When national elections are called, the major political parties — while of course emphasizing their differences through their propaganda — in practice all veer toward the center ground and claim it as their own. We are the ones, each leader proclaims, who can unite the nation.
The argument then turns on the actual character and composition of that center ground, and whether it is itself shifting with the times. For example, in the first exchanges in the current U.K. election battle, the Conservatives scored an early tactical success by insisting that marriage is a key institution for binding society. The Conservatives have made their pro-marriage case by promising some tax concessions for married couples. These are admittedly very modest — a few extra pounds a week — but it is the symbolism that is important and it has touched a chord in voters’ minds.
It may seem incredible that something that seemed so obvious to previous generations should need re-stating today. After all, even the very earliest Greek thinkers saw marriage as the underpinning of civilization and the founding stone of a stable society, as well as a highly efficient economic partnership. But it is sadly true that in modern times many sections of fashionable opinion have come to reject the concept. Putting it back on the center ground makes good political sense.
A second feature of today’s middle ground — also fairly obvious to most — is that a sense of fairness about rewards should prevail and that the disparity in wealth and circumstance between richest and poorest should be reasonably limited. This is not the same as saying that everyone should be leveled down to total equality — a notion belonging not to the center but to the extreme left — but that in a society like Britain, wealth should be well shared and income differentials kept modest.
The example of Japan comes into the U.K. debate here. Ill-informed commentators keep warning that the U.K. “must not end up like Japan,” which they believe — wrongly — to be stuck in yet another decade of stagnation.
What they have not understood is that wealth is well spread in Japan, income differentials are not too extreme and the savings culture is embedded at every level. A society like Japan is well-equipped to ride through the present economic turbulence in a united and robust way — not least by being able to finance most of its huge public debt, rather than rely on the whim of international bond markets. It would be thoroughly good for the U.K. “to end up like Japan” in this respect.
This ignorance about Japan is part of a bigger failure among U.K. shapers of public opinion on all sides to appreciate the central importance of the wider spread of capital ownership and savings in uniting a society and creating a feeling of common well-being and common purpose.
While debate rages about disparity merely of income, the real focus should be on actual resources and assets available to working families at all levels — the cushion of security that most middle- and upper-class groups take for granted, but is denied to millions whose only protection is the monthly salary or the weekly wage.
The failure by all parties to put wider ownership and the vision of a capital-owning democracy at the center of the election debate leaves a real gap between what the politicians are saying and what people really need and long for if society is to be unified and comfortable with itself.
Another misunderstanding is that the policies of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) were “divisive” in this and other respects, and that over-emphasis on free markets widened social disparities and weakened national unity.
Obviously it has paid off for Labour over the years to put this about and distort the record. But the reality is that Thatcher was a hugely unifying force in the U.K. Capital ownership was significantly widened under Thatcher rule, especially ownership of homes through the sale of public-authority-rented houses to their tenants, plus the breakup of the great national monopolies and concentrations of state power.
Her determination to take on the over-mighty trade unions, who were paralyzing the spread of popular capitalism, further helped pull the nation together after years of the bitterest ideological divisions and battles, supposedly between capital and labor, “the bosses” and “the workers.”
The Thatcher vision was that the nation should become a united middle class. It is significant that now, 30 years later, Prime Minister Gordon Brown should launch his campaign to stay in power by declaring that he, too, although a socialist, is now himself from the “middle classes.”
But above all, the Thatcher era gave back to the U.K. a position and purpose in the global order that acted as a binding force in raising national pride and morale. For a time she was able to show that the U.K. was no longer a worn-out nation, neither the lap-dog of Washington and U.S. ambitions, nor the poodle of Brussels with its supra-nationalist yearnings.
All this has long since been lost but is now crying out to be restored as a key feature of the nation’s common ground. Whoever wins the U.K. election and forms government will need to understand what truly binds the nation together and holds it solid in dangerous and challenging times. And whoever wins will need to distinguish the truths of the past from the myths and distortions. Failure to learn the lessons of the past wisely, and put them firmly at the center, will lead to much grief and suffering in the future. It always does.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.
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