Their politics and ours
We definitely need a ‘new politics’ today - but don’t expect it to come from the technocratic, ideology-free Liberal-Conservative government.
It’s becoming clear what the leaders of the Lib-Con government mean when they talk about ‘new politics’ – they mean ‘no politics’. They mean forging a technocratic, administrative, ideology-free government which, in the words of one of their more breathless cheerleaders, will put an end to the ‘confrontational them-or-us yah-boo politics of old’. This institutionalisation of non-politics, of government by artificial consensus, is bad for those of us who believe that there are still profound tensions in society, that history hasn’t suddenly come to a standstill, and that Politics with a capital P – even with a bit of ‘yah-boo’ – is still needed to work these things out.
It is extraordinary the extent to which political observers fell into line behind the new government following the excruciating, Richard Curtis-style press conference in the Downing Street garden. Commentators who only 10 minutes earlier had been spouting cynicism about the idea of a Cameron-Clegg partnership were suddenly hailing the dawn of a brilliant new era. ‘It’s consensual. It’s civilised. It’s grown-up’, said one. Like a Laurie Lee wannabe, a Guardian editorialist wrote about Cameron and Clegg’s ‘laughter on the lawns and skittish exchanges amid the wisteria to the accompaniment of birdsong in the spring sunshine’, and hoped that this spectacle confirmed that Britain’s political parties have ‘stopped pummelling and started to embrace one another’.
Many observers hope that the new Lib-Con government will finally do what their one-time-hero-turned-villain, Tony Blair, promised but failed to achieve: institutionalise a consensual system of government that can rise above the old ‘male culture’ of ‘yah-boo politics’ (1). They are most impressed by Cameron’s promise of an ‘historic and seismic shift in our political landscape’, where the ‘national interest is more important than party interest, where cooperation wins out over confrontation, and where compromise, give and take, reasonable, civilised, grown-up behaviour is not a sign of weakness but of strength’.
It all sounds eminently sensible – who, after all, would march to Downing Street to demand unreasonable behaviour from our politicians? Yet for all Cameron’s talk of an ‘historic’ refashioning of the political landscape, it’s important to recognise that, in truth, this new politics, in keeping with the Third Way of the Blair years, represents an accommodation to historical reality rather than a conscious making of history. It represents, fundamentally, the supine adaptation of government to the historical fact that the left-right divide and the old ideologies have expired and that nothing substantial has emerged to take their place. The new politics, the new Cleggeron version of the Third Way, is really a sexing up of political stasis, a cynical redefinition of the crisis of politics as a conscious attempt to introduce a new, fairer, less confrontational system.
In essence, the Lib-Con government is making a virtue out of a vacuum. It is spinning the end of the ideological struggle between clashing visions of the future – which was the stuff of politics for near-on 200 years – not as something that should at least be seriously discussed, but as an opportunity for finally elevating politics above the grubby, insatiable desires of various camps (what Cameron snottily refers to as ‘party interests’) and instead making it a cool, calm, expert-driven system of management (what Cameron hails as the ‘national interest’).
This echoes the Blairite Third Way that came to prominence in the 1990s. Too many people looked upon Blair’s Third-Way approach to politics as a new bombastic ideology in its own right, sweeping aside the poor old left on one side and the isolated right, those ‘forces of conservatism’, on the other. Leftists said Blair’s was a new market-driven ideology, while right-wingers said it was Socialism-in-drag. In truth, the Third Way emerged from the already-existing demise of the left and the profound disarray of the right. It was an attempt by various thinkers and politicians to spin the emptying out of politics and the hollowing out of the old parties, which came to a head in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a positive development that they had actually secretly desired all along. As Anthony Giddens admits in his book The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, TW is fundamentally a recognition that ‘pre-existing political ideologies have lost their resonance’ (2). It was the elevation of that loss of resonance, of the crisis of ideology, into a new system of government.
There are many serious problems with this new approach to politics, which has been so enthusiastically inherited by the Lib-Con government. First, it is an attempt to freeze an historical reality, where what is wildly referred to as a ‘new politics’ is in fact a system whose starting point and raison d’être is simply that the old politics no longer exists. It is more focused on codifying the end of the old than devising something truly new, where the demise of ideological struggle is sexed up as the ‘winding down of yah-boo politics’, the transformation of the parties from mass movements into PR machines is re-presented as ‘the end of narrow party interests’, and the exclusion of the public from the political realm is embraced as an opportunity to make politics more managerial and sedate, more ‘reasonable, civilised and grown-up’, in Cameron’s words.
Second, the Lib-Con government’s technocratic new politics will push further the Third-Way trend for separating the conduct of politics from the desires and beliefs of the public. What Cameron really means by ‘cooperation over confrontation’ is the clubbing together of elite elements – various party politicians, advisers and experts – to ‘do politics’ in a more aloof, erudite fashion. Cameron in particular has used the formation of the coalition government as a way of further separating his inner, Cameroon party machine from the Conservative Party’s broader membership base and voters, implicitly arguing that the party’s ‘traditionalists’ are too wedded to old ideological outlooks whereas he and his coterie of advisers can see the need for ‘give and take’. Cameron’s hope that forming a coalition will allow him finally to escape being tied to a pesky party base speaks volumes about how the new government views its supporters, and, by extension, the public: as impediments to today’s necessarily technocratic, narrowly administrative government.
Third, the new government seems to believe – spectacularly foolishly – that there are no longer any competing interests in society. Its declaration that it will govern in the ‘national interest’ is based on a belief that the demise of the old politics also meant the demise of different interests, so that now everything can be done in the name of ‘the nation’ rather than in the name of one interest over another. In truth, competing interests haven’t gone away – they have simply been suppressed, shunted from public life, denuded of any outlet for their open, ideological expression. Competing interests are still there, but they’re no longer consciously expressed, organised around or projected into the political realm.
Anyone who is serious about politics should challenge the aloofness and elitism of the Lib-Con’s governance in the ‘national interest’. It is an entirely artificial consensus. There is no national interest. My interests are different to Clegg’s, Scottish people’s interests are different to Cameron’s, and everyone’s interests run counter to Iain Duncan Smith’s. The ‘national interest’ is code for elitist, expert rule, which cynically gains its strength from the historical weakness of the old outlets for the expression of competing political interests.
Criticising the ‘new politics’ is not about defending the old. It is not about fantasising that the left-right divide will one day return or that class politics will be resuscitated or that either of those things are in any way desirable. Rather it is about defending the stuff of politics, the debate, the partisanship, the contest, the honesty and the anger that are the lifeblood of meaningful political debate. The rise of a technocracy that has discarded the pesky business of politics in favour of administration represents an opportunity for formulating some real new politics. After all, people don’t simply want to be governed; they want to be enthused, inspired, taken seriously, and they won’t get any of that from the Lib-Cons. A true new politics should recognise that politics and history have not come to an end, that there are still profound disagreements in society, that confrontation is sometimes better than consensus, and that the end of the old politics is best dealt with, not by institutionalising an apolitical technocracy, but by experimenting with new ideas, outlooks and visions for the future.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here
(1) Labour’s Landslide: The British General Election 1997, Manchester University Press, 1997
(2) The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Anthony Giddens, Polity Press, 1998
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