The old political division between Left and Right is largely over. The great ideological battles of the twentieth century were buried under the rubble of the Iron Curtain, yet with neither side wining out. As a result we live in an age largely devoid of ideology, in which big ideas and commitment to a belief are treated with suspicion.
The traditional conflict between Left and Right had fought over how the economy should be fundamentally organised, with the Left hoping to bring about a socialist transformation of the economy (albeit in the gradualist steps of Fabianism), while the Right saw itself as a defender of property and capitalism, against socialism. In short, the Left saw itself as the bringers of a new progressive world and of the future, while the right saw itself as defenders of tradition, weary of attacks upon tried and tested institutions and values.
A general basic commitment to the nationalisation of industry and creation of a state socialist economy defined the approach of Labour and much of the Left towards the economy, and their wish to see what they viewed as a progressive transformation of it. Counterpoised were the Conservative Party, characterised by opposition to socialism and defence of the traditional institutions of the economy, such as markets and private property. Although both Left and Right at certain times were willing to accommodate aspects of the other side’s ideology, this was for practical political purposes of the time, and the clear ideological divisions remained. As Frank Furedi notes; ‘In the 1940s and 1950s the shift of the right to the centre merely altered the way that political conflict played out’ and the division between a further nationalisations and socialism was still a clear source of conflict between Left and Right within British politics.
However, this clear division that characterised political conflict has largely lost its meaning within British politics. The collapse of the Soviet style economies and the death of the organised working class movement led to the idea of a socialist economy being discredited and any attempt of creating one being abandoned.
Since the discrediting of socialism and state planned economies in the 1990s, Labour formally abandoned any commitment of an advance in this direction with the Blairite acceptance of a market economy. The result is that the traditional left wing position on the economy in British politics has disappeared. However, as the Right wing had positioned itself as defender against (and in some cases the reverser of) socialism and nationalised industry, the traditional Right wing position had too been lost. As John Gray noted in the 1990s, ‘conditions under which conservatism as a coherent form of political thought and practice are possible exist no longer.’ As a result, political debates on the economy have been reduced to emotional moralising where ‘in place of a struggle between “right and left” we are faced with a struggle between “right and wrong.”’
This move away from ideology and towards emotional moralising is seen in the recent fashionable use of the phrase ‘moral capitalism’. All parties seem to be in consensus that capitalism is the best of all possible systems; it simply needs better morals and ethics. No-one of any mainstream ideological conviction could argue that a less ‘moral and ethical’ system is desirable – the ideological division between Left and Right has offered different conceptions of a ‘moral and ethical’ system. Traditionally for the Left, a system that ensured equality and ‘rational planning’ (where the public could take control of the economy collectively to provide for everyone’s needs) was more moral and ethical, whereas for the Right, this was immoral and unethical as the bid for equality could lead to inhibiting upon someone’s individual liberty via taxation, while a planned economy could prevent someone from pursuing an economic life for him or herself. In the current debate, such questions are avoided within British politics, with all agreeing we need something ‘more moral’ – whatever that means is vague and pretty unclear. What is clear, however, is that no parties offer an ideologically clear and fundamentally distinct vision for the economy, as ideology and the left/right distinction is no more – and politics is much worse off for it.