Society and Culture

Book review: “The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life” by Stephen Davies (Part 1)


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Political alignments

Political opinions can be bundled in thousands of different ways. If there are three policy issues (say, criminal justice, foreign policy and education), and three possible positions one can take on each (say, conservative, progressive and liberal), that already gives us 27 possible combinations. Needless to say, there are many more than three policy areas, and often more positions one could take on each.

Nonetheless, we do not have thousands of political parties, or thousands of different words to describe political ideologies. Nor do political arguments usually take place on an issue-by-issue basis, where you side with X today because you agree with them on criminal justice, with Y tomorrow because you agree with them on foreign policy, and with Z next week because you agree with them on education. Instead, we get relatively stable political blocs. We think of some people as our political allies, even if we disagree with them on some issues, and of other people as our political opponents, even if we agree with them on some issues.

When we are in the thick of a political argument, these formations feel obvious, and natural. But there is nothing obvious about them, and while they can be stable for a long time, they can and do change periodically.

Dr Steve Davies’s book The Economics and Politics of Brexit is about this process. (I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, please not Brexit again!”. But don’t let the title put you off. It is not about Brexit per se. The subtitle The Realignment of British Public Life is much closer to the mark.)

Davies explains that there are usually salient issues, or clusters of issues, which create major ideological cleavages in a political community, thus splitting it into ideological camps. Davies calls the cleavages the “aligning issues”. You are either on one side of an aligning issue, or on the other. If you and I are on the same side of the aligning issue, you will probably see me as a political ally, even if we disagree on many other things. If we are on opposite sides of the aligning issue, you will probably see me as a political opponent, even if we agree on many other things.

Britain’s old alignment

From the late 1970s or early 1980s until very recently, the primary aligning issue of British politics was economics. You were either a small-state/pro-market type, or a large-state/anti-market type. Social values, i.e. social liberalism vs. social conservatism, acted as a secondary aligning issue, thus splitting society into four main ideological camps. (You will recognise the four quadrants of the “political compass” in this.)

The old alignment (late 70s/early 80s – mid-2010s)

Primary alignment issue:

economics

Big Government,

Market-sceptic

Small Government,

Pro-market

Secondary alignment issue:

Social values

Social conservatism Old Labour,

“Red Tories”,

Most of the trade union movement

Thatcherites
Social liberalism Progressive Left Classical Liberals

 

A good illustration of this is the movie Pride, set during the Miners’ Strike of 1984, which tells the story (based on real events) of a group of London-based gay rights activists who form an awkward alliance with a group of Welsh coalminers. There is not much of a story: the movie is mostly about the cultural shock the two groups experience in trying to make sense of each other. The miners are socially conservative and not particularly keen on gay rights; the campaigners are metropolitan progressives who are not exactly at ease in provincial Wales. In “Daviesian” terms, we could say that the two groups are on the same side of the primary aligning issue (=their shared rejection of Thatcherite economics), but on opposite sides of the secondary aligning issue. This explains why they are willing, and able, to form a coalition, but also why that coalition is an awkward one.

(One could, in principle, have made a similar movie about the other side of the primary alignment issue: a London-based libertarian student society, and a group of grouse-shooting shire conservatives, bonding over their shared embrace of Thatcherite economics. But something tells me that I would be the only person in the country who would have enjoyed that movie.)

So far, so good. But aligning issues do not retain that role for all times. An aligning issue can fade into the background, or be crowded out by a new one. Now, what happens when a new aligning issue comes along, and cuts across the ideological camps created by the old one?

 

Continue to Part 2…

 

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Recommended reading/watching/listening:

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).



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