Great Britain in post-ideological age. James Walston Interview (American University of Rome)

Italian article written by di Laura Guadalupi – English Translation by Caterina Barbaro and Letizia Rainò

James Walston, professor of international relations at The American University of Rome, is also a political scientist, journalist and commentator. We asked him to give us his opinion on transformations in the political scene of Great Britain, from the Big Society to the new approach towards European Union and the relationships with emerging powers.

Big Society is the flagship policy idea of David Cameron. According to you, which are advantages and disadvantages of such an ambitious project?

Big Society is a radical ideal, because unlike Margaret Thatcher said, namely society doesn’t exist, it is not only the recognition of the existence of society but also the recognition of its importance. If David Cameron succeeds in putting this idea into action, he will bring an even more profound change than Tony Blair did. It continues, in some ways, reducing government spending and state intervention in every social sector, from health to education. Anyway, just because it seems to me a radical project, I think it’s very hard to realize, especially at an historical moment in which it is necessary to reduce spending, but at the same time this reduction requires expenses in order to subsidize local communities.

Local communities which could lead to a fragmentation of national territory in many small communities.

That’s right, small communities. When people have less money to spend, we risk having kids without school, sick people without hospitals, retired people adrift. Cameron obviously doesn’t want and can’t afford it. For these reasons in my opinion there is a contradiction in the idea of Big Society and I don’t know how he will manage to realize it. The premier maybe would like to return to a society similar to Victorian Age society, referring to private responsibility, or maybe he would like to suggest again a meaning that is closer to the American example, where there is a heavy presence of the private sector in society.

We immediately wonder whether this could lead to other disparities.

Of course, and besides disparities it risks to produce inefficiency too. According to me, this is one of the biggest Americans’ mystery. In the health sector, for example, they are inclined to pay almost double than we do in Europe, to have a worst service. In United States, if you can afford to pay a good insurance, you’ll got the best health care in the world. but I can’t understand why it’s so inefficient and expensive.

Differences between the two parties of the coalition government are fundamental with respect to relationship with European Union. On the one hand there is Tories’ euroscepticism, on the other hand Liberal Democrats’ approval for Europe. Until now they have reached a balance thanks to a constructive and pragmatic attitude. Will this compromise stand?

British schizophrenia exists from Churchill’s time; he embodied a very strong nationalism accompanied by an as much strong internationalism. This is the unsolved problem of the English and not a problem of the British or Scottish, who always had much closer relationships with Europe, both at the time when Scotland was independent and even later. On the contrary English people have this problem of historical nature: once they didn’t need Europe; it was sufficient keep it at a distance. But since the end of the Second World War the situation has changed and since Great Britain entered in European Union, its ambivalence continues. There is no doubt that United Kingdom can’t exist nor play an important role without Europe, but someone would like it. The government, whether the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, must face a conflicting attitude. I think Cameron is already doing it, through Nick Clegg, or better through the party. It seems as if Cameron became the president and Clegg and George Osborne the parties. I would like to know if they do so consciously. Maybe they do so. I believe that both of them, Clegg and Cameron, are quite similar and foxy, in the positive sense of the word.

Do you think it is a strategy?

This is my opinion, I don’t know if it is true, but as for the relationship with Europe, during the electoral campaign Cameron was quite “euro-sceptical”. Now he is forming an effective military alliance with the French, and this is in opposition with all English instincts since Henry V age onwards. You know, there is always bad blood among cousins. But it is also true that nowadays dislikes are far less. I think to the numerous English who leave to France. Half of them who live in the south of England use to go there to do shopping during the week-ends, coming back home “grumbling” against Europeans and Brussels.

After all, even though it brushes up ancient misunderstandings, the recent signature with the French cousins in matter of defence and security does not risk to remain unpopular.

The old hostilities remain, but today they are very softened. The English are pragmatic and think that, after all, the new alliance is useful. Even this is radical and counterintuitive, because the Conservatives would be the guardian of traditional values, but form an alliance with the French cousins.

How come?

We have to specify that there is a great active reduction into political differences, and Great Britain, as well as all rich and developed societies, could be considered quite “post-ideological”. Up to the 80s, existed some keywords that let us distinguish clearly right and left wing. Due to changes that are occurring in the society and in the labour, today it’s different. The working class is disappearing, at least in Great Britain. There are no mines nor steel plants any longer. It is clear that some “dirty works” still exist, but they have not the same weight as in 60s and 70s. Up to few decades ago a miner’s interests were different from a employee’s ones. Today differences are mitigating. Obviously they remain, but less than in the past. Blair’s capability is that he managed to convert the Labour party into a centrist party. The same Cameron’s capability. The quip used during the election, that says that Cameron is a Blue Labour, it’s not just a quip, but we have to specify that who was more on the right wing than on the Labour wing was Blair. For these reasons we are going towards a non ideological politics, because the big class differences of that time don’t exist any longer and the problems today are quite similar. I believe this is the key to understand Cameron’s success in the past elections. A Financial Times article (Philip Stephens, Cameron aims for pivotal European Role on November 2nd, 2010) reported that the Anglo-French agreement we have mentioned is part of a wide-range political project, in a renewed will of European “trilateralism” made up by Great Britain, France and Germany.

We are in front of another constant of the British, French and German politics. It is as the three country said: “We are great, we decide, the others follow us”. And they do it for political and economical interests, apart from who is chancellor, prime minister or president. It is and always will be a natural bond among these countries until they are the politically and economically biggest and the most solid in Europe.

How did the alliance with United States change in comparison with the past? It is perceived that today the interest of Great Britain is going elsewhere, towards the emergent powerful countries, in particular towards Commonwealth countries, first of all India. Has come the time for new balances?

Great Britain wants to link with powerful country, and India is. Also Pakistan is a important era, where there are international and internal politics interests. The target of maintaining good relations with this country derives also from the necessity of integrating the second and third generation British immigrants of Pakistan origins, which are numerous. The relationship with United States is slowly weakening. Great Britain is becoming a less and less important allied to United States. On the other hand, the current wars are very unpopular and not shared in Great Britain. I believe that with Blair and Bush Great Britain has supported all the overseas allied adventures, for many reasons: ideological, personal and , above all, historical ones. These choices have revealed not to be well accepted within the Labour party and even less outside it, because Conservatives are asking for the withdrawal of the troops and talk about peace even more than the Labour party do. isn’t this another example of counterintuitive and post ideological politics?




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