In defence of politics – a lecture worth reading, from a rather lonely voice
Posted on 17 June 2011 | 10:06am
Welcome to what is surely the longest blogpost put up here since I started blogging some time ago. It certainly has the longest paragraphs, but bear with me – that’s what happens when you get academics involved.
The academic in question is a politics professor from Sheffield University, Matt Flinders. I met him for the first time yesterday at Millbank Studios, home of the BBC and many other media organisations pumping out thousands of hours of political coverage.
Mr Flinders was interviewing me for a series he is making for Radio 4 in defence of politics. I was making points about the nature of politics and the media that will be well-known to readers of this blog, and it was heartening to find an academic willing to put his head above the parapet and swim against the tide of negativity that flows from the building in which we sat.
We talked for close on an hour, and doubtless I will be cut down to a few clips, but that’s just the way it is. He has a long and interesting list of interviewees for the series, due to go out in the autumn. I was sandwiched between former Aussie PM Malcolm Fraser, and blogger ‘Guido Fawkes.’
Anyway by the time I got home, he had sent me a lecture he had made echoing Bernard Crick’s In defence of Politics of half a century ago. Clearly some of the themes will be reflected in his radio series.
I know that in the attention-span-sapping era of the internet and 24/7 news, reading 10,000 word lectures might be deemed a tad eccentric. But I strongly urge you to make a cup of tea, put your feet up, and scroll through this speech he made last year. He makes some very good points indeed, and not only when he is quoting me in support of his argument. It won’t surprise you to know I particularly enjoyed his section on the media.
I will forgive him the mis-spelling of my first name – common mistake. I am less forgiving of his split infinitives, and he could have done with a good sub-editor at points, but I nonetheless recommend the lecture to you. To regulars, I am setting this as a test of your commitment to serious debate, and I look forward later to reading comments which prove readership to the end!
In Defence of Politics
I want to sing out in praise of politics! This seemed such a good idea twelve months ago but in front of five hundred people—friends, family, colleagues—and in the wake of even more stories about MPs not declaring foreign trips and former ministers demanding ‘cash for
access’ the idea of trying to defend politicians and praise politics suddenly seems like a very bad idea. 1. And yet it is exactly because politics is held in such low esteem that this lecture is so important. Democratic politics matters because it achieves far more than we generally
give it credit for. The first person I told about the title of my inaugural lecture happened to be based on the other side of the world in Australia. He emailed me back very quickly to inform me ‘Someone’s already beaten you to that one, by about half a century—Crick— bad luck!’ For those of you who might also be a little worried that my title and topic is not as original as I may think I want to set your mind at ease—I am well aware of Bernard Crick’s classic little book In Defence of Politics and I want to return to it for the simple reason that its arguments are more appropriate today than they were when it was first published in 1962. Moreover, as he was the first Professor of Politics at the University
of Sheffield, a post he held between 1965 and 1971, working within the contours of Crick’s work provides a direct relationship with the heritage and history of the department that has been my intellectual home throughout my career.
We live in strange and troubled times. Public opinion surveys suggest that large sections of the public are more distrustful, disengaged, sceptical and disillusioned with politics than ever before. ‘Politics’, for the many rather than just a few, has become a dirty word conjuring up notions of sleaze, corruption, greed and inefficiency. On the eve of a General
Election it is impossible to deny the conclusion that although a central aim of New Labour was to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics it has failed.
. ninety per cent of the public distrust politicians;
. seventy-five per cent believe politics is broken in Britain and is in need of significant and urgent reform;
. over seventy-five per cent of the public believe most MPs make significant amounts of money by using public office improperly; and . sixty-five per cent of the public believe
that MPs put their own interests before their party, constituents or country.
Let me be the person who dares to put his head above the parapet and speak in defence of politics. Let me stand up and argue against the current anti-political sentiment and state in no uncertain terms that the vast majority of politicians are overworked and underpaid, that public servants generally do a fantastic job in the face of huge pressures, and that, most broadly, politics delivers far more than most people acknowledge or understand.
Democratic politics can and does affect and shape people’s lives. It saves lives. It
forges a sense of collective endeavour, social support and a sense of humility. We must not allow our political system to become synonymous with failure because public apathy and distrust places a mighty weight on those who have stepped forward on behalf of society in
order to attempt to deal with the wave after wave of crises (social, economic, environmental, etc.) that crash upon the shore of politics with ever increasing frequency.
Let me be even bolder. In the United Kingdom a cost-benefit analysis of the Telegraph’s exposure of the MPs’ expenses system in 2009 would probably reveal a negative balance sheet. The sensational drip-drip-drip approach to covering the issue was the political equivalent of napalm or carpet-bombing and appears to have left all politicians as weak and
cowering aspects of a rather dejected political landscape. In the United States the great expectations that propelled Obama into office, the promises of change and new beginnings, now weigh heavily upon not only the president as an individual, but also on the political system more widely. As such, it is important to realise the argument I seek to make—my
defence of politics—has merit far beyond our shores.
I am not arguing that democratic politics, as we know it, is perfect. Politicians frequently promise too much and deliver too little. Some politicians have abused their positions for personal gain. But I will not let the behaviour of a few destroy the achievements of the many (most politicians and public servants are just; only a few are just awful). Although imperfect, we can do much worse than honour ‘mere politics’. Indeed we must examine
very carefully the claims of those who would do better or who would apparently
turn their backs on politics completely. We must also challenge those who bemoan politics but in the next breadth demand that the institutions of the state do more and more. Politics can and does make a positive difference to peoples’ lives. It delivers far more than
most ‘critical citizens’ in the USA, the UK and other ‘disaffected democracies’ realise.
Politics can and does make a positive difference to people’s lives.
The brave (or the foolish) individuals who dare to challenge public opinion frequently find themselves ploughing a rather lonely furrow, but speaking in praise of politics I will actually be following a line of argument that has already been made in recent years, in slightly different ways and from varying perspectives, by a number of my friends and colleagues—notably Andrew Gamble, Gerry Stoker, Tony Wright, and most recently Peter Riddell—but I want to make the furrow slightly wider and deeper; I want to stick my neck out even further and suggest that the public have become politically decadent in their expectations about what politics should deliver, how politicians should behave and their own responsibilities within society.
I want to suggest that people ‘hate politics’ because they simply do not understand it; and they are generally not helped to understand it by the media (or university professors of politics for that matter). There may also be a demographic factor at play: this contemporary climate of anti-politics is arguably rooted in a generation that has become complacent and parochial, and in doing so has forgotten the alternatives to democratic
politics. Those individuals who remember the two world wars that stained the first half of the twentieth century might well possess a far more urgent and personal understanding of why politics matters and why it is sometimes necessary to speak up in its defence. The experience of living through or losing loved ones forged a great collective belief in both
democratic politics and the capacity of the state. It also taught many people never to take things for granted. My concern is that, despite the pain and suffering of two world wars, we seem to have forgotten this basic piece of information and in its place have created little
more than a political marketplace in which there are very few incentives for politicians to actually tell the truth, and too many people who take politics and what it delivers for granted.
Politics succeeds because it generally ensures stability and order: it avoids anarchy or arbitrary rule. Those who argue that democratic politics is broken would do well to read Tim Butcher’s Blood River, an account of his recent journey across Africa and the raw violence, manipulation, poverty and extortion he encountered. My involvement with international research projects and more recently my work for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in South-East Asia has underlined the fact that by international
standards politicians and public servants in the UK are among the most honest in the world. I’m not saying that the MPs’ expenses scandal and more recent controversies surrounding foreign trips and the behaviour of former ministers is irrelevant but I do think it is important to put things in perspective.
As part of this fightback against the anti-political climate, however, politicians urgently need to rediscover the moral nerve and capacity to speak with the authority and weight of their predecessors. At the heart of this rediscovery must be the acceptance that the ‘the first business of government is to govern’, as Churchill put it, ‘which may at times call
for the deliberate endurance of unpopularity’. And yet it is this paradox, let us call it ‘the governing paradox’—the need for politicians to garner and sustain popular support versus the more basic need for politicians to sometimes deny the public, reject demands or make unpopular decisions—that I want to put at the heart of this lecture. It could be argued
that this governing paradox is not as extreme as one might think: the public are not stupid. They understand that in the wake of the global financial crisis (the ‘GFC’ as it is increasingly known) the economic situation is not positive and that around the world significant cuts within the public sector will have to be made; just as they are aware that
responding to climate change is likely to require significant lifestyle changes. And yet the public can also be a selfish master to serve. My concern is that the contemporary negativity, the expectations that we hold, the very big gap that has emerged between the governors and the governed, has made us lose our sense of what might be.
Just as Crick’s original In Defence of Politics was written ‘in one deep breath at a particular time’, so was this lecture. It was conceived and for the most part written during a ten and a half hour train journey from Exeter to Sheffield on 18 December 2009. Since then I have sought to finesse and develop my arguments, but my ambition has not been to write a
sequel to Crick’s classic text but instead to pen a complementary text that projects and amplifies his argument into the twenty-first century. This is because his simple quest to restore confidence in politics and pierce the skin of the antipolitical climate remains more important today than it did almost half a century ago. However, if imitation is the highest
form of praise then I am happy to admit that I have sought to imitate Crick’s seminal book in terms of structure and style. Sequels, as film lovers will generally attest, are rarely as good as the original and in this sense I anticipate that many people will criticise me for attempting to build so directly upon Crick’s work—I can already hear the quills being
sharpened—let alone daring to speak in praise of politics and in defence of politicians!
But that is exactly what I intend to do by adapting the structure of Crick’s In Defence of Politics, in order to structure this lecture.
It is beyond the scope of this lecture to discuss each of these themes in any detail. My
intention is to give you only a flavour of my argument by focusing on the changing
nature of political rule and what I call the politics of public expectations as the common chord linking each of these sections together. So let me begin by reflecting on The nature of political rule in the twenty-first century
Let me begin by exploring how the nature of political rule and the challenges of governing have altered since the middle of the twentieth century. In doing so I want to very briefly highlight ten issues. The first and most basic change in the nature of political rule concerns levels of public trust (1) and confidence in politics.
Public commitment to the concept of ‘democracy’ remains high; whereas faith in the day-to-day operation of politics has fallen further. It is true to say that politicians have never been popular people and their motives have always been questioned, and to some degree a suspicious and wary public reflects a healthy and connected citizenry. The paradox of our current situation is that despite the fact that democracy has flourished in large parts of the world in recent decades (eastern Europe, southern Europe and large parts of South America) the extent of public apathy, anger and frustration with the operation of democratic politics seems to have gone far beyond what is healthy. As we shall see later, this negativity has created an anti-political climate (2) or context that appears to have sapped the moral integrity of politicians. Functions, responsibilities and decisions are increasingly transferred away from elected politicians to a range of scientists, technocrats,
judges or ethicists on the basis that professionalising or ‘depoliticising’ decision-making will somehow produce ‘better’ decisions. And yet this narrowing or infolding of politics possesses a certain ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ unease for those who want to revitalise democratic politics. Other changes, moving on more quickly, that have affected
the nature of politics in recent decades include: the development of new forms of information communication technology (3) like the internet, twitter, blogs, etc.; changing
patterns of ownership, distribution and editorial policy within the media (4); scientific advances (5) concerning—amongst other things—stem cell technology, human embryology, cloning and xenotransplantation that place new opportunities, decisions and regulatory
demands on the political agenda; at the same time the topography of politics, the institutional landscape (6) through which politics functions has become increasingly
complex and interdependent at a time when the challenges facing politicians and policy-makers are more grave and pressing than ever before. More broadly, standards of conduct and behaviour are now exposed to the light of public and media scrutiny by the emphasis
on transparency (7) and also through the growth of a regulatory industry of complaints
processes, sleaze busters and political watchdogs. At the same time, public expectations (8) of politics, in terms of the behaviour of politicians and the standard of services delivered by the state, are increasing at a period in which not only the resources to satisfy these demands (public support, financial capacity, etc.) appear in short supply, but the challenges
faced by politicians have also become more intricate and thorny (security issues, resource depletion, global warming,etc.).
By emphasising the shift towards transparency, the creation of numerous investigatory bodies and increasing public expectations I am not in any way seeking to defend politicians or officials who abuse power, tell lies, or engage in corrupt (or morally dubious) practices
but I am trying to put things in perspective. Attacking ‘politics’ in general, and ‘politicians’ in particular, is becoming something of a national blood-sport in many countries. Very few politicians or public servants abuse power, tell lies, or engage in corrupt practices—at least not in those countries that seem to have lost most faith in politics—but by treating them as if they do we risk destroying ‘a great and civilising human activity’, as Crick argued ‘something to be valued almost as a pearl beyond price in the history of the human condition’.
This brings me on to a further and particularly significant change in the nature of politics—
the role and influence of ideology (9). Simply stated, fifty years ago politicians might also have lacked resources but they did at least arguably have a clearer and more stable ideological foundation. The politics of the left or the right provided a form of moral compass or anchorage through which politicians could rationalise their responses to social challenges
and offer a relatively coherent governing narrative. I am not for one minute arguing, like
some, that we exist in a ‘post-ideological’ historical phase but I am suggesting that politicians appear to have lost their political safety-blankets, by which I mean recourse to a fairly clear and coherent ideological position, be it liberalism, socialism or any other variant that provided a sense of direction. I might be wrong. It could be argued that the ideological foundations of mainstream politics have not waned but have, in fact, narrowed as political
parties have clustered increasingly around a rather restricted acceptance of a market economy in which the legitimate and appropriate role of the state vis-a`-vis the market has been, at least until last year’s global economic crisis, relatively uncontested. At the very least it would appear that as the ideological battleground has narrowed so politicians and the media have been forced to construct even more artificial boundaries.
Finally, one of the less discerned changes to the nature of politics since Crick’s In Defence of Politics was published relates to the academic profession (10) itself. We—and I mean we—are in danger of becoming strangely depoliticised ourselves. As a discipline the study
of politics has been somewhat sanitised by the managerialist direction of higher education policy. The pressure to ‘publish or perish’ within an increasingly contract-based environment, to produce evidence-based research and demonstrate ‘impact’ while also teaching and supporting increasingly demanding – and rightly so – students – seems to have sapped the moral vigour of academics and narrowed the profession. This is a point that I hope to return to elsewhere and it is sufficient for me to note here that for me one of the benefits of becoming a professor is a greater degree of personal and professional security which brings with it the confidence to stand up, stand back and view your field
of study as a whole. As such, tonight I want to fly a few kites and make some very bold statements in order to challenge established stereotypes. I want to argue in favour of a paradigm shift in the way we view and understand politics because there is a pressing need to be a little brave—to risk inevitable misunderstanding and deliberate criticism—in order to defend politics from those who seek to narrow and subvert the political realm and against those who have become politically decadent. Decadent because they can no longer appreciate the great benefits that being a member of a democratic community delivers.
Decadent because they carp from the sidelines but refuse to step forward and make a positive contribution themselves. Let me simply say that democratic politics matters more than most people understand and acknowledge. Politics matters more than ever. It matters because on the whole it delivers.
This lecture—as by now I am sure you realise—attempts to restore confidence in the virtues of political activity and through this contribute to reconnecting the governors with the governed. It is not a systematic or evidence-based treatise. But it is an attempt to respond to contemporary political disenchantment by (in turn) defending politics against itself, against the market, against depoliticisation, against the media, and lastly (but certainly not least) against crises. As such it seeks to recast Crick’s argument within the contours of contemporary debates and themes by remaining true to the intellectual thrust and style of In Defence of Politics while at the same time forging a distinct line of argument regarding the limits of politics and the need to reflect on the emergence of an expectations gap between what is promised by politicians, expected by the public and what can realistically be delivered by the state.
This is clearly a wide-ranging lecture and, like painting on a large canvas, this will require the use of a fairly broad brush, in analytical and empirical terms. However, I hope that by emphasising some of the achievements of politics and daring to swim against the tide of popular opinion I might provoke some reflection on whether political institutions, political processes and politicians really deserve to be the focus of such extreme public ridicule and derision. Having examined the nature of governing in the twenty-first century let me build upon these challenges by offering my first defence, and what may at first appear quite an odd point of departure—2. A defence of politics against
There are some who will tell us that the twentieth century was the democratic century as huge numbers of previously authoritarian regimes around the world transformed into various manifestations of what would usually be accepted as ‘liberal democracy’. Indeed, such was the gusto behind such a sense of democratic triumph that some even spoke of the ‘end of history’. There are some who would argue that democracy is the true form of politics—a form of societal organisation and behaviour that is innately superior to other forms of political regime. The simple argument I am making here is that in the absence of any broad public understanding of the simple aims (and costs) of democracy in modern
politics will inevitably contain the seeds of its own ruin because at the root of democratic politics lies a preference for collective goods over individual desire. The warning being—as Crick originally set out—that democracy, taken alone and without any true and honest understanding of its core emphasis, represents little more than the destruction of politics.
Without this social acceptance of the need for restraint an ‘expectations gap’ can emerge between what politics promises and what it delivers that continually fuels public cynicism, distrust and disengagement.
What then would a true and honest understanding of politics look like and how would it help in closing the gap that has apparently grown so wide between the governors and the governed? For me, and those other brave souls who have dared attempt to defend politics, a more accurate and straightforward understanding of politics would be built upon three pillars. Firstly, any evaluation of democratic politics must reject idealised notions of ‘the Republic’ or ‘the people’ and instead reject the naive view that it is possible for anyone to identify and protect the ‘public interest’, when the reality is that societies increasingly consist of a heterogeneous mix of social groups with radically different demands. The role of a politician is therefore invidious and messy as they are frequently forced to rob Peter to pay Paul, and must decide which particular constituencies to represent, protect or assail at
any given time. ‘The real problem with politics’, Stoker therefore argues, ‘even in democracies, is that it is inevitably destined to disappoint because it is about the tough process of squeezing collective decisions out of multiple and competing interests and opinions.’6
This is the beauty of politics—not its failure. Democratic politics (secondly) rejoices in the existence of difference and the smooth assimilation of different social groups and competing demands without resorting to authoritarian modes of control. What gives politics its beauty
then as a form of social organisation is that it is not solely concerned with the fulfilment of societal demands but is equally tasked with the rejection of specific demands, possibly on the basis of resource limits, impracticability, fairness, a desire to protect the interests of less literate social groups, or even to protect the life chance of future generations from the detrimental behaviour of the current cohort. For Crick, ‘politics’ was ‘often settling for less than what we want, because we often want to live without violence or perpetual fear of violence from other people who want other things’.7
The fact that politics often produces messy compromises; that suboptimal decisions are made and bureaucratic processes appear slow and cumbersome; and that politics inevitably disappoints some sections of the community is simply the price we pay for seeking to govern through consensus. Finally, gauging politics against the realities of governing rather than some idealised system of rule underlines the simple fact that politicians must be able to make decisions. Governing capacity is therefore a requirement of any political system. My point is that we cannot bind the hands of politicians by placing more and more limits on their governing capacity, or by subjecting their every decision
to forensic analysis, and then attack them for failing to govern with conviction or take decisive action. These three pillars coalesce around the theme of public expectations and it is exactly this issue that I want to promote as the central strand of my lecture. I want to suggest that a number of factors may have combined to raise the public’s expectations of politics to a point against which it will always fail. Moreover, the incentives and sanctions structure associated with conventional forms of democratic engagement arguably encourage politicians to promise standards of behaviour, levels of public services and
institutional relationships that are unrealistic and unattainable; but having inflated public expectations, the subsequent performance of those politicians undermines public confidence, thereby fuelling disenchantment and apathy. This focus on the creation, management and potential pathologies of public expectations therefore provides a way of understanding and teasing apart a central driver of the trend towards political disenchantment.
Crick implicitly highlighted what I would term the ‘expectations gap’ when he noted a tendency for politics to ‘lead to false expectation. It may lead people to expect too much—and the disillusionment of unreal ideals is an occupational hazard of free politics.’8 If ‘saving politics from itself ’ is tied to the management of public expectations then it is necessary to reflect on the evidence and implications of this argument before considering its relationship with the other parts of this lecture.
The notion of an ‘expectations gap’ is not purely academic. It was first coined by David Miliband when he was director of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit (1997– 2001) and referred to the difference between the politicians’ promises and the public’s expectations of what politics and the state could and should deliver, on the one hand, and what politics and the state could realistically deliver given the resources it was provided with, on the other. The important aspect of Miliband’s approach to this dilemma stemmed from his acceptance that although the government’s public service modernisation agenda could marginally increase performance, it was never going to close the gap. The most important role for ministers, Miliband argued, was not driving forward reform but suppressing (or at
least not inflating) public expectations. This focus on an ‘expectations gap’ suggests
that politicians have three main options—Option 1: increasing supply (moving the bottom bar up); Option 2: reducing demand (moving the top bar down); or, Option 3: a combination of Options 1 and 2 (closing the gap from above and below). Framed in this manner, the rather difficult position of politicians becomes slightly clearer; increasing supply, in terms of financial resources, is not an option in the wake of the global economic
crisis, and reducing demand is easier said than done in the context of electoral competition.
Pushing the issue of public expectations a little further allows us to think of it as a form of linkage and as such that it can be divided into at least two distinct forms: there are public expectations about political behaviour; and political expectations about public behaviour.
The need to secure and maintain public support arguably makes it difficult for politicians to impose their views on the responsibilities of the public vis-a`-vis public services. Indeed, politicians and public servants who have spoken in favour of placing greater emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of members of the public to society as a whole—like showing
evidence of adopting a healthier lifestyle prior to medical treatment, ensuring children have a good night’s sleep (and an appropriate breakfast) before school, or introducing incentives for recycling— risk upsetting those on whose votes they depend. Reducing (or at the very least recalibrating) the public’s expectations or promoting significant behavioural
change is therefore harder than most people understand. As such, the main statecraft strategy used in many countries in an attempt to ‘close the gap’ has in recent years focused upon increasing supply through the absorption of market principles within the public and political sphere, a point that leads me to the third part of my lecture – 3 A defence of politics against the market
Politics would not be interpreted as failing so frequently and people would not ‘hate’ it as much as they do if it was judged against a more realistic set of expectations. That is essentially the argument I am trying to make, and in this section I want argue that the incursion of market-based values, relationships and institutions within the public sphere has played a role in damaging public confidence ence in politics by failing to recognise the
basic essence of democratic politics, in general, and promoting unrealistic public expectations about what the state can and should provide, in particular. In giving the 2009 Reith Lectures Professor Michael Sandel made the argument that politicians and other
influential social actors had mistakenly accepted and perpetuated a belief that the institutions of the public sector should be structured and managed to emulate a well-functioning competitive market. I too have argued that the public sector ought not to be automatically modelled on the private sector, but to criticise the gradual capture of the public sphere by the market is hardly original. Graham Allison wrote his seminal article over a quarter of a century ago on the innate differences between the public and private
sectors in terms of values, assumptions and ambitions.9 More recently, David Marquand—my erstwhile PhD supervisor before he departed for Oxford—has developed these themes in his The Decline of the Public (2004). However, in the context of the GFC
these debates concerning the relationship between public and private modes of governing have assumed greater significance. Once-secure assumptions have been stress-tested—not to destruction but in a way that poses new questions about long-standing weaknesses and
fault-lines. The Spectre at the Feast, to use the title of Andrew Gamble’s book on the topic, has always been the risk of crisis but I want to turn things around and suggest that those who dare to speak in praise of politics should never waste a
The GFC has created an arena of political debate in which ideas regarding the respective advantages and disadvantages of public and private modes of governance and decisionmaking can be reviewed. I have played my role elsewhere in these debates and I do not want to revisit my work on the manner in which dominant understandings of ‘good governance’ have frequently veiled the imposition of highly normative market-based notions (the logic of contestability, the logic of the market, the existence of ‘splintered
logic’, etc.) within the public sector. What I want to emphasis here is that what we
might term the ‘logic of the state’, the ‘logic of politics’, or the ‘logic of collective
provision’ offers far more than has commonly been recognised. My argument is that ‘post-crisis’ politics may provide the creative space in which to move beyond prosaic and perennial set piece debates (‘big state versus small state’) and in its place facilitate a more sophisticated discussion regarding ‘the smarter state’—the boundaries and contours of which remain unclear. The notion of the ‘smarter state’ is a topic I am currently exploring with colleagues at the Institute for Government and the Institute for Public Policy Research and I therefore have no answers to give on this topic at present. What I can do, however, is tease out some of the ways in which any attempt to build a ‘smarter state’ must acknowledge that the marketisation and commodification of the state played a key role in undermining public confidence in politics. It emphasised individualism, personal
choice and material benefits while doing little to foster or safeguard those facets of collective endeavour (the public sector ethos, citizenship, institutional memory, etc.) that had taken half a century to build. More germane to the argument of this lecture was the way that managerialism has and continues to cultivate ‘citizenconsumers’ who are encouraged to expect those levels of service provision that they would commonly expect from the private sector. Thereby inflating public expectations far beyond what the state or politics was ever intended, expected or resourced to provide. This is the political equivalent of selfharming.
Democratic politics and the role of the state is built and sustained on the basis of externalised rationing in which certain decisions about the allocation of resources (and paying for them) are imposed and enforced by the state. This externalised rationing system may sometimes appear overly centralised, controlling and even unfair but it has been established and sustained on the basis of (1) a coherent logic based upon the need
to protect certain shared resources; (2) the need to avoid inferior social outcomes, protect individual freedoms and deter free-riders; and last but not least (3) the view that some resources are too important to be left to the vagaries of a pure market. As such, membership of a democratic political community brings with it an acceptance that some people will take out more than they put in, and not everyone would receive the level of service provision they might wish for. The conception of citizens as consumers risks
inflaming rather than reshaping public expectations because, as Gerry Stoker
has set out, ‘the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, selfexpression
and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. So it turns out that a propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies.’11 But the marketisation of the public sphere has done much more than this. It has eroded a sense of human solidarity and belief in the utility of collective action, and through this has served to
downgrade the merits of democratic engagement. The architecture of democratic politics has arguably overemphasised individual rights and in doing so created a less deferential and more consumerist public who think of themselves as customers rather than citizens. This is reflected by those who assert their rights in a selfish way without regard to the
rights of others. A stronger and bolder argument, and one I am sure Bernard Crick would have made, is that the public sector is a civilising and humane expression of collective sentiment, shared challenges and a common fate that should not automatically be viewed as inferior to the market. Not only will whoever wins the general election have to acknowledge this fact if they are going to construct a ‘smarter state’ but they will also have to accept that the role of elected politicians is to make difficult and frequently invidious
decisions—a point that leads into 4 A defence of politics against depoliticisation
Such is the extent of the political climate that many commentators—even politicians— now argue in favour of reducing the role of our elected representatives and drawing more heavily on the skills and knowledge of what I might term the ‘enlightened elite’. If party politicians are self-interested, irrational, corrupt and lacking in specialist skills—so the
argument goes—why not simply transfer decision-making powers to (nonpartisan)
scientists, engineers, technocrats, ethicists and judges? This preference for political outsourcing has been promoted by pressure groups, think tanks, the World Bank and the United Nations as a way of not only increasing the efficiency and responsiveness of the
state but also (paradoxically) as a way of rebuilding public confidence in politics. Depoliticisation—the transfer of responsibility for major areas of public policy away from elected politicians—has therefore emerged as a central element of modern politics and governance around the world. Jacques Rancie`re may well be correct that ‘depoliticization is the oldest task of politics’12 but my aim is to ask how are we to revitalise politics when politicians themselves increasingly deny their own capacity to make a difference? Does an
issue become any less political in terms of its social and economic impact if decisions are made beyond the purview of our elected politicians? No. The arena might change but the politics remains. Depoliticisation is a dangerous trend; the gradual infolding and hollowing-out of the political sphere to the burgeoning sphere of ABCs (agencies, boards and commissions) is a threat to democratic politics, not its saviour. Colin Hay— someone who I am very pleased and proud to have as a friend and colleague— has examined the relationship between depoliticisation and public attitudes to politics in his award-winning book Why We Hate Politics.13 All I want to do at this stage of the lecture is very briefly relate depoliticisation to two important issues: our old friend public expectations, and the issue of political leadership.
For politicians the opportunity to transfer difficult decisions or areas of policy provides a way of dealing with the pressure of public expectations. As Tony Wright argued in his 2009 Political Quarterly lecture, politics is a ‘messy business of accommodating conflicting interests, choosing between competing options, negotiating unwelcome trade-offs, and
taking responsibility for decisions that may often represent the least worst option’. If the public, pressure groups, journalists or members of the opposition are either unable or unwilling to understand this basic point then is it really surprising that politicians seek to restrict the sphere for which they can be held personally responsible? Is it any surprise
that at the general election we will witness the largest turnover of MPs in modern history! To some MPs I have no doubt we should say ‘good riddance’; but the majority are leaving not because they have abused the expenses system but simply because they have had enough of trying to operate within a low-trust high-blame attack, attack, attack political
The problems we face are not simple and (most) politicians are not fools. Those anti-political agitators do society an injustice by suggesting that we merely need to eradicate party politicians through a mixture of citizen participation and technocratic rule. There is very little evidence that the public actually wants to participate; and even less evidence that technocrats or judges can deliver unequivocal answers to complex socio-economic questions. As Crick argued with his typical literary elegance, the man who claimed he could rule beyond the polis was either a ‘God or a beast’. This notion of gods or
beasts flows into the relationship between the outsourcing of politics and political
leadership. Few members of the public would seek to deify politicians in the current climate; most would define them as beast (though I, of course, would not). But I do believe that the almost knee-jerk reaction of politicians to respond to new social challenges or incidents by creating a new specialist body to assume responsibility reflects a loss of confidence amongst our political elite. Politicians, particularly but not exclusively in the
United Kingdom, have arguably lost their nerve, their confidence to make difficult decisions. Where are the politicians who are willing to stand-up and defend their
role? The issue of moral courage and political leadership is one I will return to later.
However in order to understand better the position of politicians and mount an effective defence of politics it is now necessary to turn our attention to, dare I say, the real sinners.
5 A defence of politics against the media
In turning my attention to the media I make no apology for my lack of restraint and my inability to talk in anything but fairly harsh terms. If we really want to understand how the public are misled, abused and exploited then it is to journalism and the media, and not just to politicians and politics, that I think we should turn. It is a curious paradox of modern times that just as we have more media space than ever its content is generally found to have less and less healthy debate. Few issues are addressed in any real depth or in a way that engages with large audiences—talking points (and usually the same one across all outlets), rather than issues of social concern, dominate. Sound bites, by their very nature, are the opposite of balanced reporting and comment. I’ve lost count of the number of times in recent months I have been approached by journalists and asked to provide a list of the ‘ten worst quangos’, my views on the ‘sleaze ridden’ House of Commons, or have been offered large sums of money to add my name to articles written elsewhere. This trend, however, is not benign but has major political implications due to the manner in which the forces of technological change and intense competition have emphasised speed rather than accuracy, hostility rather than balance and a tendency never to let the truth get in the way of a good story. I am not alone in making this argument as an increasing number of journalists have reflected on the gradual but constant demise of their profession. John Lloyd, for example, has written at length of the manner in which the media have shifted from a check on the excesses of politics to an alternative establishment dedicated to a theatrical distrust of individual politicians and a furious and calculated indifference to the real-life intricacies of policy-making.14 Similar themes pervade Thomas Patterson’s book Out of Order and generate a compelling critique of the media’s domination of the political process in the USA.15 In 2007 Jeremy Paxman used the MacTaggart Lecture to suggest that journalists were increasingly betraying ‘the people [they] ought to be serving’.
In addition to noting this general shift in the nature of journalism he also made a point of direct relevance to this lecture’s focus on the issue of ‘public expectations’ by emphasising what he called the ‘expectation inflation’ that had resulted from the emergence of 24/7 news. He confessed that on some days as a presenter on Newsnight if he was truly honest
he would have started the programme by stating in no uncertain terms, ‘Not much has happened today. I’d go to bed if I were you.’ However, in the current climate the media ‘chatterati’ cannot accept such truisms—‘The story needs to be kept moving, constantly hyped. . . . in this context even the slightest development . . . is fallen upon as if it were a press release announcing the second coming.’ If there is no story one will have to be invented—hence the rise of celebrity culture and reality television.
Hugh Cudlipp, one of the giants of British journalism and editor of the Daily Mirror when Crick was writing In Defence of Politics, once said ‘A tabloid newspaper should strive—more diligently perhaps than ‘a serious quality newspaper’—to be acknowledged as mature, stable and fair in its attitudes to people and public issues.’ How far the media seems to have moved from such a position; and what is particularly critical for the focus of my lecture is that the media in all its forms has become imbued with a culture of negativity that I cannot help but feel has corroded public confidence and understanding in politics. As Alistair Campbell stressed when giving the 2008 Cudlipp Lecture, ‘failure, it is thought, is what sells and what people want to hear and read about. I am not so sure. Britain is not
the basket case, nor its politics and public services the abject failures conveyed through the media.’16 Robin Cook, someone I knew and respected through my work with the Hansard Society, used to cite a study showing a shifting ratio of positive to negative coverage of issues and events in the national press. During the 1970s the ration was three positive
stories to one negative, but by the millennium the ratio had shifted to one positive story for every 18 negative.
My point here is not to deny the existence of problems with our political system but to simply emphasise the corrosive influence of constant negative media reporting on public confidence in politics. I am arguing in favour of a shift towards ‘civic journalism’ that would: not feed on speculative stories that owe little to reality; not amplify specific incidents into systemic failings; not focus on the ambitions that were not achieved rather than the majority that were; and although civic journalism would have to be ‘right’, as in correct in terms of factual content, it would not need to be right now, in terms of being the first to break a story.17 Let me go even further and link this critique of the media to my earlier focus on the market. The media is increasingly concerned with what could be termed the
commodification of social issues in order to protect and enlarge market shares. Some months ago I spoke at a public event on the topic of ‘Was politics broken in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal?’ alongside journalists from the Telegraph and the BBC. It was I, you might not be surprised to learn, who made the simple point that if you actually stood
back and examined the position of all MPs you would find: a small number of MPs who may have broken the law; a second larger group of between 40 and 50 MPs who had clearly abused the spirit, if not the letter, of the system; and then a larger group of possibly 200 MPs who had been asked to make repayments due to a mixture of administrative incompetence, confusion about the scope of legitimate expenses and the rather harsh
retrospective reasoning of Sir Thomas Legg. (This is a point that was underlined by Peter Riddell just a couple of months ago as he sought to set out his own defence of politicians.)18 If you add the members of those three groups together you find that the ‘scandal’—the ‘meltdown’ of British democracy—did not even involve half of the members of the House of Commons. Let us not pretend that the Telegraph’s coverage of the MPs’ expenses scandal was concerned with public propriety any more than the tabloids’ focus on Madeleine McCann is driven by concern for the child. The word ‘Madeleine’ sells; the word ‘sleaze’ sells. I, personally, would like to see how many of today’s journalists could cope with the
pressures of life as an MP—or would even think of getting out of bed for the salary of a backbencher. But more broadly I want to emphasise that the political implications and corrosive influence of purely negative reporting has very simple and straightforward implications in terms of hollowing out public confidence in politics and deterring individuals
from engaging in public service. But now I need to move on (I hear a Red Deer19 bellowing to me in the distance), the approach of the media to politics is couched more and more in
the language of extremes—there is little room in modern political coverage for shades of grey. Politics is portrayed as an arena forged upon binary distinctions— saints and sinners, triumphs and disasters, saviour to failure, hero to zero, knights and knaves—and as a result issues become strangely depoliticised within public discourse as the more interesting
shades of grey that provoke debate and offer real options are rarely exposed.
Of course, the generally cynical approach of media reporting that I have sought to
highlight in this section creates a predisposition towards the negative side of each
of these counterparts and an emphasis on the most overused word in political
reporting– crisis. 6 A defence of politics against crises
If politics is in crisis then it seems to have been so for some time. ‘The Crisis of
Democracy’, for example, was the title of the final report of the trilateral commission
into political disaffection in Western Europe, the United States and Japan in the 1970s. That is not to deny the contemporary relevance of responding to the apparent decline in public confidence in politics but it does at least help keep things in perspective. It might also be used to support the claim that the term ‘crisis’ is in danger of becoming overused
in the sense that it has been so broadly applied in recent years that it has lost its meaning in a world obsessed with hyperbole. Political science has for some time explained instances of rapid change with reference to the role of crises because dominant assumptions about the efficacy of certain governing arrangements can be destabilised by a crisis which, in turn, both reduces the capacity of the incumbent government to prevent reform while
also increasing the resources of reform advocates. One of the challenges of governing
in the twenty-first century is that crisis situations appear to have become the norm as opposed to the exception.
There is hardly a day goes by without another crisis for politicians to attend to—mad cows, avian flu, fuel blockades, predatory paedophiles, feral hoodies, economic collapse, terrorist plots, volcanic eruptions—and as Chris Mullin laconically acknowledges in his diaries, even
in periods of relative calm politicians know ‘It can only be a question of time before a new crisis is organised’.20 And yet in reality most of these issues are not really crises but elements of the general rhythm—the ebb and flow—of politics. Fortunately, events that I would class as crises (civil wars, natural disasters, invasions, etc.) are few and far between in those established democracies that appear most disaffected. But what this focus on crises reveals is the role of the media and opposition parties in articulating crisis narratives,
amplifying risks and increasing the public’s expectations of politics in order to place pressure on incumbent politicians.Put slightly differently, crises do not happen, as such, but incidents or issues must be socially constructed by social commentators and articulated as such. The phrase ‘Crisis, what crisis?’, for example, has gone down in political folklore as Jim Callaghan’s response to a question about the Winter of Discontent that helped bring down the Labour government in 1979. Although the phrase reinforced a popular sense that the government had lost touch with the country the Prime Minister never actually said it:
it was a creation by a journalist working for the Sun. If the facts were rarely allowed to get in the way of a good story thirty years ago then the pressure on journalists to deliver ‘breaking news’ today creates a powerful tendency towards ‘crisis inflation’ in which even
the smallest issue can be rapidly amplified into an example of systemic failure.
Why then does this increased emphasis on crises matter? Firstly, it matters because it drains and distracts politicians and officials from focusing on the long-term strategic management of public services. Doing nothing is generally not perceived as an option, even when it is unclear what exactly an effective response would look like. Secondly, it matters because it creates a constant climate of instability, insecurity and political failure that, in itself, reinforces a negative view of the capacity of politicians to take control. This (thirdly) feeds into the fact that whatever the source of the crisis it is politicians who will be held responsible and generally blamed. No allowances are made for ‘acts of God’, human nature or simple mistakes. Politicians know that being held to account will not involve a rational examination of the available evidence but a desperate exercise of blame allocation and the demand for a sacrificial lamb. Accountability is very much of the ‘gotcha’ variety. This focus on the existence of fate flows (fourthly) into this lecture’s emphasis on the ‘expectations gap’ due to the manner in which crisis-related stories inevitably place unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of politicians and public servants. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing after an event. What makes the issue of crises within the context of increasingly ‘disaffected’ democracies particularly interesting is that it is possible
to identify an element of transference as the public’s anger and frustration about one issue can be conducted and earthed, to some extent, through political outlets. I have no empirical evidence to support this point—I did say that I was going to fly some kites—but I cannot help but feel that the incredible public outrage over the MPs’ expenses scandal—and it
was a scandal not a crisis—was to some degree connected with the broader social outrage at the behaviour of bonus-fuelled yet largely unidentifiable city bankers. Parliamentarians therefore provided a convenient and timely lightning-rod for social unrest; a number of MPs deserved everything they got and, more broadly, acting as an outlet for public anger can be viewed as a proper and legitimate role for the House of Commons. But at the same
time any individual can only cope with a certain an amount of abuse and hostility before they question their ability to play a positive role without a step-change in the broader context.
Let me inject a little story to burnish this point: I was recently interviewed for a high-profile but non-partisan position within the public sector and was not entirely surprised when the main focus of the interview was not so much on the fit between my skills and experience and the specific requirements of the post but on how I would cope with the media going through my bins, with my children being followed to school and with anyone I’d ever met being offered large amounts of money for salacious stories. The mixture of issues that shape the nature of governing in the twenty-first century (discussed above) already make governing difficult enough. Do we really need to make things any harder by adding to the burdens of politicians and public servants in this way; what does anyone gain from adding to the shrill discourse that encourages us to view all politicians
and public servants as corrupt and unreliable? The maintenance of a perpetual
state of crisis or political outrage and the outsourcing of politics beyond the grasp of electoral control prevents us from stepping back and acknowledging all that politics delivers. I am not encouraging voters to follow the advice of Bernard Baruch, an adviser
to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the USA, to ‘vote for the man who promises least because he’ll be the least disappointing’ because to do so would be to let the pessimists, detractors and politically depressive from robbing us of the sense of optimism and hope that democratic politics offers. But I am suggesting that if the public genuinely believe that politics (and therefore politicians) are failing them then this may well tell us more about the public’s expectations than the failure of our politicians.
The link between unrealistic public expectations and crises has possibly been clearest in the United States since the election of Obama. His campaign was based on the promise of radical and distinctive change: nothing more; nothing less. As the campaign came towards an end, and particularly as public opinion surveys suggested an Obama victory was likely, his campaign team’s focus shifted to an emphasis on lowering public expectations about what he would be able to achieve if elected. The sudden financial crisis and the prospect of a deep and painful recession increased the urgency inside Obama’s campaign team to bring
people down to earth, after a campaign in which his soaring rhetoric and promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were suddenly confronted with the reality of a stricken economy. Seeking to dampen down public expectations continued throughout the transition period following the election in an attempt to prevent ‘a vast mood swing from exhilaration and euphoria to despair’ as one of Obama’s senior advisers noted. In response to questions about his
immediate priorities on taking office Mr Obama repeatedly told the world’s media
that ‘the first hundred days is going to be important, but it’s probably the first thousand
days that makes the difference . . . I won’t stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy—especially now’.
It clearly has not been easy for Obama as the challenges of getting into office seem to have paled into insignificance against the challenges of governing. ‘Yes we can’ has in relation to many commitments turned into ‘I’m still hoping we can at some point’ and his approval ratings have fallen accordingly. And yet I’m personally quite relieved that Obama is not
Superman. (Too many people sidestep their own individual responsibilities as a citizen by looking for a superhero to take control.) And yet the election of Obama still demonstrates the capacity of democratic politics to renew itself, to reconnect with sections of the political community that had effectively become disenfranchised, and to secure agreements on
ambitious policies that many thought could never be achieved. With these more upbeat thoughts in mind I want to conclude by coming full circle and speaking in praise of politics.
7 In praise of politics
This lecture has attempted to restore a degree of confidence in the virtues of politics as a great and civilising human activity. In this endeavour I have tried to swim against the tide of popular opinion and I hope you feel I have at least been able to tread water, and have not drowned in my attempt to adopt what some might view as a brave, courageous or foolhardy position. But as Crick said, ‘Free men stick their necks out’.21 I hope I have at least provided food for thought that may nourish a more positive and constructive approach to political matters.I have tried to show that politics matters because on the whole it delivers far more than most people recognise, and the alternatives are far worse.
Let me provide you with a reference point: ‘A vast, chaotic, misgoverned, dysfunctional morass; its rulers historically preoccupied with looting rather than governing.The armed forces bloated, parasitic, disloyal and generally useless except in so far as they threaten the lives and welfare of the much put upon civilian population.’ 22 Reflecting upon this recent
description of an African state might encourage some of the critics who bemoan what democratic politics delivers to pause for thought.
When was the last time you were forced to pay a nurse, local official or police officer a bribe to access certain public services? Why do people believe the NHS is in crisis yet rate their personal experience of services as generally very good? Why does the public seem to distrust MPs as a political class, but tend to hold far more positive views about their
own constituency MP? The intention of democratic politics is not to deliver individualised
public services exactly when, where and how you want them. Politics arises from recognition of restraints and a commitment to respecting diversity; it is a moral, humane and civilising activity that never claims to be able to solve every problem or ‘make every sad heart glad’ but it is far better than other forms of rule. When put like this I put it to you that maybe the fabric of politics is not quite as threadbare as many think.
Speaking in defence of politics is not easy. Anyone daring to stand up for politicians or political processes risks being immediately labelled as irrational, mad or—even worse—harbouring political ambitions themselves. I harbour no ambitions within party politics but can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch a noble profession—public service interwoven with a belief in the capacity of collective endeavour—be the constant
focus of ridicule and derision. Especially when anti-political arguments are commonly
deployed as a Trojan horse for market-based solutions that risk deconstructing
a public sphere that we have spent a century building. Almost half a century ago Bernard Crick wrote In Defence of Politics as a sharp and thoughtful rejoinder to those who would decry the achievements and principles of democratic politics. His argument is even more
relevant today. So as my lecture comes to an end we might view this moment as the calm
before the storm. Politics over the short to medium term will be focused on managing
the process of reducing the public’s expectations of what the state can and should provide; on reducing the ‘expectations gap’ from above rather than from below. And yet it should be remembered that crises bring with them opportunities and, as such, should never be wasted. The GFC is going to force many governments to address difficult questions about the future of public services and what it is realistic to expect the state to do in the twenty-first century. Difficult decisions will have to be taken by politicians, but the opportunity exists to use these challenges in order to generate a more realistic set of expectations amongst the public. In the UK the general election will also deliver fresh hope in the form of an influx of new MPs untainted by accusations of sleaze and corruption. I
certainly get the sense that the public hankers after a more optimistic, balanced and informed account of politics, particularly in terms of what it might offer in the future.
My debt to Bernard Crick is great but in order to conclude my inaugural lecture I want to go back not fifty years, to Crick’s Defence, but to almost exactly one hundred years and to a speech delivered, on the 23 April 1910, with both anger and passion by Teddy Roosevelt. ‘The Man in the Arena’ remains the most authoritative rebuke to those who carp from the sidelines about the failure of politics. It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and
again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. It is in this spirit that I want you to reject the bland fatalism that has for too long blinded us of the merits in politics and in future sing out in its defence.
1 This is a slightly revised version of the
author’s inaugural lecture that was delivered
at the University of Sheffield on 5
2 Ipsos/MORI, Blair’s Britain: The Political
Legacy, London, Hansard Society, 2008;
Audit of Political Engagement, London,
3 P. Norris, Critical Citizens, Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 1999.
4 A. Gamble, Politics and Fate, Cambridge,
Polity, 2000; G. Stoker, Why Politics Matters,
London, Palgrave, 2006; T. Wright,
‘Doing Politics Differently’, The Political
Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 3, 2009, pp. 319–28;
P. Riddell, ‘In Defence of Politicians—In
Spite of Themselves’, Parliamentary
Affairs Annual Lecture, 25 February 2010.
5 B. Crick, In Defence of Politics, London,
Penguin, 1962, p. 1.
6 Stoker, Why Politics Matters, p. 1.
7 Crick, Defence of Politics, p. 73.
8 Ibid., p. 70.
9 G. T. Allison, ‘Public and private management:
are they fundamentally alike in all
unimportant respects?’, in J. L. Perry and
K. L. Kraemer, eds, Public Management,
Palo Alto, CA, Mayfield, 1983, pp. 72–93.
10 See A. Gamble, The Spectre at the Feast,
Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
11 G. Stoker, ‘Politics in mass democracies’,
Representation, vol. 42, no. 3, 2007, p. 181.
12 J. Rancie`re, On the Shores of Politics, London,
Verso, 1995, p. 19.
13 C. Hay, Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge,
14 J. Lloyd, What the Media Are Doing to Our
Politics, London, Constable, 2004.
15 T. Patterson, Out of Order, New York,
16 A. Campbell, The Cudlipp Lecture, 2008.
17 Lloyd, What the Media Are Doing.
18 Riddell, ‘In Defence of Politicians’.
19 The public house close to St George’s
Lecture Theatre in Sheffield where postlecture
refreshments are commonly taken.
20 C. Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The
Diaries of Chris Mullin, London, Profile,
2009, p. 111.
21 Crick, Defence of Politics, p. 28.
22 Mullin, View from the Foothills, p. 477.