The art of the impossible.

Author:Jackson, Ben
Position::Editorial - Essay
 
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Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. In half a century of public and professional life I have not found it so. The limits of the possible constantly shift, and those who ignore them are apt to win in the end. Again and again I have had the satisfaction of seeing the laughable idealism of one generation evolve into the accepted commonplace of the next. But it is from the champions of the impossible rather than the slaves of the possible that that evolution draws its creative force.

Barbara Wootton (1967, 279)

Barbara Wootton's life spanned the bulk of the twentieth century (1897-1988) and many remarkable shifts in the boundaries of political possibility. A social scientist and indefatigable contributor to progressive causes, Wootton witnessed the arrival of democracy in Britain; the rise of Labour (she worked as a researcher for the Party in the 1920s); the creation of the welfare state; and the social and legal liberalisation of the 1960s. She ended her career in the House of Lords, appointed as one of the first batch of life peers in 1958 and the first female member of the second chamber.

But Wootton also lived to see one further redrawing of the boundary of the possible: the ascendancy of a revived free-market right under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Like the other major political changes just mentioned, in retrospect the rise of the right has acquired an air of inevitability. But this is of course misleading. A careful examination of the politics of the last forty years discloses the importance of agency and contingent events in regulating the pace and trajectory of political change. As Wootton well understood, the boundaries of political feasibility are subject to periodic renegotiation in part thanks to the efforts of 'the champions of the impossible'. Foremost among the ranks of the latter in recent times must surely be the dedicated intellectuals, activists and business-people who nurtured the gospel of the free-market through its wilderness years.

Faced by economic crisis and imminent political defeat, the left is rightly reconsidering how we arrived at the present conjuncture and debating how British politics might be shifted in a more progressive direction. This issue of Renewal contributes to this important discussion by examining what the left can learn from the rise of the free-market right. To what extent can the strategy and tactics pursued by the right in their years of exile from the political mainstream be adopted by the left? How was the right able to turn the economic crisis of the 1970s to their lasting political advantage? How did right-wing politicians, scholars and activists establish themselves as apparently magical practitioners of the art of the impossible? Readers will have their own thoughts about the answers that can be gleaned from the articles in this issue. But, by way of introduction, I have distilled from the following pages six themes that give some initial orientation.

First, as Steve Davies argues, we should not exaggerate how successful the right has been. In spite of the generally gloomy tone of most left commentary, the free-market right has not yet managed to roll British politics back to the era of laissez-faire. Public spending, particularly on the welfare state, remains robust by historical standards and difficult to reduce; the conviction that collective political decisions should in important respects trump the outcome of market-based transactions remains deeply entrenched in the practice of the state and in public opinion. The years of Labour government since 1997 have seen some modest strengthening of these deep-rooted social democratic achievements.

Steve Davies echoes an observation that was central to the historical self-understanding of free-market intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s, namely...

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