The Left

The old camps divide

Gerard Baker says there is a revival of fortunes for the left but asks what this political trend now stands for:

In continental Europe, emboldened by the French vote, the Left proudly proclaims a bold objective: Back to the Future. The French Left, and its allies in the rest of Europe, stands not for some progressive dream of international solidarity for the dispossessed, but four-square behind the protection of the continent’s own illusory privileges.

The Left’s new rallying cry is to build a protective system that would impoverish Bulgarians, Romanians, Turks, Indians and Chinese and would, of course, as do all attempts to retreat from the realities of the global market, ill serve its own workers.

…..In the Middle East the left finds it much easier to side with the mullahs and the jihadists, the persecutors of women and the torturers of dissidents. America’s flaws at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are viewed by the Left’s political and intellectual leaders as morally indistinguishable from (or perhaps worse than) anything the Islamists and Arab despots have got up to.

To be fair, not all on the Left have taken their stand on the side of reaction. But the trends in political debate in the West are strikingly clear. We are well on the way to an inversion of the classic Left-Right divide.

These days if you’re in favour of policies designed to promote global economic integration, policies that have led hundreds of millions in Asia, Latin America, and Africa out of the misery of grinding poverty, and have significantly lifted the standard of living of workers in the West too; if you support change to topple tyrannical regimes and give some hope to people who have suffered in fledgling democracies, you’re now more likely to be considered a conservative. What, exactly, is Left?

Interesting and he has a point doesn’t he? However I think Baker is too generous to the right. There are people on the right, particularly in the US, who would happily back dictators if they thought it was in the interests of America, plenty who back protectionist policies. The neo-cons have not taken over The Republican Party, the old right is still there and can be seen among those who have failed to make a stand over the abuse of prisoners and the exporting of suspects to torture regimes.

Likewise, in Europe, there are plenty of people on the right who oppose globalisation, use anti-American slogans, fear reform in the EU and are protectionists firmly opposed to bringing countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey into the Union.

Baker is right that something has changed in politics in the past few years and he is of course correct in his vierw that a large chunk of the left has become conservative while a significant part of what is considered the right, at least in the US, has adopted a radical position. But that is only part of the picture.

I think it is more the case that are conservatives and radicals on both sides of the ideological divide.

There are, as Baker seems to accept, left-wing liberals who support democratisation and see potential in globalisation for expanding the reach of liberty and freedom. There are, on the left, people who view the EU as a great idea in need of a practical shake-up. They share common ground with neo-conservatives on a good number of issues, particularly in foreign policy in the Middle East. Is there an ideological basis to this common ground? That’s a big question worthy of a longer post sometime but I would venture that a shared commitment to liberal values does exist.

And where does Tony Blair fit into Baker’s description of the left? Blair is the most prominent leader of the centre-left in Europe and possibly beyond. On all the points Baker raises to show the conservatism of the left, Blair is to be found in the radical camp – on Europe, on globalisation and on democratisation. Compare his positions with that of a grand old man of the Tory party such as Douglas Hurd.

Likewise there is a logic to the de facto alliance between the far right and the anti-globalisation left in Europe. Both are based on a fear of America, a fear that the closed ranks of the professions and the middle class could be opened up to challenge and competition. As I argued in my post on the EU after the ‘Non’ vote:

This is the Europe where protectionist French farmers find common cause with anti-globalisation activists. The Europe that turned its back on Iraq (before the war and even more shamefully after) now also turns it back on Turkey for reasons which, despite all protestations to the contrary, go little beyond racism. Its the expansion of the West German hostility to Ossies now finding echoes in complaints from London tradesmen about Polish plumbers. Its a reactionary anti-Americanism that crosses from far-left to far-right. Its the Europe of anti-immigration racists and leftists worried about the spread of Fast Food restaurants.

Since September 11, its not been hard to detect a mood in Western Europe to pull down the blinds and wish the rest of the world would just go away. If it wasn’t for the meddling Yanks and the looney Muslims we could all just get on with our nice quiet European lives like we used to do. This Europe’s slogan is Could everyone just please leave us alone? These are the people for whom the description ‘Fortress Europe’ was not a criticism of the EU but a positive policy proposal.

In this Europe of fears, this reactionary Europe, both left and right are to be found. Likewise in the Europe of hope and the positive, democratic and outward-looking wing of American politics, you can find people from the left and right of the spectrum.

Interesting times.