The Great Disinhibition

Thinking about the imposition of interpretations, something that keeps coming back to me is the difference between the relatively few, but influential, people who actually supported the distinctive content of Blairism and the much bigger subset of Labour people who saw it as a set of pragmatic concessions, which might be rolled back if that became possible.

The unique selling point of Blairism within the party was always that it knew how to be popular, and therefore, to win. Blairites always loved to talk as if they were utterly neutral pragmatists, but in practice it was everyone else who was being pragmatic and swallowing their objections in the name of winning elections. For many years, the entire world of social democracy was operating on the assumption that the way to win was to hold back, a sort of politics of inhibition. This also worked for the right. There was a set of mutually supporting interpretations, spanning continents.

When the history of today is written, though, a good title might be The Great Disinhibition. At some point during the Bush years I remember thinking: the new thing here is that you can just yell “I want!” and that’s enough. The convention that constraints, trade-offs, or even costs were to be respected had failed. On one hand, you weren’t supposed to say that the Americans might be wrong, or that the European Union was wrong, and you were meant to believe deeply in various ideas about inflation and central banks. On the other hand, any expression of gross racism or sexism was expected to be career-terminating, and policy ideas were expected to be costed and given in detail to an exhaustive degree. Now, as far as I can see, you can say whatever you like as long as you can shout it. Trump’s announcements that he will simply win are much to the point.

The interpretations we use to perceive the world collapsed. The Tories’ triumph at the referendum, though, seems to have constrained them more than empowered them. Brexit gave them a license to fantasise, but this has mostly revealed that their fantasies are mutually incompatible, in a sort of terrible relationship counselling session. Each Tory who leaps onto the stage draws a red line. The more interlocking red lines there are, the more complicated every movement becomes. They can leap and turn and gesture, but they aren’t going anywhere.Eventually the dance of the red lines leaves the whole party in a shuddering entangled defensive huddle.

On the other hand, a lot of Labour people were itching to unleash social democracy, red in tooth and claw. This, in the end, is why the various efforts to get rid of Corbyn failed. My objection to him was that he wasn’t going to win or get close. When the polls began to move, it was high time to reconcile.

To formalise this a bit, imagine that we have two parameters – one that measures how close your policy is to what you want, and one that measures time in government. The effect you have on the future of the republic is then just the first multiplied by the second. Centrism is a strategy that optimises for this effect by weighting time in government up and ideological intensity down. A radical strategy would be the opposite – demand everything you want and hope for a few 1945 moments.

Which of the two strategies will work depends on whether the underlying distribution of voters is close to a normal distribution – like the median voter theory – or whether it is flatter or even bi-modal, like Karl Rove’s “50%+1” strategy. If the centre delivers popularity, it will obviously be a dominant strategy, but if not, it just sacrifices impact when you are in power. It is therefore very important to perceive the difference. This classic Daniel Davies post refers.

3 Comments on "The Great Disinhibition"

  1. Just remembered my Dad, who was fairly centrist in Labour terms and consequently way to the Left of New Labour. Still, he was delighted when Labour was elected in 1997, and believed in Blair personally – he told me more than once that Blair’s apparent moderation was a clever tactical game, and that if Labour got a second term he’d “surprise us all”. My Dad died in 2001, so he never saw how that bet paid off.

    As we know, an awful lot of repentant ex-Blairism is expressed in terms of “yes, but after Iraq”… In retrospect I wonder how much of that is a coincidence of timing – 1997-2001 seemed like a big load of nothing much, if you didn’t look too closely; so a lot of natural Labour supporters, while not particularly enthused by Blair, saw no positive reason to dump him through all that time.


  2. 1997-2001 seemed like a big load of nothing much

    Not if you lived in the Celtic fringe (like a lot of natural Labour supporters) it didn’t. Devolution and the Good Friday Agreement?


    1. Lords reform as well, which was a fudge, but a fairly important one if you imagine times over the past decade when the backwoodsmen might have been brought in.


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