Taking refuge in the rhetoric of reform
By proposing electoral reforms in response to the expenses scandal, politicians are futilely seeking an organisational solution to a political problem.
These days, calls to reform this or that institution have a predictable and perfunctory character. And nowhere is this clearer than in the responses to the expenses scandal that is rocking the UK.
Demands for ‘institutional reform’ reflect a singular lack of imagination. So it isn’t surprising to discover that, in response to the expenses scandal, Alan Johnson, the UK health secretary, has called on prime minister Gordon Brown to hold a national referendum on electoral reform. Apparently, nothing less than a ‘genuinely radical alternative’ to the present desultory state of parliament will revitalise public life.
The rhetoric of reform has got some people excited. The Electoral Reform Society described Johnson’s demand as a ‘breath of fresh air’. And Johnson is not alone. Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, believes that tinkering with the system of MPs’ expenses is not enough; rather the whole political system needs to be reformed. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, also has a lengthy shopping list of institutions and practices that must be reformed: this morning he has promised that, if he becomes PM, he will cut the number of MPs by 10 per cent, reduce prime ministerial power, and generally ‘shake up’ the system. Politicians from other parties are also calling for a fresh start, a political renewal, or for wholesale reform.
History tells us that the rhetoric of reform usually serves as a substitute for political thought. This is how it has panned out: parliament got bogged down by its unusually incompetent handling of how MPs expenses are managed; it then became excessively defensive about the situation and even more deferential to the media than is normal, and finally turned in on itself. It is as if 646 emperors have been caught out by the little boy, and now they must quickly find some clothes and get dressed in order to win back the people’s trust.
The question is: how? The default response is to take an imaginative leap to that fairyland of institutional reform. In recent decades, in lieu of political vision or thought, there has been an endless cycle of reforms in Britain. Poor old education, health, the police and local government have been some of the casualties of the imperative to reform.
Of course there is also an honourable tradition of progressive political reform. But in order for reform to mean something positive, it needs to have a clearly worked out analysis of what problem it is trying to solve, as well as clarity about the objective it is trying to achieve. Today, by contrast, reform has become another way of saying ‘reorganisation’. Typically, it represents an attempt to find an organisational solution to a political problem. That, at least, is the charitable interpretation… most likely in recent years the call for reform has been driven by an imperative of impression management. Promoting reforms gives the appearance of doing something. Just as incompetent business managers are wedded to the idea of ‘change management’, so politicians running on empty wave the flag of reform.
British public life has taken on a tawdry theatrical quality. For some time now, public life has been dominated by the need to be seen to be Doing Something. Historians will look back on the Blair-Brown years as an endless cycle of pointless initiatives. When a cabinet minister states ‘This morning I am announcing…’, you know that it will be the same old spectacle that you have witnessed a dozen times before.
What is so sad about this performance is its lack of purpose. There was a time when politicians carefully manipulated situations in order to promote their agenda. Today there is no agenda, and instead public figures seem preoccupied with justifying their very existence. And it is no surprise that politicians who are so preoccupied by their own image inevitably invite scrutiny and the politics of scandal-mongering. What is truly shocking about the expenses scandal is that British society is prepared to tolerate a situation where political disputes cease to have any real significance. The only issue at stake in this scandal is how politicians spend their parliamentary allowances or how they cook the books. Yet the problem with many of our MPs is not that they are playing the system, but rather that they appear more concerned with how they come across than with acting on their convictions.
Whatever one thinks about the moral standing of our political class, electoral reform is not going to improve matters. The problem is not how we vote, or even the integrity of contemporary politicians; the real problem is that parliamentary politics is simply lost for words. There are no big issues or ideas that stimulate genuine political debate. The only time that politics seems to come alive is when there is a whiff of sleaze or scandal. And with so little at stake, is it any surprise that a receipt for a Kit Kat can provoke the outrage of a nation?
New forms of impression management, through the promotion of electoral reform, are unlikely to alter the perception that something is wrong. We don’t need electoral reforms so much as leaders who are more devoted to their ideas than to their images. The issue is not electoral reform, but getting some parties that are worth electing.
Frank Furedi is author of Culture of Fear (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), both published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.
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Read more at spiked issue MPs’ expenses.
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