Spineless and avaricious…So what’s new?
Well, quite a lot actually. Fifty years ago, politics was important in Europe at any rate – ideas and choices mattered.
It was actually almost an honourable profession – people like Bernard Crick argued thus in 1962 in a classic and highly eloquent “In Defence of Politics” which probably played some part in my own decision to go into (local, then regional) politics in 1968. (Daumier clearly had a different view of politicians in the early 19th century - which is why I've been using his caricatures to head this series of posts)
After a couple of years of community initiatives and three years of chairing an innovative social work committee, I found myself playing for 16 years a rather fascinating but unusual role – nominally the Secretary of a ruling group of politicians (responsible for some 100,000 local government professionals), I was actually trying to create a system of countervailing power - of advisory groups of councillors and junior officials challenging various conventional policy wisdoms; and of community groups in the huge swathe of poor neighbourhoods of the West of Scotland - trying to demonstrate what “community enterprise” had to offer.
Political studies had been one of the key parts of my Master's Degree - so I was aware of the literature about democracy (such as it was then) - and, more particularly, elites (Mosca; Pareto; Schumpeter; Lipset; Dahrendorf; Michels - interestingly none of it british!).
But it was the experience of representing a low-income neighbourhood in a shipbuilding town which showed me the deficiencies of actual democracy and the reality of bureaucratic power. The local, working- class politicians who were my colleagues were pawns in the hands of the educated, middle class professionals who ran the local services. As a young middle class graduate, I saw an opportunity to challenge things - using my social science words and concepts - if not knowledge!
I had been inspired by the community activism of people like Saul Alinsky (and also by the early years of the American War on Poverty) and indeed wrote in 1978 two 5,000 word articles for Social Work Today (on multiple deprivation; and community development). The latter critiqued the operation of democracy and appeared in a major book on community development.
Straddling power systems was not easy (part of the important balancing process I have spoken about) – but, because I was seen as honest (if eccentric), no one could unseat me from the post (for which I competed every two years - from 1974-1990) as Secretary of the ruling Cabinet and Group of 78 Regional Councillors.
I was also lucky also to have access in the 1980s to various European working groups – and get a sense of how politicians and officials interacted there. And, most of the time, still an academic. I was in the middle of a complex of diverse groups – political, professional, local, national and European. It was the best education I ever had!
But by the late 1980s I was beginning to see the writing on the wall – Thatcher was privatising and contracting out local government functions – and abolishing any elected agency which tried to stand up to her. Greed was beginning to be evident. Thereafter I have watched events from a distance. I left British shores in late 1990 and became a bit of a political exile!
Despite my unease with Blair and the New Labour thing, I was still excited by their arrival in government in 1997. And able to draft, even in the early 2000s, papers which extolled the apparent openness and creativity of British policy systems.
But most of it, I now realise, was sheer verbiage and spin. Yesterday's post summarised the key points of the 1995 paper which superbly analysed the various phases political parties have gone through to reach their present impasse.
George Monbiot’s 2001 book “The Corporate State – the corporate takeover of Britain” - exposing the extent of new Labour’s involvement with big business - was my first real warning that things were falling apart; that the neo—liberal agenda of market rather than state power was in total control. And a wave of urbane, smooth-suited and well-connected young wannabe technocrats powering through the selection procedures.
The scale and nature of political spin – not least that surrounding the Iraq war - destroyed government credibility like a slow poison.
The global debt crisis and bank bail-outs shattered the myth of progress.
And then the media made sure to rub politicians’ noses in the petty excesses of expenditure claims.
Both political parties haemorraged members – and then electoral support.
There are still some lone voices prepared to defend the political class - but it is a pointless task.
The political party as we know it has exhausted its capital – but still controls the rules of the game. They decide the laws; who is allowed to run; what qualifies as a party – with how many nominees or voter threshold; with what sort of budget; and with sort of (if any) television and radio coverage…
Parties should be abolished – but it is almost impossible to do so because they will always come back in a different form…….
I’m just looking at a book which focuses on the fringes of the European party system – the populist parties – and which does a good job of setting them in the wider context.
We have governments that no longer know how to govern; regulators who no longer know how to regulate; leaders who no longer lead; and an international press in thrall to all those hapless powers. Political parties no longer represent, banks no longer lend……Current political and social conditions are paradoxical: as citizens and individuals we live lives that reflect the fact that we have more information and more access to information than ever before – while at the same time we have a great deal less certainty about our futures, both individual and collective. We are, some would argue, increasingly living in conditions of ‘radical uncertainty’. …..
Uncertainty returns and proliferates everywhere.’ As a result, one of the key variables that needs to be factored into how we understand both demands and mobilisation on the one hand and policies and institutions on the other is anxiety.Not the niggles and worries of everyday life, but rather the surfacing of deep turmoil in the face of an uncertain future whose contours are barely perceptible and thus increasingly frightening.
And, though the condition of radical uncertainty might have existed, objectively, in the past, it existed at times when there had been no experience or expectation of the predictability of the future beyond that imagined in the context of religious or magical beliefs. No experience of the desirability and possibility of controlling our fate. Radical uncertainty in a world in which everyone has come to prize autonomy and control is a different proposition all together
The digital revolution provides an impetus for the transformation of populism from a set of disparate movements with some shared themes and characteristics into something that has the force of a political ideology. The accelerated quality of political time and social media’s capacity to broadcast failure and dissent mean that the digital revolution gives populist movements a steady supply of political opportunity that reinforces its coherence. ...
And in the face of the rather colossal set of forces and transformations that fuel populism’s growth, curbing its destructive potential is about more than fiddling with an electoral manifesto here and changing an electoral strategy there. Those things need to be done, but they are minimum survival tactics rather solutions. The problem is the manner in which populism as an ideology is capable of marshalling the uncertainties and anxieties that characterise our era and responding in ways that provide the illusion of reassurance. Illusory though it may be, it fills that gap between the expectations of redemptive democracy on the one hand and the lacklustre manoeuvring of panicked policy-makers on the other. A gap otherwise filled with uncertainty and anxiety becomes filled with populist reassurance.