Why does Gordon Brown hate politics?

A new book suggests that it is politicians' own low horizons and scepticism about political change that leads to apathy amongst the masses.

David Chandler

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Topics Politics UK

Under recent headline-grabbing claims about ‘giving up power’ and ‘passing power from politicians back to citizens’, newly installed British prime minister Gordon Brown looks set to continue the reforms he started in 1997, when, as chancellor of the exchequer, he took the historic decision to give control over interest rate-setting to the Bank of England (1). Brown is promising us all a ‘different type of politics’, and his apparently fresh approach is being roundly hyped as ‘giving politics back to the people’.

Brown’s new politics involves: a ‘constitutional convention’ involving other political parties, churches and trade unions and leading to a constitutional reform bill – ‘a bill of rights’; a fully elected House of Lords; a shift from the first-past-the-post system to proportional representation; a shift of powers from the executive to parliament (for example, over the decision to go to war and over public appointments); a shift from central to local government; and greater public participation, through people having a greater say in local service provision and more initiatives such as e-government provision (2).

Brown’s willingness to break with traditional political convention became clear when it was revealed that he wanted to include cabinet members from outside the Labour Party in a proposed ‘government of all the talents’. Two members of the House of Lords refused positions as cabinet ministers – Lord Stevens, the former head of the Metropolitan Police, and the Liberal Democrat peer and former international governor of Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown. Nevertheless, the ministerial appointments of Admiral Sir Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy, Sir Mark Malloch Brown, a former aide to Kofi Annan at the United Nations, Digby Jones, a former director general of the CBI, Professor Sir Ara Darzi, a leading surgeon, and Shriti Vadera, a special adviser to Brown when he was chancellor, flagged up Brown’s desire to legitimise his government on the basis of expertise rather than political affiliation or electoral representation (3).

So why is the prime minister seemingly so keen to give up his powers of government and to establish his credentials on a technical, non-party political, basis? A new book, written by Colin Hay, professor of political analysis at Birmingham University, provocatively titled Why We Hate Politics, offers some answers.

Hay claims that one of the key reasons for the British public’s deep distrust of politicians, political parties and the whole process of formal politics is that politicians themselves have low horizons about what is possible to achieve. He puts this down to the acceptance by the political class of the central tenets of neo-liberalism, especially those of public choice theory and new public management theory, which attempt to reduce policymaking to a depoliticised process of technical administration.

Hay’s book makes a lot of sense. We are all by now familiar with the policy consequences: the contracting out of public services to the private sector, the development of internal markets and the ‘incentivisation’ of highly publicised targets and performance league figures on the basis that public employees – from civil servants to teachers and doctors – cannot be trusted to put public interests above personal ones.

Hay argues that the rejection of politics by the political class has played a major role in shaping the public’s perceptions of the political sphere. Politics and public debate have become less important to decision-making, which has increasingly moved out of the public sphere with elected politicians seeking to ‘empower’ management boards and other quasi-autonomous bodies, devolving power away from the centre. A good example would be the Brown team’s policy proposals for National Health Service reform, with professional boards and patients’ groups having a greater say in the running of provision on the basis that this empowers citizens and local communities (4).

The May 2007 Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit Policy Review, Building on Progress: The Role of the State, makes it clear that ‘outsourcing’ goes along with what Brown calls ‘democratisation’: ‘The ultimate purpose of the strategic and enabling state is to redistribute power to the people… The modern state needs to work in a new way – less about command and control and more about collaboration and partnership.’ (5)

The policy review illustrates the shift from a focus on the responsibilities of government to that of the responsibilities of citizens, offering the contraction of central government and the replacement of government authority through the routine involvement of non-governmental bodies, the buying-in of services, and the encouragement of citizen involvement, particularly in the spheres of education and health.

Hay argues that the reason for this shift is that political elites have taken up public choice theory assumptions and have become convinced that globalisation has restricted the possibility of, and importance of, policy choices. In consequence, politicians have ‘…further denuded the political, discharging and off-loading their responsibilities to those less directly and publicly accountable for their decisions. In so doing they have significantly undermined not only their own capacity to deliver collective public goods, but also the collective societal capacity for public deliberation.’ (6)

Where Hay is less convincing is in his understanding of the rise of new public management approaches and the off-loading of government responsibility as ‘the result of an unfortunate series of cumulative, mutually reinforcing, yet largely unintended consequences’ (7). He argues that the depoliticisation of politics was essentially unwittingly undertaken by governments in their search for technical and bureaucratic efficiency, and in their genuine belief in the limitations of the political sphere (8). Even in so far as some policy steps could be seen as part of a conscious policy of depoliticisation, such as granting operational independence to the Bank of England, this is seen to be short-sighted rather than part of a much broader trend (9).

Unfortunately, Hay only notes in passing the depoliticising trends associated with government attempts to shift power upwards – particularly to the level of the European Union. He devotes just one paragraph to this process and underplays its importance, writing that, in terms of the shift away from formal politics, it is ‘not depoliticising in so far as the transfer occurs between institutions that are formally political’ (10). Similarly, Hay does not consider how foreign policy relates to this process of depoliticisation, with the increasing emphasis on the leading policy role of international institutions, such as the United Nations, where Brown has already made key speeches on poverty reduction and intervention in Darfur (11).

Another of the book’s drawbacks is Hay’s rather technical understanding of the distinction between formal and informal politics, where the crisis of politics merely affects what takes place in the formal arena. Hay, like the March 2006 Power Inquiry report, Power to the People, understates the depoliticisation of public policymaking through taking a narrow definitional approach to politics and demonstrating concern merely about public participation in the formal public sphere of voting and political parties (12).

In focusing on depoliticisation as merely a movement away from the formal political sphere, Hay understates the problem in two crucial respects. Firstly, he fails to note the evasion of government responsibility and accountability explicitly involved in devolving powers to parliamentary committees, local authorities and the European Union. Secondly, he neglects the depoliticised nature of the informal politics of consumerist and lifestyle political activism, which does little to challenge the public cynicism and low expectations of the formal political sphere.

Brown’s reform proposals, and those of the official inquiries and policy reports which have informed them, either seek to patronise voters by claiming to empower them through community consultation, or they seek to bring more public managerialism into the political process. This appears to be less about ‘bringing government closer to the people’ than about distancing central government from the electorate: in short, it is profoundly anti-democratic rather than properly empowering. When the prime minster’s Strategy Unit talks about government’s core role as giving people ‘more control and more choice’, this is understood in a highly personalised and atomised way.

Empowerment in this sense does nothing to tackle the problem of limited political choices. Instead it seeks to engage with people at the level of personal concerns, particularly in health and education, where individual and parental responsibility easily becomes a framework for distancing government from policy accountability. The increasing shift in responsibility is seen in personalised approaches to social problems, from individualised health awareness and parenting programmes, to personalised learning agendas and the more coercive Acceptable Behaviour Contracts and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.

However, the consequences of the government’s empowerment agenda go much further than shifting accountability on to individuals in depoliticising, and increasingly draconian, ways. The agenda of empowerment is less an authoritarian agenda of social control than a reflection of a government which has lost its way. The Brown government looks set to intensify and further institutionalise existing trends towards outsourcing government, both in terms of service delivery and in terms of policymaking itself. The focus on new public management approaches tends to emphasise the depoliticisation of service delivery rather than the more fundamental process of the depoliticisation of policymaking – of government – itself.

It appears that the less confidence government has in its capacity to develop a policy agenda, the more likely it is that citizens will be ’empowered’ in the framework of local consultations, policy and focus group inputs, e-petitions, Citizen’s Summits and assorted public inputs into policy reviews. Ironically, all these mechanisms undermine or bypass traditional forms of representative democracy and evade the problems of reconstituting collective forms of political association and engagement, such as political parties. Citizens’ empowerment may not shift power away from government but it does reflect the increasingly inability of political parties to aggregate public opinion or provide constituencies to cohere policymaking.

It appears that the distancing of the affairs of government from public political debate – whether this takes the form of technocratic managerialism or of the personalising empowerment of citizens – is a reflection of the weakness and isolation of political elites, rather than any incidental, arbitrary or mistaken policy beliefs. Hay’s book, despite its lack of focus on the dynamic behind depoliticising policy responses, nevertheless, sharply identifies the corrosive consequences of government attempts to evade the problem of public political engagement, through further depoliticising the public realm. It therefore provides a good way into understanding the complex relationships between the ideas and assumptions we project on to politics and the resulting practices and processes (13). If the government does not trust itself with power, the public is not likely to trust it either.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book, Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building, is published by Pluto Press. Buy this book from Amazon(UK). Visit David Chandler’s personal website here

Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay is published by Polity Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons asked how the Ealing Southall by-election represents the nature of British politics today. Brendan O’Neill implored us to stop avoiding the issues and get to the point. Mick Hume examined New Labour’s legacy. Brendan O’Neill gave 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister and spiked readers voted Brown Miserabilist of the Year. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Brown outlines plans to shift power to the people, Guardian, 25 September 2006; Gordon Brown says he wants to return ‘power to the people’. But it’s not that easy, Independent, 19 June 2007

(2) Brown sets out reform proposals, BBC News, 3 July 2007; Lords face full election under Brown plans, Guardian, 21 May 2007; Has the tantrum-throwing thug learned new tricks?, Guardian, 21 May 2007

(3) Brown completes government of ‘all talents’ with team of outsiders, Independent, 30 June 2007

(4) See, for example, Has the tantrum-throwing thug learned new tricks?, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 21 May 2007

(5) Building on Progress: The Role of the State (London: HM Government), May 2007, p.4

(6) Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay (Polity Press) 2007: p.157

(7) Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay (Polity Press) 2007: p.158

(8) Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay (Polity Press) 2007: pp.94-5

(9) Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay (Polity Press) 2007: pp.116-7

(10) Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay (Polity Press) 2007: p.85

(11) Gordon Brown warns of world poverty failure, Daily Telegraph, 1 August 2007

(12) Power to the People, The Report of Power: An Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy (York: York Publishing, 2006)

(13) Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay (Polity Press) 2007: p.160

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Topics Politics UK

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