Disclaimer: this post, despite its title, has nothing to do with the current conflict in the Middle East, and mostly concerns my views about how to best explain the history of political parties, in the context of my discussion with Phil Edwards here. Should you be interested in my views on the current conflict in the Middle East, they can be found, expressed in their typically digressive fashion, here and here.
Having written at the weekend about the way in which, to get a little excessively Kuhnian, our paradigms can make it difficult for us to assimilate certain kinds of information, I thought I might offer some further thoughts on the same theme.
I've always thought that there was something oddly appropriate about the author of L'Etranger having been a goalkeeper. As anyone who has played in goal enough knows, it has a sense of separation, of not really being engaged in a team sport. Typically, a goalkeeper's intervention will, if successful, prevent a goal being scored, and if unsuccessful, do the exact opposite. There's usually no-one there to save a goalkeeper from the consequences of their mistakes, which are always frighteningly immediate, and so the sense of cooperation, of working together, of a safety net, I imagine outfield players have is lacking. Responsibility gets drawn differently: whilst you alone are culpable for your mistakes or moments of brilliance, your culpability for the mistakes of your team-mates is, because in a way you do not play with them, much more limited than is typical. Something of the same spirit seems to me to lurk in the distance, the alienation of the existential anti-hero, with their inability to see others as anything more than objects in the world. I suppose though, the thought that being a goalkeeper and existential angst are in some way complements is perhaps significantly more revealing about my temperament than it is about either goalkeeping or existential angst.
As an undergraduate, I took a paper in British twentieth century political history. Because of the essays I and my tutorial partner choose to write, and perhaps because the person who taught us was a card-carrying member of the Labour Party who somewhat wistfully explained he could no longer remember the original wording of Clause Four now it was no longer on the back of his party card, we ended up concentrating rather heavily on the demise of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party. There are essentially three competing narratives about this series of events. One focuses on internal and basically personal divisions within the Liberal Party which fracture it, creating a space on the political left which Labour then, after some troubles of its own, fills. Call this the Lloyd George thesis. Another stresses the role of the First World War, an external shock which reconfigured, in a variety of ways, the political landscape to the detriment of the Liberals. Call this the Total War thesis. The last claims that, even in the absence of rifts in the party leadership and the trauma of the First World War, social changes were afoot - the gradual dissolution of an electorate based on local and sectarian affiliations into one based on class, primarily - that the Liberals would have always struggled to deal with. Call this the Class thesis.
Any sophisticated historical analysis is obviously going to draw on some aspects of all three accounts: Lloyd George and Asquith's fallings out clearly took place against the background of World War One - briefly, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exhequer in the peacetime government, did a deal with the Tories to shaft Asquith, his Prime Minister, through a mix of what seems to have been genuine disagreement with Asquith's running of the war and unadulterated lust for power, which resulted in the formation of a Coalition government which, although containing Liberals and led by Lloyd George, was numerically dependent on Tory votes - just as some of the later disagreements amongst Liberals were partly doctrinal, largely about how to best deal with mass unemployment - Keynes, after all, was a Liberal grandee of sorts. The question, though, is about the dominant strand in the argument: which, causally, is given greatest weight?
Now, the relevance of the thoughts about the complementarity of existentialism and the great art of goalkeeping start to become clear. One of the things about the distance between a goalkeeper and the rest of their team is that the goalkeeper tends to experience the failings of the rest of their team as somehow fated, beyond their control. If the defence fails to mark up properly, the defence fails to mark up properly, and beyond shouting, there is very little a goalkeeper can do about it. It is not their failing, but the rest of the team's, a collectivity whose doings effect the goalkeeper despite the goalkeeper having little power to effect them. Or at least, that's how I see it. Impersonal forces, not on a stage of their own making, and so on. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, then, I've always found the Class thesis most convincing as an explanation of the demise of the Liberals and eventual rise of the Labour Party. You can expect personal animosities and external shocks in politics, and a party which struggles to deal with them will need a remarkably loyal as well as numerically significant constituency to be able to survive as a serious political force for any serious length of time. Changes to the composition of the electorate, both because of external social change and electoral reform, as well as the deflation more or less inherent in property requirements, meant the Liberals lacked a loyal and numerically significant constituency. That's why they virtually disappeared, I'm fairly convinced.
The relevance of this is that, well, this operates as a kind of Kuhnian paradigm for me. If we're talking about the history of political parties, we're talking about social change, about the appearance and disappearance of loyal and numerically significant constituencies, and only really at the margins about the creation or destruction of those constituencies, at least so far as I am concerned. Political leaders are, for me, a little like goalkeepers, their actions constrained by being somewhat at the mercy of impersonal forces they can often do little more than shift slightly in one direction rather than another. That does not place them beyond criticism - how I still laugh, thinking of Tim Howard's failure to stop Kenny Miller's weak shot from slipping under his hand when Wolves beat Man U 1-0 at Molineux in 2004 - but it does constrain the criticism in a particular way.