Commentary: History and ideology are back in a polarized Britain

The British prime minister and the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition gave speeches on the same day this week, outlining their vision for their country’s economy – and by implication, its society. They had little in common.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, Sept. 26, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Noble

It’s hardly surprising. Prime Minister Theresa May is to the right of her Conservative Party; Jeremy Corbyn is on the far left of his Labour Party. But there is more than that: the antagonistic visions of May and Corbyn indicate a great disruption in the politics of the world, where the forecasts of a convergence around free-market liberalism as history ends (Francis Fukuyama), and an end of ideology (Daniel Bell) have been exploded.

Britain, where the political party system first developed from the struggle between monarch and parliament in the 17th century, makes the clash of philosophies and practices most clearly visible. On Wednesday, at his conference in left-voting Liverpool, Corbyn told the wildly supportive hall that “the whole edifice of greed-is-good deregulated financial capitalism, lauded for a generation as the only way to run a modern economy, came crashing to earth, with devastating consequences.”

He offered, instead of greed, state-supported cooperation, a “radical plan to rebuild and transform our country,” with workers on companies’ boards sharing in profits, and a promise to invest heavily in green energy, creating 400,000 new jobs. Labour was, he said, ready to lead the country out of the confusion of a split Conservative government; he hoped that the conference would meet in a year’s time, when he would be prime minister.

Yet his insistence that all decisions taken by the conference would be binding upon him, in government (presumably) as well as in opposition, delighted the delegates but raised the specter of a country governed by the far-left enthusiasts who are now the majority in Labour. Corbyn, and his closest colleagues in the leadership, have learned much from the public relations skills of “New Labour” and “Blairism” which they otherwise loudly despise. But they are serious socialists for whom Marx is a guiding spirit and the organized working class is the vanguard of society.

The Labour leader, while he put on a confident performance, is still fragile and touchy about his international alliances, dodging questions about his frequent appearances on the state-owned Iranian news channel, Press TV. And though his speech included a passage assuring the Jewish community that Labour was resolutely opposed to anti-Semitism, he posed for a picture (he says, unintentionally) with an activist wearing a “BDS” button – short for the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, which aims to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

Corbyn remains, at heart, a supporter of insurgent movements: he appeared on IRA platforms, and honored IRA members who died, and he referred to the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” (which he later said he regretted). He has been a consistent opponent of the United States and of NATO. These have been the lodestars of his long political life – he is 69 and was first elected to parliament 35 years ago – and while they are disguised, he can hardly be expected to change them now.

As he gave his leader’s oration in Liverpool, Prime Minister May was preparing to deliver her speech later the same day at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York. It was, naturally enough, a pitch for greater investment and trade between the two Anglophone states. Naturally enough, because as the time for agreeing to a deal with the European Union on Brexit trickles away, the UK becomes more desperate to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, from EU membership in a single market, to fending for itself as an independent trading nation among a myriad of competitors, as avid for investment and trade deals as it is.

Thus where Corbyn married capitalism and greed in his rhetoric, May’s invocation of the same system was of one uniting freedom and social progress. “Where free markets have been properly regulated, and trade and investment unleashed,” she said, “we have seen unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity, rising life expectancy, greater access to education, falling infant mortality and reductions in absolute poverty on a scale which would once have been hard to imagine.”

Admitting that many now questioned “whether this global economic system is fair and whether it can really be made to work for everyone” she responded with “a bold and optimistic yes.”

From Labour, a view that global capitalism has broken the British state, which needs root and branch reconstruction; from the government, a reassertion that the rules of the global market, suitably amended, can answer public disaffection and again raise incomes and fund generous public services. This is a far cry from the early 2000s “third way” approach of Blair in the UK, Bill Clinton in the United States and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany – center-leftists all, able to convince majorities that markets could work for everyone’s prosperity.

Britain today is the cockpit of this non-consensual time. But the week has also seen U.S. President Donald Trump restate his belief in America – and me-first nationalism ­–  and draw laughter from the U.N. General Assembly; while French President Emmanuel Macron drew loud applause from the same gathering for a flat rejection of Trump’s governing philosophy.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has built a vision of a unique “Eurasian” destiny into his country’s future. In China, President Xi Jinping has inherited and is strengthening a fast-growing system of corporate capitalism, calling it “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and clamping down on dissent. Each of these is sui generis: tailored for the nation, while seeking global success.

Commentators and intellectuals, who have long complained that all political battles were shadow boxing around a soggy center, may now reflect on being more careful what they wish for in the future – or, depending on temperament, rejoice that the soggy center no longer exercises the magnetic pull it once did. In either case globalization, far from imposing uniformity, has caused an efflorescence of different strategies. Which will prove to be the tallest poppy?

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.