Photo by Arthur Edwards - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The fantasy politics of pragmatism

Janan Ganesh is wrong about radical politics

Artillery Row

There are columnists whose role, whose very raison d’être, is to project the sense that sanity — blessed sanity! — exists. The world might be insane, trapped between different brands of lunatics, but in their columns everything is sound and obvious. Their 800–1000 words amount to an island of reason in a sea of madness.

Janan Ganesh is one such columnist. His prose oozes tranquil certitude. If he has ever doubted himself, then I suspect he was just wondering if he was right or incredibly right. If he has ever been wrong, then it was only in expecting too much from other people (and he hasn’t made the same mistake since).

In his latest column for the Financial Times, he argues that Britain is returning to pragmatism after its experiment with radical politics in the form of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. “Boris Johnson is out of parliament,” he writes:

Scotland is becoming less of a one party state. Tony Blair is no longer persona non grata. At discreet intervals, the UK government makes some kind of accommodation with the EU: a deal on scientific research funding might be next. In 2019, Britain had to choose between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. Next time, voters will have their pick of adenoidal but meticulous technocrats in Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir.

Meticulous? I dunno what they’ve done to deserve that. Note the figure sliding mischievously through this paragraph. Tony Blair, it seems, represents “pragmatism”. The man who joined the preemptive invasion of Iraq, opened Britain’s borders to an unprecedented degree, force-fed the higher education system and established the sweeping legislative and institutional framework of modern managerialism is just a humble pragmatist. Not for him the “grand visions” and “easy answers” that Ganesh sees in radicals. No, he understood that politics is about “trade-offs and half-loaves”. In what sense — his policies or his vibes?

Granted, Ganesh has made the reasonable point elsewhere that the invasion of Iraq would have probably taken place regardless of whether Britain had joined in. Almost two hundred British soldiers would not have died, though, if we had kept our distance (and billions of pounds would have been saved). Besides, Blair was a true believer. He thought that our participation mattered.

I’m not trying to restart old arguments here. I’m trying to demonstrate that what gets called “pragmatism” is fantasy politics.

It would be foolish to defend “radicalism” qua “radicalism”. Ganesh isn’t wrong about the danger of demagogues and totalising worldviews. I agree, naturally, that compromise is essential to politics, and that evidence is essential to policy. Is it correct, though, that unhinged populism is what ails Britain?

Ganesh notes that “one in three voters now think [Brexit] was a good idea”. That’s proof of dissatisfaction. Does it prove that Brexit is the cause? About one in four voters think Britain has adequate or insufficient immigration, and I doubt that Mr Ganesh thinks this proves the failure of the perspective.

As much as it pains me to write, major problems need a major response

I don’t think there is much about Britain’s undeniable dysfunction that you can blame on “radical politics” — or, at least, on “radical politics” in any kind of new and dissident form. The conflict in Eastern Europe and the fallout from COVID have been significant drivers of inflation, and no one would suggest that Western support for Ukraine or COVID-era policies are or were “populist”. Britain’s lack of alternative energy sources can be pinned on Net Zero and on the managerial sclerosis of a coalition government that didn’t have the patience for nuclear power. Its crippling lack of infrastructure is primarily the fault of an ingrained vetocracy that blocks reform, never mind anything “radical”.

This state of affairs means any effective response must be “radical” as well. Again, that doesn’t mean “radicalism” is inherently good. Having a perforated ulcer doesn’t mean that you should amputate your leg. Nonetheless, as much as it pains me to write, as someone who used to hymn the virtues of Oakeshottian conservatism, major problems need a major response.

As a right-winger, I of course think this is true when it comes to immigration, crime et cetera. All of us can agree that it is true of energy, though, whatever kind of energy we think is most appropriate. All of us can agree that it is true of the NHS, whatever kind of reform we advocate. How should adenoidal technocrats (too kind a description of Sunak and Starmer, but we’ll stick with it) have the ideas and the will to find solutions then force them through the red tape and vested interests in the way?

“Key parts of British society now need renewal,” the reader learns in Compassionate Conservatism, which Ganesh wrote with Jesse Norman MP in 2006, “of a scale and energy last seen in the economy a generation ago.” What has improved since then to diminish the “scale and energy” of the renewal that Britain needs?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover