduction.aspx The same is likely to apply to the issue of general redistribution of wealth: and in short, it is unlikely to be popular to tell people you are going to take their money and give it away to people who they might not think deserve it. This is the social democratic paradox, which becomes more acute as society becomes more prosperous, and fewer individuals can identify with those less fortunate than themselves.
So it was and will remain in the direct political interest of the Labour governments to not talk about redistribution and using its products for the benefit of the poor.
Addendum: Denis Healey on this subject:
“..any substantial attempt to improve the lot of the poorest section of the population must now be at the expense of the average man and woman, since the very rich do not collectively earn enough to make much difference, and the average man does not nowadays want to punish those who earn a little more than he, since he hopes ultimately to join them.” (p402,
The Time of my Life, 1987)
The second answer relates to those who are asking the question. Much of the material for this and related blog pieces to come has been the result of tracking pro- and (mainly) anti-Labour comments in the middle-class UK press, the writers of which are by definition unlikely to be the beneficiaries of the policies in question.
In fact, they are likely to be comfortable British citizens, rather than Kosovans protected from Serbia, or Sierra Leoneans grateful to still have their lives and limbs, or Iraqi Kurds no longer facing genocide; likewise they are probably not low-paid British workers in now more secure in their jobs, or poor pensioners, parents and children relieved of the misery of poverty, or patients who would otherwise be in decrepit hospitals. But these kinds of achievements make a genuine difference to people’s lives.
And if Labour’s middle class critics ask: ‘what have you ever done for us?’ the first answer might be: ‘not a lot for you, actually – the poor are Labour’s priority;’ but the second could also be ‘we did our best to make our country and the world a better place.’
[Next: Labour, the Banks & The Banking Crisis.]