A common explanation for the death of political ideas is that we live in a post-ideological age, in which grand narratives have been discredited and broken up, much like the heavy industry and public utilities of the 20th century. But surely this is highly exaggerated. It is true that Marxism as a practical economic blueprint lost what remained of its appeal with the fall of the Soviet Union; in a globalised world, a return to state socialism seems even less likely than Brown going down in history as one of the great communicators. Yet even though academics and intellectuals may scoff at the notion of grand ideological narratives, there is little evidence that the general public has lost its appetite for big ideas. One reason for the appeal of the British National Party, after all, is that it offers a simple and compelling story that makes sense to working-class former Labour voters. Moreover, there is no sign of religion dying out as a global force. And in their different ways, the anti-globalisation and green movements reflect the same hunger for ideological commitment and crusading mission – values that have almost disappeared from the arena of electoral politics.
The irony, therefore, is that as politics has become more ostentatiously open, with cameras recording Commons debates and committee sessions, so it has become increasingly populist, with politicians keen not to advertise their intellects in case they appear to be lording it over the voters. Overtly intellectual politicians, such as Lord Adonis or David Willetts, are generally kept away from the cameras, and are an increasingly rare breed anyway. What we are left with is a political scene that seems a long way from the bitter ideological debates of the 1930s, or even the great Gladstone-Disraeli clashes of the Victorian age, but is unavoidably reminiscent of the 18th century – a world of ”patronage, self-promotion and mutual back-scratching”, as Campbell puts it, ”where there is nothing at stake but the achievement and retention of office and the opportunities for personal enrichment that it brings”