What is the coalition’s ‘great political ideal’?

In a confidential memo addressed to the Prime Minister, an adviser has argued that supporters of the government are ‘increasingly apathetic and disunited’ due to its failure to appeal to the ‘popular imagination’. Beyond tackling the consequences of the economic crisis, most people he argues do not have a clear idea of what the government stands for, what its principles are. It must, he asserts, ‘stand not only for good administration but for an ideal … the ideal of national unity’. The coalition must proclaim ‘the great political ideal of National Unity’.

Before I go on, I should admit that I am quoting from a memo written in 1934 by the soon-to-be Conservative MP Duncan Sandys and intended for the eyes of National Government Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald. A copy is to be found in the National Archives.

The National Government was Britain’s last peacetime coalition before David Cameron and Nick Clegg came to terms in May 2010. Composed of all Conservative MPs and elements of the Liberal and Labour parties it was created in 1931 to address an acute economic crisis and remained in office, keeping government spending down while – some would argue as a consequence – unemployment and social division rose.

The longer the National Government went on the greater was the pressure for the return to a single party government or for the governing parties to merge. Many Conservatives favoured the former – as with the current coalition they formed the major part of the government’s voting force in the Commons. Sandys was a Conservative, but a young and self-consciously ‘progressive’ one. He consequently claimed that in 1934 ‘the distinctions between the old political parties are becoming blurred … the modern age has proved that it is possible not only to reconcile, but actually to unite and harness in the service of the state, the best and strongest elements in different political creeds’.

The problem, Sandys argued, was that National Government policies were widely regarded as the result of horse trading between its constituent elements. ‘This’, he wrote, ‘is estranging the all-important floating vote, which, because it is non-party and essentially “national”, resents what it imagines to be concessions to this or that party prejudice’. In other words, the government needed to transcend its individual parts to become a principled whole. Its leaders also had to tackle the impression that it was merely a  Conservative government under another name: this meant building up its non-Conservative elements.

Sandys was aware that the bitterest opponents to this approach were members of his own party: the ‘Tory right-wing’ he conceded advocated a return to ‘the old party politics’. He feared that the extreme section of this group would never be reconciled to the ‘national ideal’ but that  many might be converted if they were persuaded that the protection of the Empire was at its heart. This would then reconcile them to what Sandys believed were the government’s ‘progressive’ social and economic policies.

In the end, the Sandys memo appears to have been ignored. The National Government remained a Conservative-led coalition but one in which its other elements slowly lost any significant influence, especially after Stanley Bladwin replaced MacDonald as Prime Minister. Baldwin quite liked the situation as it allowed him to isolate his right-wing Tory Die-Hards, the most prominent of whom was Winston Churchill (who in 1935 became Sandys’ father-in-law).

Of course, the situation faced by the current coalition might echo the experience of the National Government but there are some significant differences. Thus, while the Conservative right is critical of Cameron’s decision to join with the Liberal Democrats, securing the Empire does not quite have the purchase it might once have had. The Sandys memo nonetheless does point to an abiding tension inherent to any coalition government: the nature of the relationship between the parties that form it. Initially both Cameron and Clegg wanted to emphasise the points of principle that united their parties and in the coalition’s earliest days some even talked of merger. Since those halcyon summer days of 2010 little has been said of that – in public at least. Indeed for much of 2011 the party leaders have been more inclined to underline areas of disagreement. But who knows, right now a modern day Duncan Sandys might be tapping out a memo on his iPad ….

Steven Fielding

Parliamentary nerds! Here be more facts for you!

Last night saw 81 Conservative MPs rebel against the Government, making it not only the largest ever Tory rebellion on Europe in Government, but very nearly twice as large as the previous biggest Tory rebellion suffered by David Cameron in Government.

The 81 Conservatives were joined in the aye lobby by 19 Labour rebels, eight DUP members, one independent unionist, one Green, one Liberal Democrat (Adrian Sanders), along with two Conservative MPs – Iain Stewart and Mike Weatherley – who cast deliberate abstentions by voting in both lobbies.

Previous rebelliousness on Europe proved an astonishingly good predictor of last night’s voting patterns, as the table below shows. Of the 78 Conservative MPs to have cast dissenting votes on Europe so far this Parliament, 62 (80%) voted against the Government last night. The rebels found safety in numbers. Moreover, as the table shows, there was a clear relationship between previous propensity to rebel and behavior on Monday. Of the 39 who had rebelled on at least two occasions before over Europe, all but one did so again last night.

(Similarly, of the 60 Conservative MPs who signed the rebel motion last week, 56 went on to dissent last night. Only two Conservative backbenchers – David Mowat and Ian Liddell-Grainger – who signed the motion voted with the Government, while one – Mike Weatherley – cast a deliberate abstention by voting in both lobbies).

What is most striking however, about last night’s rebellion is that of the 81 Tory rebels, 49 were drawn from the 2010 intake. In other words, very nearly six in ten of the rebels (59%) were new MPs. New MPs are usually disproportionately loyal. Not this lot, as we’ve noted before. One frustration – though only one – is that the whips cannot offer them jobs in Government because there simply are not enough to go around given the need to satisfy the Liberal Democrats.

Of the 81 rebels, 64 already had form from this Parliament, having defied the whips at least once. But that still leaves 17 new rebels. With the exception of the two PPSs who resigned – Adam Holloway and Stewart Jackson – together with the Monmouth MP David TC Davies (all three of whom are drawn from the 2005 intake), the remainder of the new rebels were first elected in 2010: Stuart Andrew; Dan Byles; Lorraine Fullbrook; George Hollingbery; Marcus Jones; Andrea Leadsom; Karen Lumley; Anne Marie Morris; James Morris; Stephen McPartland; Neil Parish; Priti Patel; Julian Sturdy; and Heather Wheeler

Taken together, the addition of these 17 new rebels bring the total number of Conservative MPs to have defied the whip so far this Parliament to 116.

There have now been 121 Conservative rebellions so far this Parliament, representing 32.5% of divisions – in other words, almost one third of all divisions have seen some Conservative dissent. Relationship between previous behavior on Europe and referendum vote

Name Previous rebellions on Europe, 2010-2011 Vote on Referendum, 24 October
Hollobone, Philip 22 For
Bone, Peter 21 For
Nuttall, David 19 For
Cash, William 17 For
Carswell, Douglas 16 For
Turner, Andrew 16 For
Chope, Christopher 15 For
Davies, Philip 15 For
Main, Anne 15 For
Clappison, James 14 For
Reckless, Mark 14 For
Jenkin, Bernard 12 For
Shepherd, Richard 11 For
Lewis, Dr Julian 10 For
Baker, Steve 9 For
Percy, Andrew 9 For
Redwood, John 9 For
Davis, David 8 For
Goldsmith, Zac 8 For
Henderson, Gordon 8 For
Drax, Richard 7 For
Binley, Brian 6 For
McCartney, Jason 6 For
Tapsell, Sir Peter 6 For
Walker, Charles 6 For
Baron, John 5 For
Bridgen, Andrew 5 For
Gray, James 5 For
McCartney, Karl 4 For
Vickers, Martin 4 For
Stuart, Graham 4 Against
Leigh, Edward 3 For
Rees-Mogg, Jacob 3 For
Bingham, Andrew 2 For
de Bois, Nick 2 For
Kelly, Chris 2 For
Stewart, Bob 2 For
Blackman, Bob 2 For
Reevel, Simon 2 For
Brady, Graham 1 For
Dineage, Caroline 1 For
Field, Mark 1 For
Mercer, Patrick 1 For
Mills, Nigel 1 For
Mosley, Nigel 1 For
Offord, Matthew 1 For
Pritchard, Mark 1 For
Smith, Henry 1 For
Tomlinson, Justin 1 For
Whittingdale, John 1 For
Wollaston, Dr Sarah 1 For
Bebb, Guto 1 Against
Bottomley, Sir Peter 1 Against
Cox, Geoffrey 1 Against
Eustice, George 1 Abstained
Freer, Mike 1 Against
Halfon, Robert 1 Against
Heaton-Harris, Chris 1 For
Latham, Pauline 1 Against
Lilley, Peter 1 Against
Raab, Dominic 1 Abstained
Stanley, Sir John 1 Against
Stephenson, Andrew 1 Against
Crouch, Tracey 0 For
Davies, David T C 0 For
Dorries, Nadine 0 For
Liddell-Grainger, Ian 0 Against
Morris, Anne Marie 0 For
Mowat, David 0 Against
Murray, Sheryll 0 For
Nokes, Caroline 0 For
Patel, Priti 0 For
Robertson, Laurence 0 For
Rosindell, Andrew 0 For
Spencer, Mark 0 Abstained
Weatherley, Mike 0 Double vote
Wheeler, Heather 0 For
Whittaker, Craig 0 For

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The Conservative Euro revolt: 10 points to note

Oh happy days. Just when we think we’re getting a bit tired of doing this rebellions lark, along comes something like Monday’s Euro rebellion.  We knew it would be big, but we were surprised it was quite that big.  Today’s Sun has a Rebelometer, which points to: Utter Disaster.  That’s going a bit far, but not much.

So here’s ten points to bear in mind about last night’s rebellion:

1.    This has not come from out of the blue.  As we’ve been saying for months now, this is the most rebellious parliament of the post-war era, with a rate of rebellion easily outstripping any other Parliament since 1945.  Cameron had already suffered multiple rebellions over Europe in particular before Monday.  This was just the latest, and  the largest.

2.    In a broader sense, this is also evidence of an argument we have been making for years (and which was made, before us, by Philip Norton).  Contrary to the golden ageism of received wisdom – and more than one columnist who should know better – MPs have been getting more rebellious and independent-minded in recent years, not less.  This is the latest record-breaking rebellion, but it’s the latest in a long line.

3.    It was, as everyone has said (and we wonder just how they know it so confidently?), the largest Conservative European rebellion since the war, double the size of the largest Maastricht revolt.  But because it outstrips the Labour Euro rebellion that occurred in January 1978, it is also the largest European rebellion by members of any party since the war.  Indeed, as someone pointed out last night, there weren’t an awful lot of Euro rebellions before the war, so we could just as easily say: this was the largest rebellion by members of any political party over Europe since dinosaurs ruled the earth.

4.    It is not the largest Conservative or Labour rebellion on any issue since 1945 – both sides have seen larger rebellions in recent years.  But it comes pretty close.  Indeed, aside from the gun control rebellions faced by John Major in early 1997, the largest of which saw 95 Conservative MPs vote against their whips, we make this the largest rebellion to hit a Conservative Prime Minister since 1945.  From 1951 until 1974 the largest Conservative rebellion numbered 69; Margaret Thatcher then saw 72 Conservative MPs vote down the Shops Bill in 1986.  This outstrips the lot of them.

5.    It took Tony Blair six years to face a revolt this big.  Indeed, he survived his whole first term as Prime Minister without facing a rebellion of 80+ MPs – and he had far more MPs to worry about.

6.    Yes, Labour are split on this too.  But not as badly, and anyway no one cares about divisions in Opposition Parties.  During the 1992 Parliament it was Labour MPs, not Conservatives, who had been the most rebellious; even over Europe – the issue that so damaged the Major Government – it was Labour MPs who were the most divided.  No one noticed (except us).

7.    Aside from the scale of the rebellion, two things that should concern the whips.  First, one of our rules of rebellions is that they almost always end up being smaller than the figures that were initially bandied around: deals are done, favours called in, appeals to party loyalty are made. Would-be dissidents are usually bought off by a series of concessions and compromises, by their desire not to harm their own government, and (in some cases) by the lure of self-advancement.  This probably happened here, but by nowhere near enough.  In part, this will be because of the issue – it’s a difficult one to negotiate over – but also because once rebellions hit a certain size there is safety in numbers, as happened over Trident in 2007.  But it’s also because there was no mood for compromise on the part of the rebels.  There is a Masada-like tendency developing on the Conservative benches that should worry the government’s business managers.

8.    Our second rule is that just like domestic arguments between husband and wife, disputes between front and backbenches are almost never just about the issue being argued over.  This rebellion was about Europe, but it wasn’t just about Europe.  It was also evidence of the broader frustrations on the Conservative backbenches.  That came across strongly in many of the speeches, evidence of a lack of trust, of respect.

9.    We have some sympathy with those who argue that the government should have made this a free or semi-free vote, and allowed MPs to let off steam, rather than whip it.   But that was hardly a pain-free option.  How big would the pro-referendum vote have been in that case?  100? 150? 200?  Does anyone really think that having rallied, say, 150 MPs to his cause, David Nuttall would have decided that he’d had his fun and then kept schtum about the issue for the next few years?  If the whip had been relaxed, then all of today’s headlines would be about how almost the entire backbench had told Cameron where to go, and all those writing pieces about how the Prime Minister had mishandled the affair would merely be writing different pieces on how he had mishandled the affair.

10.    We’ll be publishing a more nerdy analysis of the voting later today.  But here’s one finding for now.  Of the 81 Conservative rebels, a massive 49 were new MPs, elected in 2010.  Another of the normal rules of rebellions is that newly elected MPs can more easily be kept onside.  Not this lot.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

How to measure today’s rebellion

The first benchmark for today’s vote is 41 Conservative MPs.  That is (as we have explained before) both the largest Conservative rebellion by government MPs against Europe ever AND the largest Conservative rebellion so far during this Parliament.  Should at least 42 Conservative MPs rebel, then this will be the largest Conservative euro revolt ever.  Forty-two is also the answer to life, the universe and everything, although we don’t expect the whips will see it like that.

The next benchmark is the largest Labour euro rebellion.  That occurred in January 1978, when 80 Labour MPs voted against a programme motion for the European Assembly Elections Bill.  (There have been bigger splits amongst the PLP over Europe during the post-war era, such as the split over the issue of continued membership in 1975, but these were on explicitly free votes).  So anything involving 81 Conservative MPs or more, and today’s vote can be seen as the biggest rebellion against the whip on a European issue by members of any British political party.

The largest Conservative rebellion of all in the post-war era occurred in 1996, when 95 government MPs voted against their whip over the post-Dunblane gun control legislation.  So if there are 96 or more Conservative rebels today, this will be the biggest Conservative revolt of the post-war era.

The largest Labour rebellion in the post-war era occurred in March 2003, over the Iraq war.  Then, 139 government MP voted against their whip.  But all the evidence is that this was not just the largest post-war rebellion, but the largest of any party, on any issue, since the vote over the Corn Laws in the 1840s.  So if we get up to that level (and we don’t for a minute think we will) then this is the largest backbench rebellion since the formation of modern political parties in the UK.

Note that these figures exclude abstentions – which are impossible to measure systematically.   There’s a good book dealing with all of this, you know.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The European magic number: 41

As the size of Monday’s Conservative rebellion over a referendum on EU membership appears to grow – Newsnight on Friday were talking about 100 Conservative MPs defying the whip – David Cameron might well be wishing that he had led the Conservative Party in the 1950s. There were two sessions during that decade in which not a single government MP rebelled.  Alternatively, he would no doubt happily swap places with Harold Macmillan, who faced just one Conservative rebel – in the shape of Anthony Fell – when in August 1961 the Commons debated Macmillan’s decision to open negotiations with Europe about possible EEC entry.

It was Edward Heath who faced the first bout of Tory discontent over Europe, following his decision to take Britain into the Common Market.  In one remarkable session, 1971-72, Heath experienced no fewer than 88 separate rebellions on the European Communities Bill. The only saving grace was that this came from a hard core of determined opponents.  The largest rebellion, in April 1972, saw 18 Conservative MPs support a move to hold an advisory referendum on EU entry.  We safely predict rather more than 18 Conservative rebels on Monday.

Margaret Thatcher got away relatively lightly over this issue.  In all three of her terms in office combined, over a total of 11 years, she faced fewer rebellions over Europe than Heath had in just four years (and fewer than Major was to face in his seven years).  The passage of the Single European Act, one of the largest shifts of sovereignty from the UK, provoked just 11 rebellions, the largest involving ten MPs.  Mrs Thatcher’s largest European rebellion of all came over the EC (Finance) Bill in June 1985, when 19 Conservative MPs voted against the whip.  Again, we safely predict more than 19 Conservative rebels on Monday.

It was John Major who faced the second, and most serious, bout of Tory discontent over Europe.  Hamstrung by a Commons majority of just 21 after 1992, he faced no fewer than 62 rebellions over just one Bill: the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, more commonly known as the Maastricht Bill.  These rebellions involved 50 MPs, who between them cast more than 1,100 dissenting votes. Although Heath had experienced more rebellions over Europe in the 1970s, the average Europe rebellion under his leadership had involved fewer than 10 MPs; during Maastricht and Major’s leadership it involved over 18 MPs.  There were a further 14 Conservative rebellions on other European issues during the 1992 Parliament.  John Major also holds the record (until Monday anyway) of suffering the largest Conservative Government backbench rebellion on Europe on whipped business: on 20 May 1993 some 41 Conservative MPs voted against the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill.

That same number, 41, is coincidentally also the largest Conservative rebellion so far in this Parliament.  On 10 October 2011, 41 Conservative MPs (plus two Lib Dems) supported an amendment to the programme motion for the Protection of Freedoms Bill which would have allowed time on a vote to remove all offences based on insulting words or behaviour.

More than a decade of studying rebellions has made us cautious about claims made about the size of any upcoming rebellions.  It is an almost inviolable law that the number eventually discovered to have voted against their whip will be smaller than the figures bandied about in the run-up to the vote.  But by Friday, if you combined the list of those Conservative MPs who had signed the referendum with those who have already defied their whips over Europe since May 2010, you got a figure of 78.  All the signs therefore are that Monday will produce the largest Commons rebellion of Cameron’s premiership – and the largest ever rebellion by Conservative MPs when in government over the issue of Europe.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Conservative divisions over Europe: we told you so

The parties’ contrasting policy shifts over ‘Europe’ during the last 30 years – Labour moving from opposition to support, the Conservative going in the other direction – is well understood.

What is less well appreciated is that the issue is no longer the prime example of party division that it once was. There is still a division within Labour, but the Parliamentary Party has become more united in a ‘pro-European’ direction than it used to be. In contrast, whilst there is still division within Conservative ranks – one which will be displayed during Monday’s vote on a referendum – the nature of that split has altered beyond recognition.

The old division – between Conservative ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘Eurosceptics’ – is now over. When Mark Stuart and I analyzed behaviour during the votes over the Lisbon ratification, we could identify fewer than half a dozen of the old pro-European Conservative MPs; even in the Lords this group, while impressive in terms of pedigree, was easily contained. The new battle lines for the Conservatives are between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sceptics.  But as we noted then, writing in 2010: ‘these divisions are relatively easy to mask in Opposition…but will be much harder to deal with in Government’.

And so it has proved.  Since May 2010, there have already been 22 Conservative rebellions over the issue of Europe.  They make up 19% of all the Conservative backbench rebellions, but – more worryingly for the whips – they account for some 39% of all the dissenting votes cast against the Conservative whip.  That’s because they have been on average double the size of the average Conservative rebellion.  Even before Monday’s vote the issue has already triggered several rebellions of 20+ and 30+ Conservative MPs, including one of 37.  Between them, these 22 revolts have involved 64 Conservative MPs, exactly half from the 2010 intake.

More on this to follow, as Monday’s vote approaches.

Philip Cowley

Children are the future of … politics

During the course of my research on the history of the party election poster, I have identified some interesting ways in which the parties used children.

By looking at a single object – in this case children – we can track the temporal shifts in the meaning of symbols. We can also come to some understanding about how posters reflect or inject meaning into the most mundane of objects – in the past I have looked at pipes.

As I show, images of children can play a number of roles but one of increasing importance is helping parties – or so they clearly think – appeal to women:  when a child is in view a mother is usually not far behind. In contrast men as fathers are almost completely absent in political iconograpy.

I have curated  an exhibition of political posters for the People’s History Museum, which will be opened by Matthew Parris on 11th November – more of which in due course.

Chris Burgess

Turkey: what kind of a ‘passive revolution’?

Following the June 2011 elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (pictured) stands as the most successful prime minister in Turkey’s history after winning, since 2002, a third successive victory as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP, having won 50 percent of the parliamentary vote and 326 seats in the 550-member legislature, is poised to engage in further fundamental social, political and economic change.

A lively debate is proceeding across academic and media circles in Turkey about the AKP’s success and its relationship with capitalism. One leading voice in this debate is Cihan Tuğal whose Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism utilises the concept of ‘passive revolution’ as developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to explain the dominance of secularist capitalism in Turkey.

As I make clear in my recent book, Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, a ‘passive revolution’ refers to conditions in which aspects of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of class rule. Historical examples could include the Italian Risorgimento (1861), the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), or modern Turkish state formation following the Ottoman Reforms and the institutionalisation of capitalism thereafter (1919-1923). Describing this concept in 60 seconds on YouTube, I stress that a passive revolution can actually involve processes of revolutionary upheaval that become displaced to result in the reconstitution of new forms of capitalist order.

I recently discussed the nature of Turkey’s passive revolution at the international conference on ‘Religion, Civil Society and Political Society in Gramsci’ held on the island of Büyükada in İstanbul and hosted by the Felsefe ve Sosyal Araştırmalar Topluluğu Derneği (fesatoder). My paper, ‘A Critique of Passive Revolution in Turkey: The Limits of Sociological Marxism’, was based on a forthcoming article in Praksis, a journal that aims to defend the role of historical materialism in the social sciences.

My argument is that Tuğal decontextualises and detaches the concept from Gramsci’s original usage and that this gives rise to misdiagnoses of the operations of power in Turkey and of the resilience of the liberal-conservative power bloc that Tuğal wants to combat. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Tuğal’s interview with Today’s Zaman—a conservative English-language daily in Turkey—that views the rise of AKP rule as benevolent.

The problem here is that the condition of passive revolution is not a literally passive process. It is often a ruptural (sometimes violent) struggle between classes that emerge in contexts of social, political and economic upheaval whilst carrying continuities with the previous social order. As a consequence, what is missing in Tuğal’s analysis of AKP rule is: (1) a tracking of the continuities of neoliberal policies identified through the AKP’s class, ideology and state practices that have heightened economic exclusion and social polarisation; and (2) a more engaged focus on forms of struggle and practices of resistance including analysis of new spaces of utopian vision, such as the tekel workers’ strike—initiated in 2009 against the closure of 12 factories run by the state-owned tobacco and alcohol company and sold to British and American Tobacco.

These features of social struggle should accompany any account of the reordering of hegemony in Turkey through AKP rule and the restructuring of contexts of capital accumulation through conditions of passive revolution.

Adam Morton

Getting Fuzzy: what’s political theory for?

Get Fuzzy is a US syndicated cartoon strip written by Darby Conley. It features Bucky Katt, wise and feline but very nasty, Satchel Pooch, a loyal and rather dumb dog, and their long-suffering owner Rob Wilco, who does what he can to tame Bucky Katt’s excesses.  

In this cartoon, Rob recommends Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to Bucky as a way of coming to a reasoned reconciliation of his differences with Satchel.  Bucky knows just how to use Kant’s weighty reasoning to settle an argument.

There’s a view that political theorists are folks who sit around imagining better worlds full of better people and assuring us just how good life would be if only we could get there (which, of course, we can’t). Bright, possibly, but hopelessly unworldly. This is just wrong. Kant himself wrote a celebrated essay on that time-worn saying of the patronizing parent: “That may be true in theory, but is of no practical use”. And the theorist who gave a name to what many take to be the land of starry-eyed imaginings, Thomas More, packed his Utopia with a series of telling indictments of the social order of his time: of the expulsion of the poor from their land, of a society which created criminals only then to hang them. In fact, many of the very greatest of all political theorists – from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas down to Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Rousseau – were the keenest-eyed observers of the social and political ills of their time. Hegel – about as abstract and tricky a theorist as one could wish for – was one of the very first to see just what was distinctive about living in modern times and to recognize that the emergence of disorderly inner cities created the threat of wider social disruption.

Of course, these theorists did not always get everything right. Some would say that Marx was a brilliant critic of capitalism – even the capitalism of our own times – but a poor progenitor of socialism. But certainly the very best of these theorists have stood the test of time much better than the conventional wisdom of the ages in which they lived and wrote – and which often dismissed them as cranks and misfits.

And this is one of the enduring functions of political theory: to challenge the conventional wisdom of its own times. I have spent the last six years tracing the history of justifications of private property in the West from Pythagoras to the present. It would be disappointing to be able only to draw one conclusion from this survey but, if pressed to do so, I would say that no-one in this long history would really be signed up to the account of private property that seems to be the commonplace of our times. The nearest we get are those smart conservatives – like Edmund Burke or David Hume – who argued that it was best not to reason about property at all – but just to take it as it is.

When we look at the crucial problems of our own time – sovereign debt, banking crises, environmental degradation, stark global inequalities of wealth and opportunity – there is a temptation to see these in terms of a lack of suitable regulation or political will. I think this is to scratch at the surface. The structure of our present property order is unsustainable and it is indefensible. We (almost certainly) need a property order – anarchists would disagree, Marx didn’t – but it certainly does not have to be this one. We may not be able to change it – but if we don’t we will surely fail to meet any of the great challenges of our nearly-new century.

Chris Pierson

Hunting down Tony Blair

Here we go again. Yet another ‘satire’ about Tony Blair. This time from the Comic Strip, those 1980s Alternative Comedians who did so much to stamp out Thatcherism and now spend their time playing benign ogres in Harry Potter films or cheery vicars in winsome sitcoms, endorsing beer or opposing (how ironic) the Alternative Vote.

In The Hunt for Tony Blair  our former Prime Minister is portrayed as a smooth villain taken from a 1950s film noir, one  eager to cite the ‘tough choices’ which lead him to murder his innocent victims.

As Stephen Mangan who plays Blair in the film says, it’s meant to be an ‘out-and-out comedy’ but he hopes it will be controversial because: ‘If you’re being brave and accurate and manage to pinpoint things in a sufficiently sharp way, then, you know, you should upset people’. From the looks of it, however, The Hunt for Tony Blair promises to be irredeemably conformist.

The New Labour government is the most dramatised in history and Tony Blair the most dramatised Prime Minister – certainly no other party or leader has been subject to such extensive fictionalisation on the screen while still in office. To give you an idea, here’s just a few images of the fictionalised Tony Blair. Churchill had to wait until the 1970s.

And how have Blair and colleagues been fictionalised? In one way only: as spin-obsessed power-abusers; liars who are both financially and morally corrupt. Of course there are some who think this just reflects the reality. When I interviewed those writers and directors who have produced some of the best known dramatisations of Blair for a Radio Four documentary last year, they all had serious reasons for showing him up in negative terms – what they saw as his betrayal of the working class and role in taking Britain into Iraq being the most significant.

But there also lazy reasons, including pandering to easy stereotypes and popular prejudices. Many members of the public, certainly those on the left, somehow ‘know’ that Blair was obsessed by spin, was in love with the powerful and lied to us about Iraq. But how do we acquire such ‘knowledge’?  I’ve looked at all the instances in which New Labour and Blair have been depicted on the screen and what I can report is a diminishing of what I call our ‘imagined political capital’ – that is the repertoire of ideas we hold about politicians. In the era of mediated politics this increasingly influences how we see our politicians. For how many of us actually know an MP or meet a councillor and so have direct experience of them? Very few. For the most part we get our knowledge about politics through reading or watching the news (and fewer and fewer of us do that) or watching them depicted on the screen in comedies and dramas. This is ersatz knowledge.

That is not to say that the former Prime Minister was the saintly hero that some Blairite cultists seem to think. But we should be aware of the whys and wherefores of how our politicians are being depicted on the screen and how it is – compared to, say the 1970s – that you can’t find a good politician on the screen any more and why it should be that politics is constantly represented as a moral hazard.

In the 1930s Graham Greene defined ‘a humorist in the modern English sense’, as someone ‘who shares the popular taste and who satirizes only those with whom the majority are already displeased’. This led to what Greene disparaged as ‘safe and acceptable’ comedies, that only reinforced popular opinion.

If the Comic Strip had wanted to be ‘brave’ and ‘controversial’ then it would have produced a version of Tony Blair who was not a murderous, lying swine.

Steven Fielding