On 24 November 1993, a meeting of Left intellectuals occurred in London, under the auspices of the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), which is a Labour-leaning think-tank. A short document was circulated in advance of the said meeting, to clarify its purpose. Among other things, the document declared that the task of the iprr was:

to do what the Right did in the seventies, namely to break through the prevailing parameters of debate and offer a new perspective on contemporary British politics.

The explanatory document also said that ‘our concern is not to engage in a philosophical debate about foundations of socialism’.

If this meant that those foundations were not the appropriate thing to talk about at the 24 November meeting, then that might have been right: not everything has to be discussed at every meeting. But if what was meant was that discussion of philosophical foundations is not what the Left now needs, then I disagree, and, if that indeed is what was meant, then I think it curious that the breakthrough by the Right should have been invoked as an achievement for the Left to emulate. For, if there is a lesson for the Left in the Right’s breakthrough, it is that the Left must repossess itself of its traditional foundations, on pain of continuing along its present politically feeble reactive course. If the Left turns its back on its foundations, it will be unable to make statements that are truly its own.

An essential ingredient in the Right’s breakthrough was an intellectual self-confidence that was grounded in fundamental theoretical work by academics such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Robert Nozick. In one instructive sense, those authors did not propose new ideas. Instead, they explored, developed, and forthrightly reaffirmed the Right’s traditional principles. Those principles are not so traditional to the British political Right as they are to the American, but they are traditional nevertheless, in the important sense that they possess a historical depth which is associated with the conceptual and moral depth at which they are located.

What the Right did is no proof of what the Left should do. It is nevertheless extremely suggestive. It tells against looking for ‘a big new idea’. That is anyway a futile endeavour, since you do not land a new idea as a result of angling for one, in the wide sea of intellectual possibility. New ideas standardly come from attempts to solve problems by which old ideas are stumped. Sometimes the new idea turns out to be big, but looking for a big new idea, as such, because it would be impressive to have one, is a ridiculous agendum.

The character of the Right’s success suggests that if, as the ippr document also said, and as I agree, customary inherited socialist rhetoric now turns people off, then the remedy is not to cast about for a different rhetoric, or ‘buzz’-phrase, irrespective of what its relationship to traditional principles may be, but to restore our own contact with those principles, from which exercise a new rhetoric may indeed emerge. The old rhetoric now sounds ‘dated’ not because everybody knows the content behind it but partly because its content has been forgotten. The Left will not recoup itself ideologically without addressing that foundational content.