Who would choose ‘Ronseal politics’?
British politicians’ latest response to a crisis of trust is to promise...nothing.
To judge by the number of times the word was used at the political party conferences, it seems clear that ‘choice’ is set to be a big issue in the run-up to next year’s general election in Britain. But what sort of choice are we being offered? The parties appear to be competing in a Dutch auction to see which can lower public expectations the furthest.
The conference season took place against a growing mood of public cynicism, disenchantment and disengagement from politics. The response of the various party leaderships was to seek to accommodate to the anti-political mood, eschewing controversy and serious debate in rather the same way that a defensive McDonald’s now tries to advertise itself to vegetarians.
As a result the conferences seemed even emptier and further removed from real life than usual, more like week-long PR stunts than meaningful political forums. The irony is that, because they were so vacuous, they failed even to achieve the media focus for which the party managers yearned. At the end of the conference season, BBC political editor Andrew Marr concluded that, ‘It’s a melancholy thought to end on, but we journalists have spent three weeks in conference centres, while hardly feeling central at all’ (1). The political editor of ITV, Nick Robinson, made the same point more succinctly, when he pointed to the ‘irony that the more these events are made for television, the less coverage they actually get on TV’ (2).
To see the Liberal Democrats present themselves as the anti-politics party, allegedly standing above the ‘yah-boo’ antics of others in parliament, was only to be expected. That is the ticket on which the Lib Dems have made in-roads in recent elections, competing with fringe groupings such as the fast-rising UK Independence Party (and the faster-rising abstention party) for the anti-Westminster vote.
The real eye-opener this time was seeing the ailing Conservative Party try to follow suit at its conference. Tory leader Michael Howard’s desperate pitch to voters baldly acknowledged that people did not trust political leaders because they make big promises that they fail to keep. But I’m not like that, said Howard, you can trust me – because I’m not promising you anything! Instead of the ‘grandiose’ political visions of prime minister Tony Blair, Howard’s Tories would offer people practical ‘action not words’. Of course he then went on and on about how he wasn’t going to give big speeches, but managed to sum up his election manifesto in just 10 words: ‘School discipline. More police. Cleaner hospitals. Lower taxes. Controlled immigration.’ (3) The one word he definitely didn’t include was politics.
Tory policy coordinator David Cameron spelt out the party’s new anti-political, no-promises approach more bluntly, comparing it to the adverts for a leading brand of wood protection products. ‘People are crying out for a kind of Ronseal politics’, he announced. ‘They want it to do what it says on the tin.’ (4) This is about more than giving the Tories’ tarnished image a quick lick of varnish. When the former party of church, crown and empire tries to reinvent itself as the party whose loftiest ambition is to stop your garden shed from leaking, it is a sure sign that high principles are out and low expectations are in.
This week, Tony Blair responded to Howard’s impression of ’umble Uriah Heep by attacking the Tory Party’s new approach as ‘minimalist’ – ‘an offer so bare that its very paucity is meant to give it credibility’ (5). By contrast, Blair told leading New Labour think-tanks, he believed it was better for politicians to pursue ‘grand visions and great causes’, and New Labour remained committed to the ‘big idea – the big agenda’. A third term Blair government would therefore push ahead with ‘bold and far-reaching reforms’.
That might sound like a principled political position. But the different tone of Blair’s rhetoric largely reflects the fact that he is in government rather than opposition. It is not really possible to play the anti-Westminster/Whitehall card from inside 10 Downing Street. In the real world, you cannot run the country and conduct international affairs by comparing yourself to a tin of Ronseal.
Look more closely, however, and the content of Blair’s ‘big agenda’ is every bit as ‘minimalist’ and ‘bare’ as the other parties’ anti-political programmes. His speech was long on challenges – he listed seven in all, from pensions to lifelong learning – but noticeably short on any new ideas, never mind ‘grand visions’, with which to meet them. It was telling that the few policies to be subsequently highlighted included such petty ‘personal health’ measures as some sort of ban on smoking in public and more regulation of food adverts. Only the most Lilliputian of political outlooks could consider these kind of pettifogging government measures ‘bold and far-reaching’.
We have reached the point where even New Labour, the party that usually cannot stop making up policies on an almost daily basis, now fights shy of making more promises. Of course, when you have an overriding political vision of the society you wish to create, it is not always necessary to offer supporters long lists of detailed proposals. In short, if you have enough Politics with a capital P, you do not need too many little lower-case policies. New Labour has suffered compulsive initiative syndrome in recent years, constantly issuing endless lists of targets and proposals, precisely because it lacks any substantial political principles. The government has sought to fill the hole in its centre with paper policies, the political equivalent of landfill.
Today, more than ever, Blair’s government lacks any grand visions and great causes. The Iraq debacle has made it hard for Blair even to compensate for the downbeat state of domestic politics by looking grand and important on the world stage. In addition, however, New Labour now seems wary of announcing too many of its little initiatives and petty policies, for fear that these too could backfire and increase public cynicism.
(The reason New Labour makes an exception of personal health issues is because this is the one area where it feels confident of securing a consensus. As Blair said in one of the few specific passages of his speech this week, ‘There is general agreement that we could do more to tackle smoking and obesity in particular’. Expect them to seize on that rare area of agreement to ‘do more’ to help people make ‘informed choices’ about the proper way to live and raise their children.)
Now it becomes easier to understand the peculiar status of ‘choice’ in British politics today. In many cases, it has become a code word for abdicating the responsibilities of political leadership. Instead of treating people as citizens to be involved in grand visions and great causes, you reduce them to consumers out shopping for a small tin of something. Simply offering parents or patients ‘choice’ as a solution to the problems of education or health is just another way of shifting responsibility on to the individual and away from our leaders. That sort of consumer choice belongs on the supermarket shelf, not in the political struggle to create the Good Society.
As a general election approaches, Britain (like America on the eve of the presidential poll) is in desperate need of some genuine choice between competing political visions. Such choices and visions can only emerge on the basis of collective interests, as the old politics of left and right did in the past. But before anything like that can happen, we each need to see ourselves as morally autonomous individuals and active agents of our own destiny, rather than cynical observers and passive consumers of Ronseal politics.
It is in this spirit of self-determination that spiked both criticises the phoney choices of consumer politics, and takes a stand for people’s right to make important choices (even the ‘wrong’ ones) for themselves on issues such as personal health where the new conformism is at its most pervasive. That might sound a little ‘minimalist’ for those of us who really do want bold, far-reaching changes in society. But what other choice do we have today?
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked will be hosting a conference to debate all of the complex issues surrounding choice in the run-up to the UK general election. ‘Whose Choice is it Anyway? Challenging the New Conformism’ will be held on 11 March 2005 in central London. For details email Helene Guldberg [email@example.com].
(1) Marr’s conference season verdict, BBC News, 8 October 2004
(2) Postcard from Bournemouth: fatter and wearier, but sadly not wiser, The Times (London), 8 October 2004
(3) 10 precious words, so soon forgotten, Guardian, 6 October 2004
(4) Blair outlines vision of welfare reforms, Herald, 12 October 2004
(5) Blair urges bold welfare reforms, Independent, 11 October 2004
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