What Kinnock did next

Why are Western politicians restyling themselves as global advocates for those 'without a voice'?

David Chandler

Topics Politics

Next year, Neil Kinnock, former leader of the British Labour Party, will step down from his position as vice-president of the European Commission – and he’s currently deciding what to do next.

He recently squashed rumours that he will take a seat in the UK House of Lords, and possibly a seat in the Cabinet as Leader of the House, claiming that he is ‘not magnetised’ by such prospects (1). Kinnock argues that formal politics is too constraining; instead he wants to transform himself into a human rights advocate with a global brief.

‘There are quite a lot of bad guys in the world, there is a lot of injustice, and there are a lot of people who do not have a voice’, he says. Seeking legitimacy from ‘those who do not get heard’, rather than from formal processes of government, may seem a wise choice for a politician who was roundly rejected by British electors in both the 1987 and 1992 general elections.

Yet it is not only those who are used to cosy bureaucratic sinecures who would rather gain political legitimacy from those ‘without a voice’ than take their chances with the voting public. It seems that even elected governments today gain more legitimacy from moral advocacy than from political representation.

This is most clear in the promotion of ethical foreign policy. The current issue of the Foreign Affairs journal leads with a discussion of the rise of ethics in foreign policy, welcoming the use of ‘ethical rhetoric’ in America’s national security agenda (2). Now that the politics of moral advocacy has been taken up in Washington and London, there is growing disquiet over the monopolisation of morals by the Anglo-American establishment. The US ‘liberation’ of Iraq and Afghanistan has brought these concerns to the fore.

The new projection of US power was made possible by the collapse of old Cold War restraints; yet it is domestic political weakness rather than international military might that has led to the rise of moral advocacy in the international sphere. That Western governments are taking up the moral advocacy role – previously the preserve of their radical critics – tells us more about shifts in politics at home than in international affairs.

In the 1970s and 80s, the problem of political legitimacy was felt most sharply by those groups most reliant on collective forms of organisation and political engagement – the political left. Many on the left sought to bypass political difficulties in winning support at home by emphasising their moral legitimacy rather than their political support. Instead of politically engaging with the poor or the oppressed, they became ‘moral advocates’ – giving voice to, valorising and universalising their ‘subaltern subjects’.

Radical social critics, like the French intellectual Michel Foucault, celebrated the freedom and autonomy of the advocate over the constraints of political representation. Foucault’s ‘new declaration of the Rights of Man’ – that of individuals to bypass their governments and the political process to act internationally – was taken up by radical NGOs, such as Bernard Kouchner’s Médicines sans Frontières, and by others who asserted the advocate’s ‘right to intervene’ in other states’ affairs.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the problem of political legitimacy has become more generalised. Governments are increasingly seen as less important or influential. There is an increasing cynicism towards government and politics, demonstrated by falling voter turnouts, declining party memberships and lower viewing figures for the nightly news.

Even general election victories, the defining point of the political process, no longer bring governments a sense of authority or legitimacy. Consider the contested victory of George W Bush in the 2000 US elections, which turned on the problem of the ‘hanging’ chad in Florida.

But the problem of deriving legitimacy from elections is a much broader one, not directly connected to concerns of manipulation or even to voter apathy. In the 2001 British elections, Tony Blair achieved a landslide second-term mandate, and his government faces little political opposition, yet there is no sense of a connection with the public, or of a political project that could engage society

Without a political project, which can give meaning to government actions and the passing of legislation, governments appear weak and ineffectual. Domestic policy decisions, whether in education, health, transport or policing, appear as short-term or knee-jerk responses. Without an ideological context, policy is liable to be reversed or undermined at the first sign of funding difficulties or problems in implementation.

There appears to be no vision or project that can give government a sense of purpose. In this context, domestic policymaking is caught in the ‘everlasting present’, where it is contingent on events rather than shaped by government.

The lack of a political project at home has emptied domestic politics of meaning. The emphasis on ethics and the advocacy of the rights of others reflects Western governments’ attempts to bypass the problem of reconnecting with their own electorates. This desire to avoid confronting domestic problems is played out in the focus on ethical foreign intervention, where American and British governments attempt to win legitimacy by asserting a moral ‘right to intervene’ abroad rather than building a political project at home.

Ultimately, domestic frailties are likely to undermine the credibility of any military successes abroad.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
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  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
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  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • Read on:

    Law in disorder, by David Chandler

    Jack Straw’s colonial discourse, by David Chandler

    (1) See Neil Kinnock,, 1 June 2003; and ‘Kinnock eyes crusading role’, Observer, 1 June 2003

    (2) ‘The rise of ethics in foreign policy’, Leslie H Gelb and Justine A Rosenthal, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2003

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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