F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

Paine in the 90's

By Simon Jameson

Thomas Paine attacked the self-elected elites who believed they had a rightful monopoly on power, morals and learning; he opposed hierarchies based on precedent and tradition rather than reason; he believed people should be considered according to how well they worked, not how old they were; and he argued that each generation should be able to change what they wanted according to their needs.

Relevant though these messages are for 20th-century Britain, they have been ignored while, ironically, those of his political antithesis, Edmund Burke, live on. Burke denounced Republicanism and argued for the wisdom of the past; that a nation was a set of inherited traditions and customs which could not be changed. Allow the people or, as Burke called them, "the swinish multitude", to run their own lives and disaster would surely follow. The left wing that coalesced at the turn of this century neglected Paine in favour of a one-size-fits-all philosophy of socialism - state control as a universal cure for injustice. Thereafter, all political and philosophical debate in Britain has been conducted as a pitched battle between socialists and conservatives - institution versus institution, class versus class, with the individual forgotten in the crossfire.

But the world is on the cusp of change. If the last decade was portrayed as a showdown between left and right, a choice between 1945 and 1895, this one is more complex. While Britons accepted deregulation, share ownership and a customer-based economy, they rejected any attempt to restrict their personal lives with traditional morals. Simultaneously, the globalisation of markets has led companies to focus on performance: it's no longer enough to be white, male, bald, and middle-class to manage a business. Meritocracy, not seniority, has become the key to success. Precedent and tradition are dead.

Or are they? The fact is that a Tom Paine-style meritocracy, which could now emerge, is a mortal threat to the elites of both left and right who make up our great British institutions. In the '90s, the availablity of new media - and explosion of information it heralds - will undermine the authority of the so-called opinion-formers. And our political parties have no interest in letting us run our own lives. Increasingly, the members of this institutionalised oligarchy are realising that the left-right divisions between them are merely semantics: left and right are beginning to sing the same song. With increasing alarm, they see power shifting from their institutions - like the BBC, Parliament, and staid, monolithic business organisations - to the individual. And they want to set this process into reverse.

The communitarian movement which aims to clamp down on individual rights and enforce "social duties" is endorsed by Labour's Gordon Brown, many Liberal Democrats, and Conservatives like David Willets. A recent bill to control the sale of videos in the high street proposed by the so-called Liberal, David Alton, was seconded by Tony Blair and had the full support of many Conservative backbenchers. And left-wing economist Will Hutton now mourns the end of the old enemy: big business bureaucracies. "They may have been cumbersome, but they were the means of imposing impartiality and order upon the world." Moreover, rather than following their policy of deregulation, the Conservatives have shored up the BBC's licence monopoly for another five years. In return, Director General John Birt tells his journalists to pose less searching questions to politicians during interviews.

Paine described this farce 200 years ago: "In this species of political fortification all the parts have such a common dependence that it is never expected that they will attack each other. "

Left and right came together once before in the 1930s. "The Popular Front" was formed for ethical reasons to fight fascism. This time around, the union has been forged to fight its own extinction, and it can only be described as the Unpopular Front. Sheffield University professor David Marquand shows how far we have come when he suggests that new thinking on the left should "...owe as much to Edmund Burke as to William Morris."

Forget left and right.

The real divide lies between The Unpopular Front - the authentic voice of Edmund Burke - or progress, the authentic voice of Tom Paine: empowerment, individual choice and the development of meritocracy.

Paine described this as a battle between the frozen winter of authoritarian rule and the freedom of summer. Whereabouts are we in all this? Well, as Paine said: "What pace the political summer may keep with the natural no human foresight can determine. It is however not difficult to perceive that the spring has begun."