Politics

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Last night Frontline club’s debate was rather an unusual one in a sense that all the panelists more or less agreed with each other, and even during the Q&A session there was no eruption of dissent or any outlandish views on situation regarding Iran from the audience or the panelists. The title of the discussion was: Iran, a new chapter? In  the end we were left with the same question, the consensus was that a very restraint optimism might be the right reaction to the latest developments on Iran nuclear negotiations. The situation in Iran in comparison to Ahmadinejad era certainly does not look worse but from what we heard from the panel it is not necessary all that better in any way either, be it  human rights issues or economical struggles of  the average citizen. The restraint optimism can only be exercised in regard to the nuclear negotiation and as a result toward economic situation of Iran. As far as the human right situation, political prisoners and public hanging are still very much in existence.

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In April, the New Statesman magazine celebrated its centenary, marking one hundred years of publication. To celebrate, the magazine launched a series of debates, the second was attended by myself and focused on the question Did the left win the 20th century? A broad-ranging topic such as this was definitely worth intense analysis and discussion and to aid this, the New Statesman invited a few noteworthy commentators…

Representing the argument for the left’s victory in the 20th century were: Helen Lewis – deputy-editor of the New statesman, Mehdi Hasan – New Statesman writer and Huffington Post political director and, surprisingly, Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer. Arguing against the left’s victory were: Ruth Porter – Communications Director at the free market Institute of Economic Affairs, Independent journalist and turncoat lefty, Owen Jones and last, but not least, Conservative party activist, columnist for The Times and Michael Gove apologist, Tim Montgomerie.

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 Helen Lewis opened proceedings with her trademark feminist stance, listing the left’s accomplishments in the emancipation of women. Indeed Lewis rightly lists the 1918 Representation of the People Act as a major left victory, giving women the vote as well as extending that right to all men of 21 or older, when previously just 60% of that demographic possessed it. The fact that this bill, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, were passed by a liberal prime minister and the machinations of a Labour MP respectively, emphasise the left’s influence in acquiring rights and a level of equality for the marginalised sections of society. Tim Montgomerie countered this, promoting the idea that the freedoms enjoyed by today’s society, such increased life expectancy, freedom from disease, increase in rights for minorities and immense leisure opportunities, are the achievement of the right, who brought us to this point in history. The spread of communism in the early to mid-20th century, he argues, was a false dawn, at first gaining victories such as launching the first man into space (USSR) as well as communist movements in the East such as China and also parties in the west steadily gaining momentum. However, Montgomerie states that one of the “strongest forces for good in the world” was the ability to create wealth and thus provide for kin, as well as having the rewards for achieving those things. Communism, the strongest representation of the left at the time, eliminated the rewards and thus the impetus for achieving wealth and the economies of the countries which followed the communist ideology eventually fell into ruin. China can be seen as an exception, but its current pseudo-capitalist incarnation is a testament to fact that Communism – what was once the bastion of the left – simply doesn’t work in its purest form. Indeed Montgomerie states, “The 20th century proved that collective ownership failed”. He attributes the prosperous position of the world today to the fact that nearly all economies have converted to some form of capitalism.

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Some leftists would argue he is right; the failing economies of the Eurozone and the USA can be attributed directly to capitalist greed and a wealth-above-consequence attitude. However one could also argue that as ramshackle as they are, these capitalist economies are still standing (some barely, admittedly) whereas Russia’s communist regime has ceased to exist. The 20th century began with the Russian Revolution, Montgomerie stated, and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Simon Heffer was up next and quickly addressed the Berlin Wall statement, admitting that the institution spawned created the Wall was an “inhumane beastly system which denied people personal freedom.” The fall of the Wall was, to an extent, a lost argument for the left, however it was also, he noted, nothing like the sort of socialism seen in Britain. This was a democratic socialism where the system was not imposed on the people. Heffer argued that simply because the militaristic, hard-line, undemocratic version of socialism seen in the Soviet Union, lost the argument in their particular sphere, it does not signify the failure of Socialism or left-wing politics as a whole, just as much as the actions of Adolf Hitler do not discredit right-wing politics in its entirety. Heffer played the voice of reason, calling for a sense of pluralism, which was blown out of the water by Ruth Porter, the next debater.

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Porter echoed a point which Michael Montgomerie raised earlier, the left’s alleged attempt to replace the concept of family with the welfare state. Supposing that this was actually the left’s intention, a glaring weakness in this course of action, according to Porter, is that although the state can feed and clothe its citizens, it cannot nurture them, instilling the values which lead people to become upstanding, productive members of society. This is seen most evidently she states, in the economic collapse of the USSR and the widespread poverty and international isolation of North Korea. Porter’s use of the two most extreme examples of the left to make her point drew derision from her fellow debaters and laughter from the audience. Indeed as Mehdi Hasan stated, “we’ll (the left) take responsibility for Stalin and Kim Jong-Il if you (the right) take responsibility for Hitler. Porter did however, make some interesting observations about the shift to right-wing policy, in times of economic hardship. Sweden, an egalitarian shining example of the left, turned to the private sector to invigorate economic growth, in India, the poverty rate is estimated to be slashed to a quarter of the population by 2015, due to advances in the private sector. Owen Jones supported this notion further, noting the South African ANC’s abandonment of the social policies of old in favour of a economically driven strategy.

Mehdi Hasan followed with a rather rousing speech, highlighting the lefts victories over the right, in the last century, and the implications they have today. The Left implemented policies which the right, throughout history has tried to uproot, or utterly destroy and according to Hasan has failed in both. He lists the NHS, quite rightly, as one of the greatest creations of 20th century Britain. Today, the Conservative party through reforms which would allow “compulsory competitive markets” where private companies could, in theory, cherry-pick the most unproblematic, most profitable, procedures,

leaving the NHS to fund the more complicated, expensive surgery. The Tories are in short, trying to privatise the NHS by stealth – the key word according to Hasan – as the public rely on this leftist institution. If such intentions to privatise it were explicitly stated, there would be nationwide public fury. Continuing in the vein of veiled Tory intentions, Hasan also noted David Cameron’s statement that anyone in his party who suggested they cut front line services, would be sent back to the drawing board to think again. This was exposed as a barefaced lie through the proposed cuts to front-line police and an 80% reduction in the university teaching budget. The initial statement was made just before the general election, and highlights the fact that the conservatives knew the public would not favour cuts to their social support system. This emphasises Hasan’s point that the right, in Britain today, cannot outwardly go against social policies set up by the left, without fear of losing a majority of public support, as evidenced by George Osborne and David Cameron’s current levels (or lack thereof) of popularity.

Owen Jones followed next, slightly dumbfounded that he had found himself on the opposite side of the debate to his ‘misguided’ good friend Mehdi Hasan. As an admitted socialist who somehow found himself on the ‘right’ side of the debate, he felt the need to profess that he wasn’t “suffering from some perverse Stockholm syndrome.” But as a socialist he felt compelled to consign the right to the scrapheap of history “where they belong”, but to do so would mean swapping places, as for the left to be rebuilt in this century, it would be “from rubble and ruin.” He recognises the enduring achievements of the left in the 20th century listed previously, such as emancipation for women and other minorities and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But these are, in his eyes “past capital,” achievements from a time when the left existed as a coherent force with a mass base. The birth of ‘New Labour’ and its long-term effect on the Labour party is a testament to the fact that a genuine form of the left is no longer a mass force in British politics. He argues that Thatcher’s destruction of the social democratic consensus and trade unions through mass unemployment and anti-union policy, basically destroyed any significant opposition, Mehdi Hasan countered this, stating that although Thatcher destroyed the consensus of the time, she did not succeed in destroying the institutions created by the left, indeed she proclaimed that the NHS was safe in Tory hands, highlighting the fact that, much like Cameron today, the right in the 1980’s could not openly attack the left’s flagship institutions.

 Further on in his argument, Jones touched on the fact that although the vast majority of the western left abhorred Stalin’s totalitarianism, the Soviet Union’s collapse was spun by the right as proof that there was no viable alternative to free market capitalism. And capitalism is perhaps the biggest testament to the right’s influence in the 20th century; this ideology has long been a staple of modern western society, with its influence on our everyday lives almost wholly pervasive. The fact that this ideology has been adopted by the majority of states and that an alternative is not seriously considered as a viable option for either the left or the right of western politics, reinforces capitalism’s place as the all-governing framework by which we live and also as a glaring testament of the right’s influence on 20th century society and beyond. An audience member brought up an interesting point when he mentioned that the left’s ongoing battle in the 20th century was against capitalism, that battle is no longer fought. Capitalism has been accepted and embraced, by practically every major state in the world. Indeed, Owen Jones stated that it is “Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

In this writer’s opinion, the left clearly had more numerous social victories in the 20th century than their right-inclined counterparts. However, the left’s victories occurred within societal framework cultivated by right-wing politics. As Simon Heffer stated, in Britain we now have a society where in theory, anyone from any background, race or economic position has the opportunity to achieve ‘success’, however there comes a sense of triviality with this statement when you consider that the upper echelons of the political spectrum (basically the groups of people running this country) are dominated by upper-class old Etonians and the like. The left achieved many significant victories in the 20th century and have improved the living standards of society as a whole in a far more significant and conclusive manner than the right. The left’s victories in the 20th century led to a more liberated society, which the current generation has reaped the rewards of. However, the right still seems to be the ruling political class, whose economic structure provides the boundaries with which the left and indeed all must work within. Sort of like a real-life game of Pacman, who through eating dots, fruit and ghosts, thrives within the maze, but is nevertheless trapped within its confines, and yes, I did just use that analogy.

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The witch might be dead, but the time for celebration and street parties was when she left Downing Street in 1990, not now. What is there to celebrate? Twenty-three years on, we’ve once again found ourselves with a government run by people with no compassion or understanding for those dependent on support from the state. Margaret Thatcher was not a dictator, she was democratically elected. So why do we not dance on the grave of every pensioner who voted Conservative from 1979-1987?

The truth is, nothing has changed. The Conservatives may not have won by a majority in 2010 but a significant number of people still believe in their values. We cannot have social justice in Britain until the nation decides to vote against their own self-interest; those in need are also in the minority and it takes compassion and a sense of society to give them adequate support. The real action to be taken after Margaret Thatcher’s death is to refuse to let her mindset take control again.

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Last week two cases were brought before the Supreme Court of the United States relating to the legality of same-sex marriage. It has come to be seen as another potential landmark ruling in the Court’s history, similar to Roe vs. Wade on abortion and Brown vs. Board on segregation. As people begin to discuss the gravity of the hearing, both the Christian far-right and the pro-civil rights groups have been present and visible in front of the courthouse.

The issue of gay marriage in the 21st Century is largely used as a distraction from pressing issues; it should be legal and we should focus our efforts on helping society in other obvious ways. In many ways however, gay marriage is an issue like other civil rights causes, with the LGBT community simply asking for equal standing before the law.

How then, would so many people appear to oppose it? The answer, in part, may lie with a small group of political ideologues that have been present in Washington for decades – the Neoconservatives. Based on the ideology of creating a true moral compass for American society, the Neoconservatives despised the moral relativism that comes with liberalism. Before 1980 Pastors and other church officials in America discouraged political engagement. In 1981, the Reagan campaign mobilised the Christian population to swing the vote overwhelmingly in Republican favour, thanks to the ideas of the Neoconservatives. What began as re-establishing a true moral compass turned ugly for the party a decade later at the Republican National Convention where speakers were booed off the stage for espousing true conservative values, such as a woman’s freedom to choose what happens to her own body.

Thus the Christianisation of freedom issues within sections of American society was the work of a small band of political theorists and policy makers. After all one of America’s founding principles was the freedom of religion, not the dictate of a sect of Christian moralists. Arguments relating to the Biblical sense of marriage, with the irksome phrase “marriage is between a man and a woman” bantered around, are often deeply flawed in themselves. Biblical marriage would also allow a man to marry several women, his rape victim, a female prisoner of war and a woman’s property, i.e her slaves. Thus, if considered properly, common law forbids many forms of Biblical marriage.  It is simply an attempt to rebuff notions of equality, and a sloppy one at that.

Part of the reason for same-sex marriage becoming an issue is the culture of the 21st Century. The exchange of private information, which many people willingly participate in, has reduced the classic sphere of private liberty. People seem too concerned with the actions of others, and too little concerned with political engagement and their own actions in society. How would two men getting married even affect most people’s lives? It wouldn’t. Chances are if you hate the idea of it you won’t be attending a same sex wedding anyway. Thus it is probably down to the fact that people, millions of people, are willing to involve themselves in the personal lives of others, and then claim a breach of privacy when people examine theirs.

It is perhaps time to move beyond these arguments. Freedoms should be granted quickly so progress can be made in dealing with the massive issues of our day. Before we achieve equality in society as whole, there will be only sluggish attempts at fixing a very sick world.

By: Sam Wood

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