Stricly pin dancing

May 3, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 


Freud wrote about ‘the narcissism of small differences’, the idea roughly being that when other people remind us of ourselves, our identity is threatened and we react with aggression. It is a concept some have used to describe the simultaneous decline of class based political ideology and rise of attack based political tactics.

In the face of globalisation in general, European economic woes, and national austerity the latitude for national and local leaders to do things differently is arguably further circumscribed. Yet last night saw Monsieur Sarkozy and Monsieur Hollande at each other’s throats, although as yet there are no reports of a post-debate punch up as reportedly occurred between Ken and Boris. In Westminster not only do Cameron and Miliband maximise the adversarialism of their encounters but there is not the slightest sense of mutual respect across the political divide.

Meanwhile outside the bubble some of the most interesting thinking and action is about building intellectual and policy bridges. Today at the RSA we were honoured to welcome the political philosopher John Tomasi who has developed an elegant way of bridging classic liberal respect for individual economic freedom and scepticism about the state with social democratic commitment to democratic legitimacy and social justice.

In questions I pointed out an irony to Professor Tomasi. For while  he is suggesting a fusion of social democratic principles and free market values, many on the British centre left are more interested in borrowing insights from a contrasting tradition of right of centre thought: social conservatism. For example, I shared some of Avner Offer’s ideas about the importance of those traditions and institutions which he terms ‘commitment devices’. These devices (for example, marriage, rules against excessive borrowing, church attendance) help deter people from carrying their ‘hard wired’ cognitive frailties into unwise behaviours.

New conversations are occurring in policy circles too. Next week the RSA 2020 Public Services Hub will be publishing a paper with the rather ungainly title: ‘Business, Society and Public Services: a Social Productivity Framework’. In essence, its argument is that the combination of more ambitious ideas of corporate responsibility and social engagement, on the one hand, and of using new forms of enterprise to reform public services, on the other, are creating opportunities for collaboration and innovation between public, private and third sector.

So while philosophers, policy wonks and local leaders are trying to break out of the shackles of left and right, public and private, our politicians are dancing on a pinhead trying to knock lumps out of each other.

Perhaps it’s always been like this. But perhaps politics feels like its getting worse because while inside the bubble life goes on as usual, outside people are ever more aware that today’s challenges are different and need genuinely new thinking. Another example is the environment and climate change; while most of the political class seems to have decided all that green stuff is a bit passé, many corporate leaders and many consumers are taking it ever more seriously.

As it happens, powerful evidence of deterioration in relations between politicians and public is provided by a recent, under-reported, Hansard Society audit of political engagement, the ninth in an annual series. Here is a quote from Peter Riddell the Society’s chair:

This year’s Audit suggests that indifference has hardened into something more significant, and disturbing. Trends in interest and knowledge are downward, sharply so in some cases. For instance, the proportion of the public that say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested in politics plummeted by 16 points in 2011 down to just 41%, by far the lowest during the whole Audit series. Moreover, knowledge has declined by nine points, while the number of people discussing political news has dropped by seven points

Rumour has it that Labour leader Ed Miliband plans to make a speech some time soon paralleling the need for change in Britain with the need for a change in the way we do politics. Interesting and timely; but to break through it would need boldness and to be credible, it would have to start by turning a mirror on Labour’s own cultural and organisational failings. These are difficult times and the gulf between leaders and people is getting wider.  This is something politicians will need to address but I wait more in hope than expectation.

PS Speaking of the triumph of hope over expectation, I am very grateful to those kind people who have donated to my sponsored mountain marathon seeking to raise money for the RSA Great Room appeal. If you want to inch me closer to my target you can donate here.

Share

Comments

3 Comments on Stricly pin dancing

  1. Adam Matthews on Thu, 3rd May 2012 6:35 pm
  2. Over the past week there have been significant laws on climate change passed in Mexico and yesterday in South Korea. Laws are being put forward in China later this year as well as in a number of other African and Latin American countries. There is very limited division across party lines with the votes in Mexico and Korea almost unanimous. Whilst there appears an increasing disconnect as you reference in your blog in developed nations the major emerging economies do not seem to have the same problem. It is a movement that is increasingly challenging the pace of the international process and one that is being led by national parliaments.

  3. Robert Burns on Mon, 7th May 2012 6:21 pm
  4. Pundits and Analysts can scratch tehir heads until they hit bone, but will never acknowledge one of a collection of reasons for the decline in political engagement.

    This is: national politics is seen by many as an entirely marginal activity carried on by an increasingly embarrassing freak show.

    Furthermore, national politicians are not seen as serving the majority of their native electoral franchises.

    This is toxic (potentially fatally so) to any claim of democratic credibility and consequent moral leadership on either a national or international level.

    Any attempt to rebuild broad based interest and activism in politics will be an uphill struggle over several generations.

    A major hurdle will be acknowledging the failure of multi-culturalism and its consequences.

    Linked to this is the issue of abusing immigration to turn the UK into a low wage economy. A consequence of this is that foreign unemployment is effectively imported and transferred onto resident UK voters.

    This is a recipe for the kind of political radicalisation that most people do not want.

  5. Katy T on Mon, 7th May 2012 11:12 pm
  6. These are indeed difficult times and also dangerous times with recent civil unrest in the form of riots and strikes. I’m thinking on what a timely issue ‘Rebuilding the relationship between people and Politics’ is, for Tony Blair to return to Politics on (if its true of course).
    It’s funny I’m getting an urge to run up a mountain too.

Tell me what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!