The decade that politics forgot
…or perhaps more accurately, the Noughties was the decade when we forgot about politics.
It has become normal at the end of a decade to review the political struggles of the previous 10 years, to ask which side has won the big battles and why, which vision of the future has the upper hand, and what are the lessons to be learned for the decade to come.
But things are slightly different in British politics at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century (and whatever any calendar pedants among us might think to the contrary, the end of 2009 is being marked as that end point).
What big political struggles between competing political movements have there been in the UK over the past decade? None. There may be different parties competing in next year’s General Election. But there is not a single political movement of any stripe with roots or meaningful support in British society today.
What were the great debates over the future of society that shaped the past 10 years? There were none. The outlook of TINA – There Is No Alternative – continued to dominate the decade. And there are no competing visions of the future fighting to determine the next one.
When it comes to weighing up the total of major ideas and breakthroughs that have marked British politics over the past 10 years, the ‘Noughties’ seems an apt enough title for the decade.
It is now 20 years since the end of the Cold War precipitated the international collapse of the traditional movements of both left and right. Yet still nothing of substance has emerged to fill the political vacuum. Instead TINA continues to rule by default. And whilst that Thatcherite slogan began life as a bold assertion of the supremacy of the market, it has increasingly come to represent a downbeat fatalistic acceptance that capitalism might be in crisis, but there is nothing much anybody can do to change things for the better.
Of course there has been a form of political life in the UK in the Noughties. But it has not been a debate between competing political interests and outlooks about how to create the Good Society. Instead we have endured…
The politics of fear: The decade that began with a global panic over how the ‘millennium bug’ Y2K was going to bring down Western civilisation is ending with a global mega-panic about how climate change is going to bring down civilisation, life and the planet. In between we have witnessed panics about the threat posed to our society by everything from terrorism to obesity. The common feature of the politics of fear has been a loss of faith in humanity and progress, and a misanthropic assertion that human activity – technology and industry – is the problem rather than solution.
The politics of behaviour: This was a phrase coined by a New Labourite to describe the UK government’s increased interest in legislating for everything from what we eat to what we should think and say. Political leaders with no grand ideas or vision of the future have lowered their horizons to micro-managing our lives. Abandoning any aspirations to mobilise people and forge the Good Society, they have instead focused on imposing their notions of the good citizen on the allegedly ‘anti-social’ masses.
The politics of anti-politics: This is where we have ended up in the UK at the end of the Noughties – where the only popular ‘movement’ is a wave of revulsion against government, politicians and all things political. The neverending scandal over MPs’ expenses claims has become the most powerful symbol of public alienation from the despised political class and the contempt in which it holds democracy. But it did not begin with the recent anger about the exposure of their expenses. The gap had been growing throughout the decade between a political class that stands for nothing more than clinging to power, and an electorate left with nothing more than duck houses and clock towers and Simon Cowell’s X-Factor against which to vent their frustrations. Now we are faced with the prospect of an anti-political election in 2010, in which just about the only ‘ism’ with a hold on the public imagination is cynicism, and where politicians will be criticised for their expense accounts rather than made to account for their ideas and actions.
Even the one shortlived large-scale movement of the decade, the protests against the 2003 Iraq War, fit into this dispiriting pattern. The protests were motivated by the politics of fear. It was not really a mass political movement for change, more a collection of individuals making a personal statement of their alienation from the politics of the age, as captured by the slogan ‘Not In My Name’. That could have been the cri de coeur for the Noughties, when people turned their backs on what passed for politics, but without embracing any alternative; when voters were against governments, but rarely for anything else. It was thus no surprise that, having made their statement, the mass anti-war movement disappeared almost overnight.
So at the end of the decade, when our economy and society faced the most acute crisis in memory, what was the response of our leaders and experts? It has been shaped by what went before: the politics of fear, with many apocalyptic warnings, but little analysis of the underlying causes; the politics of behaviour, with attempts to blame the crisis of the system on the greed of individuals; and the politics of low expectations, with efforts to persuade us that the most we can hope for in the future is no/low growth in a stable/stagnant capitalism on a life-support machine of state intervention. There has been little or no debate about what sort of new dynamic economy could replace the burst financial bubble of the past decade, merely a butcher’s argument about how much to cut from public spending and how much austerity to impose. The fact that a crisis is also an opportunity – a moment when we must make a decision about which way to go – has been lost sight of.
The Noughties are ending, and there is nothing much to miss about the political life of the past decade. But will the next 10 years be any better? It is high time we introduced the political class to a new TINA – This Is Not Acceptable – and began a proper debate about what sort of society we want to build for the future. It will be no easy task to sweep away the rubbish of the past decade and counter public cynicism about the prospects for progressive political change. spiked’s Vote for Politics campaign around the coming General Election is as a good a place as any to start.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.