Cameron is right, this is a very important election…
... but not for the reasons that he, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg would have us believe.
‘And so they’re off’, declared just about every newspaper in the land, as prime minister Gordon Brown asked the queen to dissolve parliament and announced that there will be a General Election on 6 May. Tory leader David Cameron says it will be ‘the most important election for a generation’, and he could be right. But what makes this election important is not the party leaders involved (all of whom are uninspiring) or the issues they have put on the table (all of which are small beer), but the way in which the election promises to consolidate the ascendancy and dominance of a new, aloof, undemocratic oligarchy.
Unless we do something about it.
For those of us interested in big ideas, the election period threatens to be frustrating. The big questions about how society should be organised are not being asked, never mind answered. The recession, for example, has not given rise to a clash over how the economy should be structured or wealth increased, but rather a petty squabble over whether a rise in National Insurance will ‘save Britain’ or be a ‘tax on jobs’.
The war in Afghanistan has not generated debate about democracy, sovereignty or what lies behind the West’s new short-termist, PR-driven military excursions, but a spat over whether ‘Our Boys’ should come home in six months or 18 months. The parlous state of freedom, after 13 years of New Labour’s social-control fetish, is not stirring up debate about the relationship between the state and individual – it is just about provoking a narrow discussion about repealing ‘unnecessary’ illiberal legislation, in which Nick Clegg (of all people) poses as the champion of civil liberties.
The feast of political debate has been put under wraps, and instead the electorate is being thrown scraps to chew over. This means that one of our jobs in relation to the election should be to try to historicise it, to deepen the debate, to contextualise the small policy proposals put forward by the parties within today’s broader problematic climate of anti-democracy, unfreedom and disdain for Enlightenment values. We should continually ask what consequences the parties’ various initiatives will have for freedom, democracy and living standards, and demand that these important matters be debated in their own right.
More importantly, this election looks set to consolidate a trend that has been fermenting for the past decade: the rise and rise of what is best described as an oligarchy, an utterly cut-off political clique that has very little connection with or understanding of the masses.
Many people claim that it doesn’t matter who wins the election, because ‘all three main parties offer near identical policies on the key issues’. As one headline puts it: ‘Why the result on 6 May won’t matter a jot.’ This is an understandable reaction to an election in which both Cameron and Clegg look and sound like Blair clones and where even the more old-fashioned party leader, Gordon Brown, has turned to the real Blair to help him out. But the key problem today is not that ‘whichever party wins, they will push through the same policies’ – it’s that whichever party wins, they will personify the final shift towards a new form of political governance that is more oligarchic than democratic and, as a consequence, elitist, authoritarian and unstable.
The focus on the slickness and shallowness of Cameron, Clegg and the much-discussed post-Brown Labourites (the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls) misses what is most important about this new breed of political leader: the fact that they cut their political teeth, not through trade unions, community work or any other kind of traditional democratic engagement, but in the aloof, closed-door worlds of think tanks, finance and the European Union.
In many ways Brown, who came into politics through mild forms of left-wing activism, student politics and a fairly long spell as a member of parliament, is the final ‘old guard’ of mainstream British politics. When he goes (and whatever happens at the election, he will surely go) he will be replaced by a very new kind of political leader, one who has been largely insulated from popular pressure, has very little experience of engaging with everyday human beings, and has very few meaningful qualifications for the job of democratic leadership – which includes everything from taking seriously people’s needs and desires to being able to inspire people’s confidence to behaving diplomatically and rationally as and when required.
This election will bring to power a new generation of leaders who were born in the mid- to late 1960s and who started their ‘political careers’ (for want of a better phrase) in the early 1990s – that is, after the tumultuous political events of 1980s Britain and after the end of the Cold War, when the historic clash between left and right gave way to the professionalised politics of the Third Way. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (b.1967) started his life in politics physically as well as politically cut off from the British masses, in that oligarchical palace where they openly refer to the mass of the population as ‘plebians’ and ‘bastards’ – the European Commission and the European Parliament. Cameron (b.1966) was a director of corporate affairs at a massive media company for seven years, before resigning in February 2001 and announcing his intention to ‘find a seat’ in parliament.
David Miliband (b.1965) worked in think tanks and then policy research at Downing Street from 1989 to the late 1990s. Where in the past aspiring politicians went to find out what the ‘man in the street’ believed in and wanted, Miliband was more like a political Mystic Meg, fashioning policy proposals behind closed doors through bookish research into the ‘evidence’ of which kind of government interventions work and which do not. His nickname was ‘Brains’.
In 2001 he was put up for the super-safe Labour seat of South Shields in the north-east of England – a working-class area that he had no connection with – but only in order that his input into the Labour political project could be increased. This spoke volumes about the new breed of political leader: once, leaders might have worked amongst a people or a community for years and represented their interests in the centre of political life; today, already-handpicked future leaders are given safe seats in order to provide their ideas – their ‘brains’ – with a democratic gloss. The public are not interacted with, understood, talked to, taken seriously – they are merely looked upon as the mound upon which a member of the oligarchy might build his palace. Even Ed Balls, frequently referred to as an Old Labour Rottweiler, was a leader writer for the Financial Times before being helicoptered into Downing Street as an economic adviser.
What all of the new leaders share in common is a disconnection from the masses, a lack of any serious experience in interacting with, far less leading, the populace. And this is not simply because Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Balls made the ‘wrong’ career choices and should really have mucked in with their local church or some still-existing trade union instead of jetting off to Europe or Fleet Street. More fundamentally their experiences reflect some profound shifts that have taken place in politics over the past 15 years or more. It is the demise of ideology, the end of the society-defining clash between left and right, the vacation of the masses from public life, and the hollowing out of the mainstream parties and their replacement by PR machines which moulded the new breed of leader, giving rise to politicians utterly removed from the public.
This means that those who say we should challenge the Blair-style politics of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Co. by instead elevating someone like Jon Cruddas (an Old Labour-sounding MP) or celebrating the extra-parliamentary activities of greens and consumer activists are kidding themselves. The new breed of political leader did not cause the emptying out of democratic politics; rather he is the slow-burning product of that historic process. Elbowing him aside for someone who looks or sounds a bit gruffer will do nothing to address the underlying political dynamic.
Indeed, many of the extra-parliamentary activities celebrated by those who instinctively dislike the smoothness of Blairites and Cameroons – whether it is youthful greens clambering on to the roof of parliament or consumer groups calling for inquiries and boycotts – are built on the same processes that nurtured the new forms of political leadership. The foundation of many of these new groups is also the decline of traditional mass movements and the waning of political participation. The more that politics becomes an elite, expert pursuit, evacuated by those ‘ordinary people’ that both the new political leaders and radical campaigners dubiously claim to speak for, the more room there is for the rise of a new agitating class which demands that its friends in the corridors of power listen to its concerns and take them on board.
The consolidation in May of the new elite, the crowning of the oligarchy, will have some severe consequences for political life. These people have no real experience of political leadership. A cut-off clique is likely to be even more elitist and disdainful of the masses’ views. It is likely to be more authoritarian, pushing even further the trends towards managing our behaviour and thoughts rather than engaging with our beliefs and desires, of which the new oligarchy has no understanding. And it will be inherently unstable, too. Parties with no clear social base or mandated political role are, in essence, little more than collections of individuals, where the leaders, not properly held to account by an engaged electorate, can pursue their own agendas and vendettas pretty much unimpeded. Expect more authoritarianism, backstabbing, and monarchical-style manoeuvring when the new elite is enthroned in May. Except…
We don’t have to stand by and watch any kind of enthronement. We don’t have to give the nod to the new breed of political leaders. One of the greatest bugbears of the new oligarchical generation is that they have no choice but to ask us – the little people, the weird people, the people they have fairly successfully avoided for most of their careers – to give them our support, or what they no doubt consider to be our assent. It is precisely through this process, through the begrudged mobilisation of the electorate at the polls, that we can ask awkward questions of our new leaders and of their experiences, views and priorities. If we really want to, we can rattle this oligarchy, shake it up, make it take us seriously. Doing that, being truly, intellectually engaged in this important election, will not only make the election more exciting – it might also go some way towards shifting the balance of forces after 6 May.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill looked at the elite obsession with the people’s brains and called for a fight to re-enfranchise the electorate. Mick Hume pointed out that whoever wins the election, the UK will have a hung parliament and argued that the election may be up for grabs but there is nothing to play for. He also asked could this be the worst election ever? Nathalie Rothschild said that we don’t owe politicians our vote. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and MPs’ expenses and the political crisis.