Is David Gauke a member of UK Uncut?

Spiked, 31st July 2012

First, morally righteous tax campaigners came for the big corporations, like Vodafone and Topshop. Then they came for the beloved comedian Jimmy Carr. And finally they have come for ordinary people paying their plumbers in cash.

UK Conservative Treasury minister David Gauke last week condemned people paying tradesmen for jobs with cash as ‘morally wrong’. According to Gauke, when people pay cash-in-hand, often for a lower price, they don’t pay VAT while the tradesman in question might be dodging income tax, too. This is, of course, often true. It’s pretty common to pay a builder or plumber with a wad of twenties, and it is generally accepted as normal behaviour. The Treasury loses out a bit, but who wants to pay more tax?

The minister’s comments were met with much ridicule and rebuff. Even his boss David Cameron has admitted to paying cash-in-hand. How, though, is it possible for such an everyday form of behaviour, which pretty much everyone does, to be branded as ‘morally wrong’? How has tax payment even become a moral issue?

Since the onset of the ‘age of austerity’ and attempts to scale back public spending, it has become the focus of politics to scrutinise the tax arrangements of everyone and everything – and those attempting to give a little (or a lot) less to the clasp of the modern-day Zacchaeus are condemned as awful, greedy and lacking in morals. This focus on tax, originating with the publicity stunts of nominally left-wing groups that hate big bad corporations, has now become a mainstream political topic and turned tax into an issue of morality.

The anti-austerity group UK Uncut was among the first to start this tax obsession, by protesting against what it calls Vodafone’s ‘shameless’ tax set-up. Guardian commentators soon chimed in, asking about the ‘justice’ of it certain tax set-ups, and questioning if they undermined ‘the moral basis of the system’. According to UK Uncut, rich people trying to ‘put as little money as possible into the public purse are clearly acting immorally’.

Since then, a whole host of other immoral tax dodgers have been identified. Billionaire retailer Philip Green has been targeted, with his Topshop stores occupied by UK Uncut. Boots, the BBC and Tesco have all come under attack, too. However, with the outing of comedian Jimmy Carr for his tax arrangements, there has been a clear shift towards scrutinising individuals. Trying to pay less tax, either as a company or individual, has now become a sin, a morally outrageous act, and everyone must be checked to determine which side of the moral dividing line they fall on. This new attitude could be seen in blogger Laurie Penny’s seemingly out-of-the-blue and irrelevant challenge to the historian David Starkey at an unrelated debate at the recent Festival of Education, when she asked how much tax he had paid. The government also now plans to ‘name and shame’ individuals who use tax-avoidance schemes.

What is clear is that how much tax people give up to this fiscal Leviathan is a moral issue for which all must face scrutiny. No longer is tax deemed a necessary but annoying duty, resented and mostly paid begrudgingly. Rather it has become a litmus test of someone’s moral worth. It is not the taxman that is hated, but those trying to escape his tentacles.

From this moralising about every rich or famous person’s personal finances, it is not hard for a minister to turn the focus on to the ‘ordinary people’ in whose interests the moralistic tax campaigners claim to be campaigning. If tax avoidance is made morally repugnant for the high-flying rich, so too will it be for the plumber, builder or painter who would rather not pay tax on everything he or she earns.

The crusade to turn tax into a modern moral issue has not turned out to be the great twenty-first-century cause of the people, clawing back money from the evil robber-baron capitalists of the high street. Rather, by creating a moralistic discourse around tax and making it the norm for public scrutiny of everyone’s tax – quite literally in the case of a serious proposal by one Guardian columnist – it has resulted in an emboldened HM and Revenue Customs. Viewing tax through a moralistic lens has allowed the taxman to try to grab all he can from everyone, not just the corporations and rich.


Index of Wellbeing: Our duty to be perpetually happy

The Indepedent, 27th July 2012

The government has recently published the Index of Wellbeing, or rather the ‘happiness index’. It was an attempt to measure the general happiness of the population and tailoring government policies to promote ‘well being’ and ‘happiness’. According to Professor Richard Layard, director of the Wellbeing programme at the LSE, this new index is a great step towards creating ‘policy-making with wellbeing as a priority’. In other words, we all have a ‘duty to be happy’, and the government will enact policies to ensure this duty is realized.

This whole idea is part of what French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has called the ‘Cult of Happiness’. It is now imperative that all are happy. Happiness is the optimal constant state of mind all should, and are, expect to reach. As no-one in most of the Western world struggles to ensure the bare minimum of survival, or must flee murderous tyranny and persecution, being happy is now what we must strive for.

As Bruckner explains in his principle work on the Cult of Happiness, Perpetual Euphoria: On The Duty to Be Happy, the idea that everyone must be in a constant state of happiness is a rather new one. With the final overthrow of Christian values by th 1968 generation, of which Bruckner was part of, a new moral order, one which said everyone must be happy, replaced it. This traditional Christian idea of was that happiness could only be achieved by salvation in the afterlife, while pursuit of earthly happiness was sinful. The Communist attitude, of self-sacrifice now, through manual labour in hope of the brighter red future of happiness is also gone.

That is not to endorse either Christian or Communist attitudes towards happiness, nor condemn the idea that people can be happy on earth in the here and now. What is problematic is the idea that everyone has some sort of duty to be happy or should be happy. For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, while placing happiness on earth as a central part of their thinking, they did not think of happiness as some sort of perpetual state that everyone should always be in, as the Happiness Index and its supporters do. The Enlightenments views toward happiness is summed up by the US Constitutions guarantee of its citizens right for the ‘pursuit of happiness’, as happiness is a subjective experience people can only make for themselves.

The problem with expecting everyone to be happy, and to try to subscribe policy to ensure this, is that happiness is a pretty vague term objectively. Happiness is a momentary state, not a permanent one. Someone will be happy one day and unhappy the next. The only way to ensure perpetual happiness would be for the constant consumption of brain altering drugs. As Pascal Bruckner puts it, ‘We are not the masters of the sources of happiness; they ever elude the appointments we make with them, springing up when we least expect them and fleeing when we would hold them close… We have the power to avoid or to heal certain evils, yes, but we cannot order happiness as if it were a meal in a restaurant’.

Happiness is a different subjective experience for each individual. According to the new Happiness Index, people on the islands of Orkney and Shetland are 1.1 measurement units happier than those who live in Thurrock. But what exactly does this unit of 1.1 happiness mean? Is it really possible or make any sense to say that those from one region are this specific unit less happy than those from another? Emotions are not measured in mathematical units. Such a subjective matter as happiness is impossible to quantify into numbers while being allowed to remain meaningful.

The overthrowing the old values of earthly suffering in wait of a future happiness was certainly a good thing, as it allows for people to be placed at the center of the world and recognises man’s ability to shape his own future and pursuing his own happiness. However, the new duty to be happy, with the misguided happiness index does not do this. It takes a view of happiness as some sort of constant state of mind and measurable unit, while it is a temporary feeling that is entirely subjective. It also assumes some sort of proactive government policy can make people happier. What is needed is for the government to step back out of such issues. Through liberty people can decide for themselves if they are happy and decide how best to shape their own life to make themselves happy.

Deepak Lal vs the meddling state

Spiked Review of Books, 27th July

Lost Causes is a collection of pamphlets and articles written by the free-market economist Deepak Lal. Lal takes issue with much policy pursued today, particularly with what he sees as the ‘retreat from Classical Liberalism’. With writings spanning the 1980s to the present day, Lal tackles a wide range of subjects stretching from the state and taxation to the current wars on drugs and terror.

Lal charts the rise of the state and its ability to tax those who live under its thumb. The early monarchical states were akin, he says, to a Mafia racket, with the king demanding taxation from those he ‘protected’. However, with the advent of democracy, in a vague sense ‘we’ are the state. Lal finds this problematic as he sees democracy being used to elect leaders in order to tax those with greater wealth, with the aim of redistributing this wealth to what he terms ‘the median voter’.

What Lal doesn’t see, though, is that if voters are simply ticking next to the name on the ballot paper that offers the most generous family tax-credits or state pensions, this is more to do with the breakdown of politics itself. Politicians no longer inspire people with big ideas, nor do they try to. Politicians, rather than treat people as citizens whose interests they must represent, treat the public as consumers, who they must sell themselves to as candidates. Lal does, however, make the interesting point that politicians often pander to well-funded lobby groups with taxpayers’ money rather than working in the long-term interests of society.

Next Lal offers his views on the UK National Health Service (NHS). He charts the inefficiencies and problems of a completely nationalised provision of healthcare. He explains how such an industry favours producers (NHS employees) over consumers (those seeking NHS treatment). However, the NHS has become some sort of secular religion in modern Britain, with those attempting to change it branded as healthcare heretics. Consequently, the only solution politicians have for the NHS is to throw more money into what Lal sees as a bottomless pit.

The real solution, according to Lal, is to change to a National Health Insurance System. This, he explains, would entail a privatisation of the healthcare industry, but with the government providing payment for everyone’s insurance policy. The usual arguments about competition and maximising efficiency are deployed here. While Lal is correct that the hysterical denunciations that follow criticism of the NHS or exploration of possible alternatives are problematic, his proposal is not entirely convincing. The need for minimising costs and turning over a profit could lead to corners being cut. In most industries, that means an inferior product that no one wants; the results in a hospital would be more serious.

If each treatment is paid for, albeit in Lal’s case by a government-paid insurance policy, visits to the doctors become business transactions. Paid transactions usually require both parties to have roughly the same information about the product (which in the case of healthcare is treatment for a health problem). The nature of a visit to the doctor, however, means that only the doctor has a real understanding of the situation, leaving the possibility of patients being prescribed treatment they do not need to extract payment from insurance companies. The US experience, where ‘gold-plating’ of testing and treatment is a major and expensive problem, does not bode well for Lal’s proposal.

Lal is on stronger ground in his arguments against the invasion of the private sphere by health campaigns against smoking. Public health, he claims, has no business getting involved with interfering with a lifestyle choice, albeit a dangerous one. He concedes that the idea of public health can be useful in combating infectious diseases, whose nature means they are a threat to the wider public. Tobacco use, however, while causing disease, is not a disease in itself. Nor are conditions like lung cancer and heart disease contagious. Therefore, it is a private health issue for the individual who chooses to use tobacco, and no business of wider society.

Lal uses the analogy of the supposed link between HIV and anal sex. While it may be true, he argues, that anal sex increases the chances of contracting HIV (in the same way that smoking increases the likelihood of cancer developing), most people would not argue that anal sex itself is a disease and an issue of public interest that should be discouraged. Rather, the disease itself is identified, treated or prevented. Being the classical liberal he is, Lal rightly turns to John Stuart Mill to back up his points. Mill argued that in a liberal society the state preventing someone from pursuing an activity in order to protect the individual’s ‘own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant’.

Two of America’s longest, and seemingly endless, ‘wars’ are the war on terror and the war on drugs. Lal believes the latter is undermining the former. The cultivation of poppies for heroin in Afghanistan is highly profitable for impoverished Afghan farmers, and the war on drugs necessitates destroying these profitable crops. As a result, the Taliban is able to offer farmers protection of their crops in exchange for tax – generating both support and much needed revenue for the Taliban. Therefore, Lal concludes, the only way to win the war on terror is to end the war on drugs, which is unwinnable in any case.

Beyond these tactical observations, Lal also offers some principled arguments against the war on drugs. By tracing the history of modern government anti-drug campaigns from Theodore Roosevelt onwards, he shows how the arguments in favour of restricting drugs was backed by the idea of ‘social rights’. The idea is that someone’s right to free moral and intellectual development is infringed upon by a society that is demoralised and sapped of intellect by the use of substances like drugs. Once again, Mill is used to counter this idea, with his claim that such a view ‘ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other’s moral, intellectual, and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard’.

Lal’s essays are, for the most part, worth reading. However, readers should be prepared to encounter many boring technical economic arguments about ‘social costs’ and ‘negative externalities’ between the good stuff. The book, being a collection of writings from the 1980s, also includes some seemingly irrelevant chapters, such as that on the higher-education reforms of the 1980s Thatcher government. Despite this, in a world with ever-increasing state regulation of private life and monitoring of speech, there are some invaluable contributions here for anyone interested in forging a more liberal society.

Reformation: so much more than Henry vs Pope

Spiked, 26th July

In the latest episode of the BBC TV documentary series The Great British Story: A People’s History, the ability of new ideas and ways of thinking to reshape society was shown through the tale of the Reformation. The fifth installment of the series, ‘Lost Worlds and New Worlds’, charted the collapse of the old order and faith, as new radical religious ideas and structures of society entered the stage of history. The basic question behind the Reformation was: ‘By whose authority is my path to God?’

Before the start of the Reformation in the 1400s, the British Isles were religiously monolithic. Despite there being many nations, centres of parliament and power, and 10 different languages, all inhabitants conformed to the same basic view of the world, as dictated by the authority of the papacy. And yet by the end of the Reformation, England saw its official religion change numerous times, with many more potential contenders emerging.

The BBC’s documentary started with a visit to a church in the small Welsh village of Llancarfan. Only recently have the under-layers of the white church walls been revealed, showing the old pre-Reformation Catholic paintings that once decorated them. Painted images of the Virgin Mary, purgatory, the devil and depictions of the seven deadly sins had all been covered up as the Reformation washed away the traditional authority of the old established religion.

It would be a mistake to see the Reformation beginning with the doctrinal schism between Henry VIII and the Papal Authority in the 1530s. Rather, the start should be seen in the preaching of the Lollards. In the 1400s, these radical heretics questioned the idea that the Bible should only be read in Latin. The Lollards also called for other unthinkable changes, such as bringing about ‘communal property’ – an idea they found in the Bible – as well as the ability of women to spread the gospel. Far from being a minor group, according to the BBC documentary they enjoyed much support in and around London. The ideas started by this group would remain throughout the Reformation.

Not only were the ideas of the old world shaken; so too was the material basis of it. Following the Church of England’s split with Rome, and facing a financial crisis, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of their land. With monasteries being the largest landowners in the country, this was one of the biggest transfers of property in history. No longer was wealth to be held by the unproductive archaic institution of the monastery; rather it was being transferred to a new rising merchant class – the prototype of the modern-day bourgeoisie. On these new lands, under the control of a new class, trade boomed, tin and coal mines were dug, and industry started to flourish. Once the old faith and its power had been destroyed, so the old order and structures of feudal society were challenged too.

The Reformation gathered pace under Edward VI, influenced by radical Protestant ministers. In 1549, they attempted a complete overturning of the old religious order. The BBC documentary explained how their campaign to destroy religious images, whitewash decorated church walls, dig out altars and distribute English prayer books completely overturned religious life. While these revolutionary changes were welcomed and supported in London and surrounding regions, they provoked bitter resistance in many other areas, particularly the north and south-west of England. This resistance eventually culminated in the unsuccessful Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 in Cornwall.

With the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Elizabeth I, the Reformation seemed firmly secure, and Protestantism the entrenched religion of the land. But many remained true to the old faith, and conflict would continue for years to come.

After the challenge and defeat of a 1,000-year old belief system, which was once completely cemented in power, the strength of the Reformation and its questioning of authority grew. While for Elizabeth I the Reformation was over, for many it had not gone far enough. The establishment of an official Protestant Church of England still raised the central question, ‘By whose authority is my path to God?’. Radical religious ideas, further questioning central tenets of religious authority, continued to flourish, particularly in the East Midlands and the village of Scrooby. By questioning the need for bishops, radical Puritan Separatists also questioned the position of the monarch. The undermining and questioning of the established religious authority had opened the way for further questioning of the remaining entrenched authority and privilege that survived the Reformation, soon leading to the ideas of the revolutionary age.

Besides being a fascinating story, this documentary revealed how the unraveling of the central ideas of an age, no matter how entrenched, can lead to a complete change in the order of society and can turn the world upside down.


Drinking alcohol? That’s not normal!

Spiked, 19th July

Yet more health recommendations have been issued by the self-appointed guardians of ‘public health’, this time in an attempt to stave off Britain’s supposedly toxic drinking culture. The new proposals hope to change people’s attitudes by ‘denormalising’ alcohol consumption, but they really just end up treating adults like children.

The killjoys at the UK Faculty of Public Health are suggesting that the government compels alcohol producers to label their products with ‘graphic’ warnings of the dangers linked to alcohol, such as cancer and violence. Meanwhile, NHS Cumbria has put forward proposals to force retailers to create separate tills for the sale of alcohol.

These proposals are a clear attempt to denormalise the widely enjoyed consumption of alcohol by ostracising drinkers. Through the segregation of alcohol from food, great irritation will be caused to the public, as well as making alcohol some kind of unique and separate product. This replicates the practice of forcing supermarkets to sell tobacco at a specific till. It is an attempt to stop alcohol being seen as a usual component of people’s general consumption habits, with the implication that drinking is a dirty habit. The message would be: ‘Go queue for your booze over there, drunkard, this queue’s for us decent folk buying Vitamin Water and fruit.’ No longer would people be able to select which bottle of red wine to purchase alongside their other food stuffs, or pick up some Cobra beers for the curry they’re also buying, or include a case of Budweiser when planning a barbecue. Unless, of course, they wish to queue up twice. The implication is palpable: such drinking habits aren’t normal.

Including a graphic warning on alcohol bottles and cans is another means to denormalise alcohol, especially the warnings about alcohol causing violence. It is true that some people can get a bit aggressive after a drink, but the vast majority don’t. The attempt to label bottles of beer in such a way is to portray people that drink as prone to throwing their fists around. Thankfully, most people do like a drink and usually refrain from punch-ups, so the proposed demonisation campaign will be seen for the nonsense it is. 

These proposals, and the anti-drinking campaign in general, take a rather dismal view of the public. By trying to separate alcohol purchases from food and soft drinks, supporters claim they are trying to stop drinkers ‘buying it on impulse’ and succumbing to temptation. This is a patronising view of people as impulsive children who are likely to see a bottle of wine and want it without thinking. It suggests consumers are as blissfully ignorant as Adam in the Garden of Eden, destined to be led astray by the snake-like ease of purchasing the forbidden fruit of alcohol. Luckily, the modern-day temperance movement, in the form of ‘public health’, will help him resist these temptations.

The plan to label alcohol bottles with health warnings also suggests that people don’t already know the potential risks associated with drinking. It’s common to hear people, after a few nights of heavy drinking, make references to their liver taking a hit, or that it ‘needs to recover’. Although people may not know the exact science behind alcohol and liver disease, they know that alcohol can cause you liver problems, but they just chose to drink anyway. Yet the guardians of public health can’t seem to grasp this basic fact that people know alcohol can cause health issues; they would rather take away the risks and enjoy themselves.

Through the guise of public health, these attempts at changing people’s alcohol consumption habits are an invasion of the private sphere. The consumption, or level of consumption, of a legal product should be no business of the state. People should be trusted to decide for themselves how much alcohol to consume. State legislation, outside of outright prohibition, cannot change people’s drinking habits, nor should it attempt to. The ‘correct’ amount for each person to drink is specific to each person. An impersonal army of bureaucrats can’t gauge how much is too much for every individual. If someone actually is drinking excessively, family and friends are best suited to identify this – and it’s a lot easier for them to help, too. Someone drinking themselves to death is more likely to listen to the appeals of those close to them, rather than some faceless public-health group or a hectoring health minister.

It is not surprising that the means by which the fun-free anti-drinking campaigners attempt to achieve their goals is patronising and treats people like children. That’s because the end to which they strive toward is equally patronising. Attempting to regulate people’s alcohol consumption is to treat adults like children. The government and the anti-drink campaigners view themselves in the same way as a parent, with the adult population being the not-quite-knowledgeable-enough teenager who needs decisions on their alcohol intake imposed by the wiser state-approved authority figure. Thanks, but we’re quite capable of making those judgements for ourselves.

Don’t buy into this supermarket spying

Spiked, 16th July 2012

Not content with already nannying and nudging us in various ways, and using sin taxes to regulate our consumption habits, Britain’s Lib-Con coalition government is now pursuing another policy of paternalism. It is aiming to gain access to the shopping habits of 25million people through the information saved on their supermarket loyalty cards, such as the Sainsbury’s Nectar card or Tesco Club Cards. That way, it can work out where we’re going ‘wrong’ in terms of what we buy and eat, and nudge us in the ‘right’ direction.

Supermarkets keep a complete record of all our purchases if we use a club card. But that information was traditionally only used to aim store promotions at customers, based on their previous purchasing habits. Now, prime minister David Cameron says he backs the idea that such information should be used to try to nudge people towards making better, healthier choices. Other senior Tories, however, including health secretary Andrew Lansley, are worried that this all adds up to government snooping.

By getting a glimpse into what people buy from the supermarket, right down to the last rasher of bacon and can of Carlsberg, the government hopes to devise ways to make our weekly shop healthier. People will be
targeted with specific health advice. So presumably, those who purchase a case of Stella on a Friday evening will be subtly alerted to the dangers of alcohol and kindly asked to refrain from drinking too much, while those who regularly purchase white bread will be asked to consider the wholemeal option. Parents might also be chastised if their supermarket shop suggests they aren’t providing their children with a ‘balanced diet’.

An O-word, named after a certain Eric Arthur Blair, comes to mind. The idea of a government agency poring over the public’s shopping habits, and then suggesting healthier options, is a strange and paternalistic one. It assumes the public are too stupid to decide for themselves what to buy and eat. In the government’s eyes, the only reason someone’s Tesco Club Card might show up a lot of beer-buying is because that person is oblivious to the health implications of drinking, and therefore needs a friendly ‘nudge’ in the right direction. It couldn’t possibly be that, despite knowing about the relationship between alcohol and health, he has decided to get pissed nonetheless.

It should come as no surprise that this latest attempt to change people’s choices comes from the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT). BIT, commonly known as the Nudge Unit, was set up two years ago to utilise behavioural economics theory to ‘nudge’ people into making what are considered to be the correct lifestyle choices. The Nudge Unit’s purpose is to find ways to ‘encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves’ – though what qualifies these policy wonks to know what the ‘better choices’ are is unclear.

The Nudge Unit believes that small nudges and external stimuli can encourage people to become healthier. This means it hopes to change the way we perceive and see the world around us, and how we interact with it, too. To the Nudge Unit, the public are a bit like Pavlov’s dogs – ring a bell, provide some new stimulation to the brain, and everyone will unconsciously start salivating at the mouth to make new and improved eating, drinking and lifestyle choices.

The central idea is that people can’t be trusted to make decisions on their own, and so the government must get stuck into our day-to-day lives. But if the average person can’t be trusted to know what the right choice is, why is the Behavioural Insight Team any different? How is it that these people know what the right choices are? Perhaps they view themselves as an enlightened elite who must lord it over the feeble-minded masses, gently nudging us in the right direction, like shepherds herding the sheeple to the land of correct thinking.

This elite mindset is antithetical to democracy. The idea of democracy is that people are able to decide for themselves how to live their lives and also what the future of their society should look like. That is, democracy is, or should be, based on the idea that people know what is in their own best interests. And so we have the right to elect people who we believe will shape society as we would like it to be shaped. The ideas of the Nudge Unit negate this basic principle of democracy; in fact, they call into question the very idea of democracy, which can’t really exist if people are seen as incapable of making good decisions even in the supermarket aisles, never mind the voting booth.

The idea that the government knows what is best for us redefines the democratic relationship, the relationship between free citizens and those who govern. Rather than being viewed as active and conscious agents who should get to say what society should look like, we are turned into a mass to be manipulated by officials who believe they know best what we should look like. Elected politicians are turned from representatives of the demos into shepherds overlooking their fickle flock.

The Death of Ideology and Division of the Left and Right

Moon Project, 15th July 2012

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.