The policy of disclaiming responsibility

From criticising risk-obsessives to mocking multiculturalism, why are government officials attacking their own most cherished ideas?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The Health and Safety Commission has urged the public to ‘get a life’ and ‘stop concentrating effort on trivial risks and petty health and safety’. Which is rather like the Pope urging people to stop concentrating on the death of a man 2,000 years ago.

This is just the latest example of government officials coming out against their own doctrine. Various New Labour ministers have launched forthright attacks on their own key ideas – ideas that have informed thousands of policy statements and initiatives – all without a blink, as if such ideas had nothing to do with them.

Also last week, Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly made a speech criticising multiculturalism – a notion that runs like a vein through the policy of all government departments. Kelly said she thinks we are moving from a ‘period of uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism’, to one ‘where we can encourage that debate by questioning whether it is encouraging separateness’.

This self-criticism has been going on for a while. Back in May 2004, culture secretary Tessa Jowell wrote a pamphlet criticising the instrumentalist approach to culture funding, and celebrating the value of art for its own sake. ‘Too often’, she wrote, ‘politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas – education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing.…’

Yet the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) made its name by demanding that cultural institutions become ‘centres for social change’, and demonstrate their contribution to social inclusion goals. This was the defining feature of New Labour cultural policy, as opposed to that of previous governments. Not only does Jowell disavow these ideas, she also claims that ‘politicians have been forced’ down this route.

Similarly, we hear periodically key New Labour thinkers come out against ‘target culture’ or ‘pragmatism’ – as if they had nothing to do with its evolution. The Department of Health, meanwhile, has criticised the ‘worried well’ for swamping health services or using up all the flu vaccines – after years of policies encouraging well people to be concerned about their health, and a succession of policy statements warning of the dangers of an impending flu pandemic.

It would be easy to put this down to hypocrisy, or to point out that this self-criticism changes little. Certainly, over two years after Jowell’s revelation about the intrinsic value of art, the DCMS still requires cultural institutions to show how they are contributing to social goals. And the Health and Safety Commission continues to do its bit for highlighting ‘trivial risks and petty health and safety’: one recent press release warns ‘Two million British workers suffering ill-health’ (mainly ‘musculoskeletal disorders’ and ‘stress’); another tells parents to ensure that their children ‘play only in safe areas such as playgrounds’ over the summer holidays.

But this is about more than hypocrisy; instead, it’s an inevitable consequence of the kinds of ideas that New Labour is trying to promote. What defines all of these ideas is that they appeal to the weakest and worst sides of people. The Health and Safety Commission relates to the public by encouraging people to live their lives by risk assessment; the Department of Health by encouraging us to be concerned with our health. These policies are essentially negative, based on what people cannot do, rather than positive, based on what they can do. As a result, they have an elusive and out-of-control character.

It’s difficult to find the authors of pragmatic cultural policy or risk assessments. I was at a debate recently where a number of speakers attacked the Arts Council; the head of visual arts at the Arts Council spoke from the floor, but emphasised ‘I don’t speak for the Arts Council’. Well, it’s difficult to know who does, then. Increasingly, government departments are like ghost ships, sailing off into the mists. The question, ‘Who is your captain?’, brings a universal chorus, ‘Not I… Not I’.

It’s not just the government that disclaims responsibility for current policies, though. Many of these ideas have been spontaneously adopted as part of people’s work practice, yet few believe in or take ownership of them. Instead, they go through the motions, claiming that this is just what you have to do nowadays.

So arts professionals tick all the boxes for the DCMS, with museums even going further than government in justifying their work in instrumentalist terms. Organisations will carry out stupid risk assessments and avoid doing things because of ‘health’n’safety’, while claiming that the government is ‘forcing’ them to do it. But this often just isn’t the case: the head of the Health and Safety Commission had a point last week when he said that, ‘Some of the “health and safety” stories are just myths. There are also some instances where health and safety is used as an excuse to justify unpopular decisions such as closing facilities.’

The policy ideas of our age are everywhere and nowhere. They are in the air, but are rarely defended, either by ministers or the professionals who have taken them on board. Government ministers’ theatrical attacks on their own ideas will go nowhere. The challenge is both to carry out a sustained critique of these policies, and to try to breathe a more positive spirit into political life.

Josie Appleton is coordinator of the Manifesto Club.

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Topics Politics


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