Last year – in 2014 – there was a curious debate about the views of the French President, François Hollande, in which the President himself participated, in a manner of speaking. It was about his politics, or more particularly, about where on the continuum of the political left his views were located. In mid-2013 M Hollande had declared in an interview that he was a socialist, and that he couldn’t see that the label ‘social democrat’ was appropriate. By early 2015 that had all changed. In a press conference that was largely dominated by questions about his complicated private life, he described himself as a ‘social democrat’ and announced changes in economic policy that had many of his political allies accuse him of selling out to capitalism. Interestingly, vocal criticism of his supposed sell-out to capitalism came not just from the ideological left but also from Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
In Britain the apparent rise within the Labour Party of the ‘hard left’ Jeremy Corbyn has had commentators scramble for their dictionaries of left wing terminology to work out how to describe what he and his backers stand for. Mr Corbyn himself has been helpful, pointing observers to the 1970s, a decade during which, he thinks, the Labour Party did things worth studying now. Of course the 1970s was a decade during which the binary ideological divide between left and right defined most political commentary. On the left there were some who were more ‘pragmatic’ than others – and who was ever more pragmatic than Labour’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson? But the political tribes identified their differences by labelling some as left and everyone else as right. And this indeed was reinforced in the 1980s, with the Reagan/Thatcher coalition standing in opposition to the declining Soviet Union and the political left in the West.
After the Cold War, and in the heady days of Clinton/Blair centrist policies, such distinctions were less easy to sustain. Those who craved the politics of ideological commitment were pushed to the margins. But are we about to return to the comforts of ideology? Is Corbyn the future, rather than François Hollande and his meanderings on the political stage? Is the left about to retire from the soggy centre ground and go, well, left?
Actually, there may be a more interesting question. If Jeremy Corbyn were to get into government in Britain (and I’d say the prospects are not huge), would Britain’s ensuing socialism be of the 1970s type as he suggests? In other words, would we see the re-emergence of left wing statism? Would we have not just British Rail, but also British Leyland? Is it really true that the left – the pure left, those who say they don’t want to have their politics labelled socialist while actually reconciled to capitalism – have not found a frame of reference to express their socialism beyond the assumptions of the 1970s that a big state does everything best? And if they haven’t, how comfortable can they be in the knowledge that they share these assumptions with other economically dirigiste movements, including Ms Len Pen’s Front National?
Still, the political debate may be about to get very interesting indeed.