Stephen Pollard

The soggy consensus of our times is about the very future of Western civilisation

The soggy consensus of our times is about the very future of Western civilisation

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The image of Tony Blair and David Cameron exchanging frilly skirts and pearls is certainly arresting, but the Prime Minister’s reference in California last weekend to rampant cross-dressing was, disappointingly, political. For all the comment that his remarks have engendered, however, we have been here before. When the Economist coined the term ‘Butskellism’ in 1954, it was simply observing that, as Gaitskell wrote after being succeeded by Butler as chancellor, the Conservatives ‘have really done exactly what we would have done, and have followed the same lines on controls, economic planning, etc....’ Both parties were effectively interchangeable, working within the same framework of a mixed economy and government responsibility for full employment.

Today’s fixed points may have changed but the story is essentially the same. There is almost nothing to choose between Blair-ism and Dave-ism. But just as Butskellism was, despite its apparent solidity and safety, fundamentally dangerous — the Keynesian consensus, the soggy centre and the muddled middle which it represented led Britain into potentially terminal decline in the 1960s and 1970s — so today there is another perilous cross-party consensus. This time, however, it is not domestic cross-dressing which poses the threat; capitalism won, and stifling as today’s puny debates over the levels of taxation and public spending may be, they take place within a sensible framework. The worrying consensus today is, rather, about the very future of Western civilisation.

In the 1970s the inevitability of British decline was challenged by a small group of thinkers who championed such supposedly nutty ideas as privatisation and low taxes. They were dismissed as lunatics. Today there is a similar reaction to those who are preoccupied by the threat posed to Western civilisation by militant Islam and push for resistance to it. The great mass of the political class deride those who believe this to be the defining issue of the 21st century as — to quote Matthew Parris about Michael Gove — ‘stark staring bonkers’.

But there is a big difference from the 1970s. In the domestic disputes of old, the consensus-challengers were all nascent Thatcherites, on the Right. Today they are as likely to define themselves as being on the Left as on the Right. The signatories of the Euston Manifesto, an explicitly left-wing statement of the incompatibility of militant Islam with liberal, democratic values, stand alongside the supporters of the Henry Jackson Society, a cross-party alliance in support of a foreign policy governed by the defence of those democratic values. So one finds as supporters of the Henry Jackson Society charter a former Labour Europe minister, Denis MacShane, a leading Conservative thinker, David Willetts, and David Trimble.

The man who ‘gets it’ — in the phrase used by those who understand the threat from militant Islam — more than most is, of course, the Prime Minister. And, quelle surprise, Mr Blair is at odds with most of his Cabinet over his refusal to condemn Israel’s actions in Lebanon. That is because the Prime Minister sees what others have made themselves blind to — that Israel’s defence against militant Islam is a proxy for our own fight.

Mr Blair is perhaps the only man or woman in his Cabinet who says what he really thinks, rather than saying what needs to be said to survive in a job. The most obvious example of this is Jack Straw. The former foreign secretary is the master of spotting shifts in the political breeze and bending appropriately. It is impossible to know what he really thought of the Iraq war, not least because, for all his public loyalty, he was adept at letting it be thought that he had reservations, a tactic which has served his political longevity well. His comments last weekend condemning Israeli action in Lebanon were classic Straw positioning, distancing himself from a departing Prime Minister and readying himself for the new political reality. (Mr Straw’s political skill lies in identifying imminent political events and reacting to them before they have happened. His successor, Margaret Beckett, merely accommodates herself to already changed political ground.)

But what is most striking about politics today is that, alone as he may be in his Cabinet, Mr Blair has ardent and solid backing in foreign policy from the leading lights of the new generation of Conservatives, men such as George Osborne, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey.

Nonetheless, those who ‘get it’ remain in a small minority. Mr Blair, for instance, is not merely isolated over Lebanon in Cabinet. He is isolated in the country too: a recent ICM poll found that only 22 per cent of people support Israeli action — and that was before the death of 54 people in Qana on Sunday. Most of the mainstream Left — which includes not merely the Labour party but also the Lib Dems and the liberal intelligentsia — links the threat posed to Israel and the threat posed to the West only perversely, by arguing that Israel’s defence of its citizens somehow worsens the threat to the West. Indeed, there is at best an ambivalence about the existence of the threat from militant Islam, and at worst an active complicity in it. The spectrum of opinion on this side of the divide runs from the apparently respectable scepticism of the likes of Sir Menzies Campbell and Clare Short, through foreign policy ‘realist’ Conservatives such as Kenneth Clarke and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to the active alliance of George Galloway’s Respect — the renamed Socialist Workers’ party — and Ken Livingstone, with representatives of the very Islamofascism which threatens Western freedom.

If the important divide in British politics is between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t, then for all the apparent moderation and calm sense of Sir Menzies, Mr Clarke and Ms Short, they are separated from Respect and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood only by degree. Mr Livingstone’s praise, for instance, and welcome to London for Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — which exists to promote the establishment of an Islamic state brought about by jihad against the infidel — is something close to treachery, given al-Qaradawi’s proselytising for suicide bombing. But shy away as they might from Livingstone and Galloway’s tactics, the likes of Sir Menzies et al are on the same side of the fence.

Identifying the divide on security policy as not between but across parties is not the same as saying that a political realignment is under way. A similarly cross-party issue, our relationship with the EU, once led sage pundits to predict a realignment, as the likes of Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher on the one hand and Michael Heseltine and Roy Jenkins on the other stood shoulder to shoulder. But it never came close to happening, even when the SDP, a party set up specifically to bring about realignment, was a powerful force.

Cross-party common sense is not enough when those who hold opposite views are in the ascendant on both sides. It would be nice to report a coming realignment on the threat of Islam, given that the very future of the West is at stake. Alas, with each passing day, the consensus of the blind seems to grow stronger.

Fraser Nelson is away.