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Time to put the Politics back into British politics

It will take more than celebrity statesmen and bean-counters to build the Good Society.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Politics

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As the Blair era draws to an end, everybody is asking what will come next. The answer seems clear enough from events and speeches at this week’s Labour Party conference in Manchester.

Politics after Tony Blair will be personality politics without the Person, managerial politics without the Man. Indeed, once the dominant figure of the past decade is removed from the scene, it should become clearer that we are living in an era of politics without Politics – a system that offers no contest between competing visions of the future, and no prospect of political action to take society forward.

On this, at least, Tony Blair is right. During New Labour’s years in power, he has indeed presided over the transformation of political life in the UK, albeit building on trends that were already becoming evident.

The Blair era has established that politics is more about personalities than political principles. Politicians must now aspire to become seen as celebrities, rather than to act like statesmen. Bill Clinton, guest star at the Labour conference, is the transatlantic role model. It is not that Blair and Co have been seduced by the cheap fame of television or something. The profound exhaustion of the old political principles of left and right has left a vacuum which the politics of personality has rushed forward to fill.

Blair might like to be thought of as a ‘conviction politician’. But he justifies everything in relation to his personal conscience rather than broader political convictions as they might once have been understood in the era of left v right. As Blair himself said recently, he is driven by an absolute ‘inner self-belief’ that he is right, rather than any outwardly justified worldview.

The politics of personality will outlive Blair – just as it has outlasted his mentor Clinton in America. Indeed, no sooner had Blair said last week that it was time to focus on policies rather than personalities, than another round of bitter feuding broke out between the prime minister’s personal clique and that of his chancellor and likely successor, Gordon Brown. Blair then went on to deliver his widely acclaimed final speech to the Labour conference – a tour de force of personality politics, packed with emotion and me, me, me-ism, the personal testament of an individual rather than the leader of a movement. As the Sun’s front page headline summed up Blair’s message, ‘I Did It My Way’. It completely overshadowed Brown’s awkward attempts to give a personal spin to his public image. The lesson that many others (and not only in the Labour Party) will take from this experience is that they need to be more like Tony. As I say, we are set for personality politics without the Person.

And supposing New Labour had taken Blair at his word, and determined to focus on policy instead – exactly what policies do they have to offer? Recent speeches and statements by leading figures and government ministries are packed with the usual almost unintelligible gobbledegook that is New Labour newspeak. But they can be broken down into two broad categories.

On one hand, they make sweeping and usually doom-laden statements about dark worldwide forces that are apparently beyond our control – globalisation, international terror, global warming. On the other, they detail petty proposals for the micro-management of people’s lives, from instructions on what to put in your child’s lunchbox to orders to turn off your TV set at night. What is missing from the yawning gap between the two is any sense or argument about how we might engage with the big questions facing British society and act together to change it for the better.

This highlights the other trend consolidated during the Blair years that is certain to outlive him – the politics of managerialism. In the absence of any broader vision about the good society they wish to create, politicians have been reduced to demonstrating that they can run the existing set-up like a good bank manager or accountant. Ours is an age of bean-counters and targets rather than inspiring leaders and ambitions.

Chancellor Brown of course personifies managerial politics. And he is promising us much more of the same. His supporters have now promised that, as prime minister, Brown will bring a ‘new style of government’, as if the problems were all stylistic. But more importantly, they offer as an example of the Brown model his first decision as chancellor in 1997, when he handed the Treasury’s control of UK monetary policy over to the faceless suits at the Bank of England. Now, we are told, Brown wants to do the same in other areas, in particular by devolving management of the National Health Service to an executive that is independent of government.

What these moves really mean, behind the language of decentralisation, is removing major issues from the sphere of democratic politics. In 1997, by giving the Bank of England monetary committee control of interest rates, Brown confirmed that the management of the economy – the biggest political issue of the past century – was no longer up for debate.

This trend had already been evident for some time, as all sides of the parliamentary spectrum came to accept Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that ‘There Is No Alternative’. But Brown’s decision to give control to the bankers formalised taking politics out of the economy. Now he wants to do the same thing with the health service, arguably the biggest political issue of the past decade, handing control to executive management boards.

This sort of managerialism is not about central government giving up its power in some process of democratisation. Despite Brown’s criticisms of patronage at the Labour conference, for example, he has always resisted demands to allow parliament to approve appointment to the Bank’s interest rate committee. Nor is it about making government more accountable and ‘transparent’. Brown is famous for refusing to face serious questions about any of his cock-ups as chancellor, whether over government borrowing targets or the family tax credits fiasco.

What Brown’s reforms will do, however, is make elected governments less responsible for what happens in important areas of policy. ‘Responsibility’ is a buzzword of New Labour when it comes to people’s personal lives. But it is something they are keen to shy away from in political life.

The divesting of responsibility is a theme that runs through the Blair/Brown years. You can see it everywhere from the army of consultants they pay to run public services, to the private security firms they employ to do the army’s job in places such as Iraq. It is about dodging accountability for decisions.

The ongoing process of privatisation is often understood as primarily about economics – saving money for the government and making profits for private industry. Yet there is more to it than that. Indeed, these initiatives often end up costing central government more, while the companies involved go under.

The more important thing today is that privatisation reduces the responsibility of elected politicians for what happens in society. So, having trouble with house prices or mortgage payments? Don’t blame chancellor Brown – the Bank sets the interest rates. And in future it might be, local health services facing cuts and hospital closures? Don’t blame prime minister Brown – the management committees run the NHS. Thus, the most powerful politicians in the country are reduced to claiming that they are not really in charge.

This raises the question: what exactly does Gordon Brown want to be prime minister for, other than the personal kudos? And why would anybody else want him to be? Without politics, we are facing another government exercising power without purpose – bad enough under Blair, likely to be worse under Brown. While the managers mis-manage things, he will presumably be left trying to buff up his personal image by droning on about his parents and striking poses on the stage of Africa.

It is time we started talking about putting the Politics back into British politics. That does not mean turning the clock back to the contests of old – it could not be done, and we wouldn’t want to do it anyway. After all, it was precisely the exhaustion of the old traditions of both left and right that paved the way to this unattractive mess of personality and managerial politics in the first place.

No, what is needed is a new sense of politics that is about people acting to change society. In the first place that will require a debate about what vision of the good society we might aspire to and fight for. To be fair, Brown did mention ‘the good society’ in his conference speech. His vision of what it might mean included such inspiring insights as ‘a new compact that elevates the third sector as partner’.

Contrary to the consensus elsewhere, we need more politics rather than less, and we need elected leaders to take more responsibility for what they do rather than dodging the bullet. There is no sign of such new politics developing around any of the mainstream parties this conference season, all of which are now more like empty shells fronted by PR campaigns. Putting the Politics back into British politics will require breaking out of the restricted terms of what passes for debate today. Otherwise the end of the Blair show will only be followed by second-rate spin-offs.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics

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