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All our politicians are stuck in the past

By Philip Collins - The Times / 28 July 2017

Philip Collins’ views are the antithesis of those of Robert Tombs. Collins feels that ‘nobody in British politics is even looking in the direction of a viable future’ and that ‘the British political class is failing us because everyone wants to turn the clock back’. Like Matthew Parris, Collins seems to take a very pessimistic view about politicians, in general, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. 

Churchill, Thatcher and Blair won because they were visionary but in 2017 the left and right are ignoring the future.

The playwright David Hare once said that the only Labour leader who never wanted to turn the clock back for a single second was Tony Blair. Hare meant that, as a leader, Blair told the most potent political story there is.

He was the future. The poet and critic William Empson wrote that all narrative can be reduced to seven types of ambiguity. In politics that can be further reduced to two. During its term of office a government is forced to argue that the times call for more of the same. But by far the more exciting story is that it is time for a change, from a candidate with a call on the future.

Labour’s three winners, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, ran on essentially the same programme of modernisation. Attlee pledged the golden future of the welfare state to reward the sacrifices of the demobbed military and the heroes of the home front. Wilson enlisted the white heat of the technological revolution and vague speeches about the scientific future to his political cause. He made every appliance sound like a new science and it marked him as the coming man. Tony Blair was also the future once. Airy rhetoric about the information age and equipping Britain for a post-industrial, global order gave him the mantle of youth and Britain the aspect of a young country.

For all three of them, as the novelist Zadie Smith wrote, “the past is always tense, the future perfect”. The same story works for the Conservative Party which announces in its name its purpose to conserve in the present what has been sanctified by the past. The winning story, though, is always that it will secure the future. At a moment of peril Winston Churchill posed the question of whether Britain even had a future which, thanks in no small measure to his leadership, it did.

Margaret Thatcher articulated and embodied the idea that a new nation of enterprise could emerge from dire industrial relations. David Cameron pledged that, in the nation of his imagination, sunshine would win the day. At the tail end of more than a decade of Labour government, contrasting with the saturnine Gordon Brown, it sounded just about like the future arriving. As the curtain falls on the political term and the players repair to plot the demise of their masters, it is depressing to note that nobody in British politics is even looking in the direction of a viable future, let alone pointing the way. The British political class is failing us because everyone wants to turn the clock back. Just think about all the main characters on the political stage and imagine which year they would be most happy in. Few of them are even vintage 2017; none of them are ahead of their time.

Theresa May is forlornly accepting we have rarely had it so bad from her comfortable position in the gentle late 1950s. Jeremy Corbyn is caught between 1983’s attempt to recreate 1974 and Ken Loach’s sepia version of 1945. Vince Cable would like to go back either to 2010, so the sins of coalition can be expiated, or 1910, the last time radical liberals really counted. John McDonnell is a man of 1917 and not that much exercised by what comes after. Yvette Cooper and the Labour moderates wish they could find their way back to 1999.

Every person fighting the Remain cause on the European Union, Tony Blair included, wants to go back to June 23, 2016 so the people can do it again and do it right this time. On the other side of the aisle, Michael Gove is caught between 1640, because he thinks history went wrong when civil strife began ending in the decapitation of the King nine years later, and the 1689 Bill of Rights, because he regards English liberty as superior to foreign liberty.

Moving forward three centuries, Boris Johnson struggles to choose between 1940, when Britain stood triumphantly alone, and 1989, when the dastardly commies were trounced. Jacob Rees-Mogg is stuck somewhere between Fox and Pitt, whereas Liam Fox is simply in a pit, surrounded by chlorinated chicken, making speeches with as much relevance to today as Palmerston’s gunboat diplomacy in the Don Pacifico affair of 1850.

All the while, the serious problems of the present roll on unattended into the future. Traditional work faces the threat of automation but who is the politician who has interesting, never mind reassuring things to say about this? There is a party called Labour, but you would never know it, so little is it engaged in the future of work.

Advances to our knowledge of genetics and nanotechnology will alter the very idea of human agency. The implications here, as in so many places, of the accumulation of scientific expertise are profound. The British political class has nothing to say. The NHS will consume more and more of our wealth as society ages yet nobody dares to broker an honest conversation about rationing. The inter-generational unfairness, seen to most disheartening effect in the hoarding of housing assets by the babyboom generation, awaits serious thinking.

Life outside the EU will mean Britain has to train its workforce properly, a need we have ignored for half a century, but is there anything in the public debate beyond platitudes? It is not obvious how Britain will make its way in the world, nor its attitude to foreign policy as a nation newly liberated from the entanglement of the EU.

Does anyone in politics have the first idea? We don’t even know what kind of chicken we’ll be eating. The first rule of politics seems to be: Don’t mention the future. The author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, also wrote a novel called Invisible Monsters, in which he has a character ask: “When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” Living standards are stagnant with no prospect of a change. Britain feels marooned in the world, caught between the fantasies of the backwards-facing revolutionaries of the Gove and Johnson sort and the threat of the economic shift to the East. Technological change, which in every previous era has been the friend of prosperity, this time heralds the end of work for vast swathes of people, educated or not. The deepest criticism of British politics is not that nobody has a definitive answer to any of these intractable questions. It is that nobody is even asking. Labour thinks there is nothing bigger in the world than the loan repayments of bourgeois students. The Tories are busy with their indulgent civil war over Europe. There is a prize for the party that can make the future sound joyful rather than worrying.

The invisible monsters of the future are threatening but nobody in politics is discussing their presence. 

Times columnist