‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Are we trapped in the 1970s?

Commentators have been pointing out the similarities between the current political situation and the 1970s, especially the lack of confidence of the major political parties in winning an election. We have many echoes of the 1970s – a hung parliament, a focus on the relationship between the Conservatives and the Liberals/Lib Dems, rows over the influence of trades unions, unrest in the Middle East, a looming European referendum and even a new Bowie song.

But there is one significant difference. In the 1970s many people were seriously worried that Britain was becoming ‘ungovernable’. Now, far fewer people seem to worry about the government.

There are several reasons for this. We have gone through what has technically been the worst recession in over 100 years, but fewer people have lost their homes than in the early 1990s, fewer people are unemployed than in the 1980s. People are not panicking about fuel shortages and power cuts as they were in the 1970s. The fear factor is largely missing.

We also no longer have the fear of a hung parliament. We have now had over four years of a coalition government, which was supposed to be weak, unstable and unlikely to last. It has lasted, and if it is not universally popular, that is more to do with the toughness of the cuts, rather than its weakness.

We have a wide range of competent politicians, but we are short of good leaders. It is clearer than ever that no political party has a monopoly of talent. In the 1970s, only the Labour and Conservative Parties had any realistic claim to administrative experience and competence. Now, a total of 10 different parties have been in power across Westminster and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. All 10 seem to have been up to the task; none has failed to rise to the challenge.

Political parties need to be awake to the danger of falling into one of two categories at the moment – nervous, downbeat, backward-looking parties arguing over fine details of past mistakes or simplistic, over-confident radical alternatives that deal with fragments of problems and provide solutions which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Despite their differences in philosophy, there is one thing which unites those leaders who seem to be popular at the moment – confidence. This is probably the one thing that links Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Alex Salmond. But on the track record of the 10 parties who have been in power, all leaders should be displaying more confidence in their own abilities.

No party owns any of the controversial issues, but most appear to think that they have no-go areas, where they dare not tread. UKIP does not own Europe, the Greens don’t own renewable energy, the Conservatives do not own defence, Labour does not own health, the Lib Dems do not own liberty. Political leaders need to shed their fears and step into the controversies, making bridges between issues. Let’s hear UKIP talking about the NHS, the LibDems talking about defence, Labour talking about Europe, the Conservatives discussing renewable energy.

The 1970s were not a period which politicians can look back on with pride. Let’s not fall into the trap of the fearful 70s - let’s see some confidence that each of the parties really believes that it is up to the job of government. They have the track record to prove that they are.

But maybe we are stuck in the 1970s. We still don’t know for sure if there is life on Mars.

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