Alan Kinsella, the well-known archivist of Irish election material, recently posted online leaflets issued by the Young Progressive Democrats which railed against the evils of socialism. What made them interesting was their unusual nature, an Irish political leaflet from a mainstream party that talked about an ideology, as opposed to the usual Whatever You're Having Yourself of Irish politics.
To be honest, as a former Young Progressive Democrat myself, I was never too enthused about railing against socialism, because I was very much on the progressive wing of the party, so much so that Michael McDowell once declared me the "leader of the Young Communists".
What was interesting, nevertheless, was that there was a pretty clear understanding of what socialism was. High spending funded by high taxation.
It's very easy for those of us on the centre-right to regard socialism as having a place in western society. Capitalism remains the greatest way of generating innovation and wealth, but socialism, in its crudest form, wealth redistribution, remains the emergency safety valve that stops capitalism blowing itself apart, and that's a symbiotic relationship I can live with.
Having been to communist countries I've come to the conclusion that socialism works best when inside a robust capitalist economy. What's frustrating now, however, is that we don't have a real socialist option in this country, and we are going to need it when this awful disease is finally beaten into submission. For many on the left, the Covid-19 crisis has a silver lining, demonstrating very effectively the power of the State to achieve good things quickly. They're right. The Irish public service has excelled itself in its response, and many people will live because of it.
But the maths don't lie. We are spending billions on emergency services and welfare provision, and that bill will have to be paid eventually. On top of that, there are many of the actions taken, such as the emergency €350 Covid-19 payment, and various freezes on rents, etc, that many populists want to keep, and their continuation will cost money too.
As it happens, such a programme is perfectly legitimate to advocate for. I don't agree with it all, but what bothers me is not the advocacy but the refusal of advocates to, in good faith, then stand by the other half of the deal, which will have to be considerably higher taxes paid for by all. That's what I mean about needing real socialists, not the Fauxcialists we have.
Consistently those in Ireland who call themselves socialists, but are populists in practice, refuse to stand by the need for higher general taxation on all. Instead, they advocate the constant narrowing of the tax base or a focus on unsustainable sources of tax revenue like the Apple tax account, or the idea that swingeing taxes on the very wealthy will provide in the long term. Even our old friend Corrib gas will probably get a run out.
Ask them in a radio interview a straightforward "will your voters pay higher taxes if you get in?" and you'll get a sailor's hornpipe around the question with more caveats than a Japanese kamikaze squadron's life insurance policy.
There's still a refusal in our society to have serious, rounded, warts-and-all debates about the choices facing us.
Take the issue of a Universal Basic Income. There's been much talk of it in light of the emergency payment, and yet all the debate is on one side, about people being entitled to it and how much it should be, with many focusing on the idea that it should fund a work-free lifestyle.
There's almost no debate that it will probably be funded primarily by abolishing most existing social welfare payments, and that it would almost certainly require people who don't currently work to work to some degree (and probably pay income tax) if they require additional money. In fact, it might even require the abolition of the minimum wage in order to create all those casual gig jobs that allow top-up income. That's why so many on the right like it as a concept, because it abolishes means-tested welfare traps.
The big issue looming at the back of all this will be the realistic broadening of our tax base beyond the pretend top-hat-wearing, moustache-twirling plutocrats of past debates. All the people who demanded that water taxes be replaced by "general taxation" will now have to step up in support of the latter as they discover that making stuff "free" doesn't absolve its cost but reduces tax revenue you could have spent on something else.
The big challenge for the legitimate left is to make the honest case for higher common taxes. Interestingly, Labour's choice of Alan Kelly as leader might make a useful contribution towards this. On the one hand, as one of the primary defenders of the water tax, he cost his party a lot of votes. On the other hand, he has economic credibility to make the honest argument that, yes, social justice does cost money.
All those 700,000 people getting the emergency payment paid Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI), and it's a living embodiment of your taxes paying for a social safety net when it is needed. Let's hear someone make that argument rather than the usual cop-out of Someone Else Will Pay For It. Let's have a courageous rather than a pandering left.
The post-Covid period will be an opportunity to reset Irish politics. But first it means all of us being very honest to ourselves.