There’s a gaping hole at the centre of British politics where ideas used to be

·6 min read

What do Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer imagine is going on in Britain today, as crops fail, food bank queues lengthen, and profits soar? How do they understand the unique combination of social, economic and ecological crises in 2022, which is already wreaking havoc in many people’s lives? The truth is that we don’t really know, and perhaps they don’t either.

Truss, to be sure, has outlined a consistent ideological position – tax and red tape have restrained Britain’s economy from growing – but it is a thesis so easily disproved, so divorced from everyday lives, so obviously rooted in Thatcherite nostalgia, as to be worthless as an explanation of where we are. Sunak, who clearly believed he could waltz through a leadership contest with the same professionally managed Instagram set-pieces that elevated him there in the first place, may have been mugged by political reality, but the effect has been to lead him further towards the authoritarian fantasies of the Tory right.

Related: After Liz Truss’s pay cuts U-turn, which other Tory candidate pledges don’t add up?

And then there is Starmer, who has spent the summer in a series of battles with his own MPs over the right to stand on picket lines, and who struggles to define Labour’s position on some increasingly heated economic policy issues. Every time he or the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, takes to the airwaves, they encounter a barrage of questions on public sector pay, nationalisation and trade unions, which they respond to defensively and tentatively. They may believe (like Tony Blair) that such traditional Labour issues should not define a modern progressive party, yet they’ve not outlined any alternative vision. The contrast with Gordon Brown’s thoughtful interventions on the cost of living crisis has been plain to see.

If mainstream politics feels surreal and inadequate, this is partly due to the mysterious absence of a phenomenon that, for most of the past 150 years, was treated as an integral feature of politics and policy: ideas. Ideas have come in various shapes and sizes and from various sources. Some, such as those that formed Keynesianism, are associated with a single individual. Others, such as those that underpinned Thatcherism, were forged through an alliance of thinktanks (such as the Institute of Economic Affairs) and public intellectuals (such as Milton Friedman and Keith Joseph).

In those instances, ideas about economic reform were developed with the explicit aim of systemic transformation. For Keynes, the purpose was to overturn the outdated shibboleths of laissez-faire economics, which had led to the disaster of the 1930s; for Thatcherites, it was specifically to replace the Keynesian regime that was put in place after 1945. But even in the absence of such policy radicalism, ideas have been important. New Labour was awash with often nerdish narratives about the “knowledge economy”, “globalisation” and “the network society”. As leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband both sought to revive their parties’ credibility by seeking the advice and endorsement of policy gurus.

Over the course of the 1990s, political scientists and political economists developed a fascination with ideas, not simply for what they contain, but for what they do in politics and policymaking. US-based scholars, such as Peter Hall, Sarah Babb and Mark Blyth, argued that shifts in intellectual consensus were a crucial ingredient of economic transformations. It is when the status quo breaks down in some way (as occurred in the UK in the 1970s or within the left after 1989) that ideas and intellectuals become most important in identifying routes forward, and establishing a new normality. Few would argue that Britain’s status quo is working well in 2022, indeed Truss, Sunak and Starmer stress quite the opposite – but still there are no new ideas. Why?

One crucial factor is the precedent of the most disruptive political campaign of recent British history: Vote Leave. While Dominic Cummings may be a shrewd strategist, he has never posed as an intellectual; indeed he pours scorn on such figures, just as Vote Leave did on experts. Vote Leave offered no route-map towards a better “economic model”, and little explanation or evidence about how Brexit would improve the UK. It concentrated wholly on signalling, connecting with people by force of symbols and innuendo. This was post-policy politics, and it worked, as Boris Johnson and Cummings showed again in 2019.

In fact, it worked so well that Britain is now lumbered with a policy whose consequences are palpably disastrous, but which still no frontline politician dares to question. Against this backdrop, Truss, Sunak and Starmer have chosen to concentrate all their efforts on signalling who they are and what they identify with, and say as little as possible about how they conceive of the world and its crises. Where Starmer has engaged closely with political thinkers, including Claire Ainsley and Deborah Mattinson (now his director of policy and director of strategy, respectively), it has been principally to find ways of connecting with lost voters, rather than developing a policy programme. As all media becomes social media, and as parties become run as perpetual campaigns, all politics becomes identity politics. This is why the question of who is photographed standing on a picket line – instead of those workers’ actual demands – has become so important to Starmer.

Many of the thinktanks that influenced Thatcherism and Blairism still prosper, but not in the same way. Shrouded in secrecy regarding their funders, the great thinktanks of the 1970s new right are now better understood as lobbyists for … well, who knows? Thinktanks of the liberal left, such as the IPPR and Resolution Foundation, do invaluable work as critics and analysts of Britain’s dysfunctions, but none could claim to be the “brains” behind the Labour leadership.

Starmer’s aversion to big ideas may derive from his ongoing battle to distinguish himself from his predecessor: Corbynism was characterised by an unusual flowering of critical economic thinking, from John McDonnell’s council of economic advisers to The World Transformed festival of ideas, though Starmerites would no doubt ask what good it ultimately did the party.

Reality will eventually catch up with whomever finds themselves in power over the coming years, just as it eventually caught up with Johnson. The last six years has demonstrated that politics without ideas is possible, but not necessarily desirable, either for the country or those in power. An abstract narrative does not fix anything by itself, but – if it gains a grip on reality – it helps coordinate the instruments of governing, campaigning, and communications, especially when the future is most uncertain. The alternative, to borrow Cummings’s helpful metaphor, is government by broken shopping trolley, lurching around aimlessly.

  • William Davies’s most recent book is Unprecedented? How Covid-19 Revealed the Politics of Our Economy