Last year I was talking to an American political journalist who was in London covering the British election. “It’s all so boring,” he was complaining, “what your guys talk about. Where are the arguments over guns, gays and God? All I get to listen to is debates on fiscal policy.” It was true, but nevertheless I felt a little injured. “At least they’re debates about policy,” I countered, “instead of being dominated by wacko ideas.” “We love wacko ideas!” he replied, “they’re exciting!”
In many ways true to form, while American politics is becoming increasingly extreme, things in Britain have been homogenising around a drab and muddled centre. There could be no better expression of this than the liberal cross-party hat swapping (or stealing) that has gone on over the past decade, in which Labour leader Tony Blair claimed to have “learned from” Margaret Thatcher, followed by Conservative leader David Cameron styling himself as the “natural successor” to Tony Blair. Admittedly the financial crisis has forced Cameron into being busier with cuts than Blairishness, but it is notable that the Big Society Bank — possibly the most concrete expression of his flagship political idea — is at heart a skillful rebranding of a Gordon Brown initiative (originally conceived in 2007 as the Social Investment Bank). And in the midst of all this left-right commingling, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, even before forming a coalition with the Conservatives, was calling for more cross-party alliances and collaboration to deal with major issues.
What is so striking about the contemporary political debate in Britain is the near total agreement as to what these major issues are. Clegg’s call, while on one level a naked bid for inclusion in power, was on another a not unsensible suggestion, in that all three major parties are primarily concerned with the same things, and therefore can usefully swap and share ideas. All parties want to improve the NHS, to provide better education, to safeguard dignity for pensioners, to build a stronger, greener Britain and so on. The only real question is how best to do it? With essentially interchangeable high-level aims, the ideological oppositions have been folded out, leaving instead a series of discussions over what are at heart management issues.
It has been frequently suggested that the UK, with its phenomenally open markets and industries, operates more like a PLC than a nation state, and this feel runs right through to Parliament, where arguments over political philosophy would be as outré as in a company boardroom. There is less and less to discuss of a genuinely left / right nature, and instead disagreement (and indeed political jockeying), focuses mainly on rival strategies, appointments, and decision-making processes. This all bears greater resemblance to formulating company policy than navigating competing political belief systems, and in an appropriately corporate-style development, one of the big growth areas for government over the past decade has been the use of consultants, analysts, metrics, indicators etc.. The concept of toolkit-driven government policy is by its very nature apolitical, as it seeks to furnish politicians with a means to determine matters without having to exercise political judgement, or express left / right preferences.
Naturally this shift toward corporate methodologies has redefined the public sector. Both schools and hospitals have experienced a massive rise in the use of KPIs and the prominence of managers. Meanwhile full corporatisation — i.e. privatisation — continues to gain ground across public service provision. Indeed privatisation itself, first started by the right, then pursued by the left, and now back in the hands of the right, is increasingly coming to be seen as left / right neutral. Privatisation is simply what parties in power do, irrespective of colour.
One crucial aspect of the apolitical corporate-government hybrid which however remains unreformed is that the CEO / prime minister is still democratically elected. This causes the curious problem among candidates of how, given their almost completely eroded political differences, they distinguish themselves from one another to voters. Stripped of an ideological message, and given that — as my American journalist friend observed — disputes over the minutiae of how to manage the UK economy are not very sexy, much of this task is left to marketing. In essence, the merger of Britain’s left and right has created a politics of brands.
Tony Blair’s historic ‘97 election victory was steeped in branding. Charles Saatchi, Thatcher’s former advertising agent, ascribed Blair’s win to a single — and notably apolitical — word: “new” (as in New Labour). Other parties took note, rebranding themselves in Blair’s wake, and hiring their own spin doctors to compete in the repositioned political battlefield of PR. And indeed, the first post-Blair elected prime minister, David Cameron, is a man whose chief professional experience outside of politics was a spell as a PR man for a media company.
This elision of politics, branding and PR has resulted inevitably in a somewhat fawning relationship between government and the press. The parties spin their own unique images of themselves, but it is then largely up to the media to turn these either into the cloth of public opinion, or discarded folds of woven air. It’s a questionable need-relationship, and one that was hit last week by a mercilessly unflattering light as further revelations emerged regarding the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
The phone-hacking itself is something of a side-issue. Unscrupulous journalistic behaviour has long been best practice at British tabloids, and much of the hang-wringing and denial that has gone on over recent days has been a mixture of faux-naivety and disingenuous moral outrage. What makes the case uncomfortable on a serious level however is that Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World from 2003 to 2007 (the period during which much of the reported phone-hacking took place), left the paper to become Cameron’s director of communications. Coulson’s seamless transfer from media to politics is in itself silently eloquent. But the truly provocative part is that as Coulson embarked on his stroll toward 10 Downing Street, a peculiar quiet came down over the police investigation into him, the News of the World, and the evidence already found. This has led to speculation over possible collusion between the media, the police, and the top level of UK politics.
Even without the scandal Coulson was Britain’s highest ever paid special adviser to government. With it, it seems not unlikely that in addition to the cheque, he was getting protection, or at least the rolling of a blind eye. What Coulson offered in return was a degree of leverage inside the country’s most powerful media conglomerate (News International, in turn owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). In the era of brand politics this proved irresistible. The picture that emerges is of a PR-crazed government bending over its own laws to woo a dirty journalist. At the very least, it’s a marketing disaster …
The oddest twist however on the macro-level is that while this new breed of manager-PR-ist-politicians are all spinning around the centre, the media they are so ardently reaching out to for traction is becoming increasingly partisan. Or rather, given the collapsing together of parties, it would be more accurate to speak of the media becoming more politically divided on its own terms. A number of media outlets have thrown off their allegiance to one or another party, but they are ever more unreserved in their expression of left / right leanings.
The enormous influence of the internet and social networking has greatly accelerated (if not inspired) this trend. It has opened up huge new fields of informal and freely ideological sources of news, comment and opinion, much of which is clearly politically coded. It’s evident popularity has pushed traditional news sources to becoming more informal and opinionated themselves, and self-identify as a voice for one or another social group.
The surprising upshot is that although political divides are leaching out of government, they’re coming back into journalism. Tellingly the case against Coulson, and all the furore now spilling out of it, was one pursued not by the police, not by the party in power, nor by the opposition, but by the Guardian newspaper. Divisive and bloody politics may be obsolete in Westminster, but on Fleet Street it’s sharpening its knives.