Tuesday, July 21, 2009
James Purnell was on Newsnight declining to say how he felt about Brown and insisting on talking about ideas - primarily 'equality of capability' which is derived from the work of Amartya Sen. The left outside Westminster, Purnell said, was full of energy and fizzing with ideas. This contrast between high, noble abstractions and the concretion of personality politics has always been more characteristic of the left than the right. Tony Benn used it all the time as a way of suggesting the media were lowering the tone of political debate, which, to be fair, we were. Since the eighties, however, the right has deployed the high abstraction of the market as well as the flapdoodle of neocon universalism. Unlike Socrates, Plato will not lie down and drink his belladonna.
This is not to say that ideas in politics are necessarily a bad thing but they need to have what neuro-theorists call 'intentionality', they need to be about something. I'm not sure what Purnell was saying was about anything other than the need to have something to say at Brown's wake. If equality of capability means eliminating child poverty and massively improving state schools - and I think it does - then say so. But, I suppose, he can't say that because that's what Blair said and he failed on both counts and, for good measure, also increased inequality.
My point is that 'improving state schools' is the beginning of a political idea in that it is the prelude to specific actions whereas 'equality of capability', though a noble and interesting concept, does not. Saying the latter is a political idea is like saying quantum theory was a great way of building computers. There's a link but it's too tenuous to be meaningful. The word 'political' means something and it's not the same as 'political philosophy'.
In that context, I don't think Purnell was saying anything at all. There is only one issue for any future government, however noble its aspirations. This is how to make our economy work without repeating the fatal mistake of relying on financial services and with an appalling burden of debt. This is a very practical matter which Peter Mandelson, once the great virtualiser, seems to have grasped. All else is arm-waving and further flapdoodle.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:10 am