Recently a prominent member of the opposition complained about the behaviour of the back bench MP’s of the governing party. She said that their behaviour was that of a group of three year olds. What she was referring to was the infantile sexual gestures made by these men whenever a woman spoke. This seems to be symptomatic of a change in the behaviour in the commons, the practice of politics does seem to have become more infantile. What makes this more surprising is that this change has occurred when we have the most educated parliament in our history. There are more graduates with good degrees from good universities in our parliament than ever before. What I will argue is that politicians have since the 1980’s increasing adopted a self denying ordinance which prohibits them from engaging in what most would consider politics. Instead too much political debate is devoted to trivia. Possibly the best example of the new politics comes from the USA, where Congress under pressure from the food industry decreed that the tomato topping on pizzas would count one of the five day fruits or vegetables needed for a healthy diet. The fact that this decision was meaningless in terms of improving the health of nation mattered little to Congress.
This self denying ordinance which effectively prevents politicians from decision taking dates back to the 1980’s and the revolution in political thinking that was Neo-Liberalism. Prior to that time the management of the economy was considered part of the practice of government, now it was to be considered as something alien to the art of good government. As the former practices of economic management appeared to have brought the economy to its knees. The economy was to best left unregulated, as government intervention no matter how well intentioned only had a negative impact on human welfare. This ‘avoidance of doing’ became so ingrained that the policy of doing nothing began to be applied to other parts of government. Politicians of both the right and left developed a phobia about the nanny state.
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One of the best examples of the fallacious nature of the current political debate is that on alcohol consumption. In 1914 strict licensing laws were introduced to limit the hours in which licensed premise could sell alcohol as it was feared that the excessive consumption of alcohol was a threat to the war effort. These strict limits on the sale of alcohol were largely kept in place until 2003 when most restrictions of the sale of alcohol were removed. Now alcohol could be served 24/7 and it was argued that this would lead to the adoption of the ‘civilised drinking practices’ of the Europeans. It would lead to the introduction of the European cafe culture. Instead it led to introduction of the vertical drinking establishment in which the number of table and chairs were reduced , which enabled the pub/bar to cram in as many drinkers as possible. These pubs can be compared to the assembly line, the process of serving alcohol was simplified down to its minimal elements so as to speed up the sale of alcohol. The consequence was a massive increase in the consumption of alcohol with all its attendant social and health problems.
There is one simple example that illustrates this change in social behaviours towards the more negative. In the 1950’s being drunk and disorderly was a criminal offence, now such disorderly behaviour has become normalised and being instanced by a as a senior officer in London’s police force said they no longer considered the stopping of such behaviour part of their role. Was this officer merely recognising the inevitable in that alcohol based disorder has become so common a behaviour that the the police can no longer control it?
The reason I have highlighted the alcohol issue is because it’s a useful illustrative of the fallacious nature of so much political debate. I saw a late night TV programme in which politicians were debating the merits of raising the price of alcohol to reduce its consumption. All of the politicians on the panel agreed that it would be wrong, because it would penalise the less well-off sensible drinker. They argued vehemently that these sensible drinkers would be unable to afford their usual tipple. My reaction is the one my was wife has when interviewing parents about their misbehaving children hi say that they don’t want to upset their child by stopping them from doing what they want, event if it’s wrong bad and that is – who is the adult here? When the price of alcohol is increased, it will mean that the less well off will be able to buy so much alcohol, but that is the purpose of the legislation.
What characterises the political debate debate on this issue is the avoidance of any action to reduce alcohol abuse. Politicians debar themselves from any action that would limit alcohol consumption, such as increasing the price of alcohol by increasing taxes on it, reducing the number of places that are licensed to sell alcohol or limiting the hours for which those premises can sell alcohol. These politicians through believing any regulation of the free market is misguided have in effect prevented themselves from effectively intervening in the alcohol market. Their role is reduced to one in talking about alcohol they have no other role.
The political dialogue about alcohol consumption demonstrates how out sourcing decision making to others removes any meaningful role the for politicians in so many areas of society.Their self denying ordinance not to interfere means they are reduced to talking about the problems that affect society, while playing down the ineffectiveness of their role. This is why they command of the media is so vital to them, media noise will hide their ineffectiveness and insignificance.
Why have politicians given up on the exercise of power
Today’s politics cannot be explained without reference to the traumas of the 1970’s, when economic crisis threatened the stability of Western society. It came to a head in Britain in 1976 when the government was forced to ask for a record loan of £2.3 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avert national.bankruptcy. The IMF saw the problem Britain faced as a fundamental structural dysfunction. The political and economic institutions of Britain were not fit for purpose. They insisted as a start of the necessary reforms that the government cut its spending programmes. Cuts in government spending would mean the transfer of investment from unproductive government programmes to productive private sector businesses.
Neo-Liberals the over mighty state, caused the crisis as it had expanded far beyond its area of competence. Industry was shackled by regulation and suffered from too much political interference. What was required was what is now termed as supply side reforms. The labour and financial markets were to be freed of regulation which would create an economy flexible enough to respond to economic change. If for instance the government put money into a failing business such as British Leyland, it was investing in a business in which the returns were minimal and by keeping those workers on in a failing business it was preventing them from moving into a more productive business, so holding back economic growth.
This new political philosophy not only demanded that government should get off the backs of business, but that it should get out of those parts of the economy and society, where it would be better managed by business. This meant the wholesale privatisation of the nationalised industries and the outsourcing of many government services to the private sector. What was a crisis of political confidence meant that politicians were now willing to abdicate much of their powers of decision making to others. These others are referred to collectively as the free market.
One consequence is that decisions that would have been taken in parliament are now taken by ministers in negotiation with outside contractors. Prisons and probation services are now the responsibility of various private contractors, not something that is considered to be within the remit of MP’s. Politicians have constantly acquiesced in the diminution of their authority. The Department of Trade and Industry once one of the mightiest of departments is now a departmental backwater serving only to facilitate the requests of various business corporations.
Given that parliament has diminished itself and become only a peripheral player in society, politicians will constantly over compensate for their insignificance by shouting as loudly as they can to draw attention to themselves. This means that they must constantly attract the media with new policy statements (of little real purpose) to demonstrate that, yes they still do matter.
There is an alternative reading of the history of the 1970’s which suggests that the problems of Western Democracies were not a product of structural dysfunction, but events unrelated to structural dysfunction. One such event was the attitude of Jimmy Carter’s government in Washington towards the Labour government in London. They were concerned about there being a socialist government in London, which could act contrary to American interests. Great Britain with its command of the North Western European sea ways off Europe was a key strategic asset for the Americans. London was also home to the largest CIA station outside the USA. They wanted a friend in London, which could not be a socialist government. When the financial crisis occurred in 1976 they saw it as an opportunity to destabilise this government. When the London government asked for American financial support they refused and discretely encouraged the financial speculation that threatened to undermine the British economy. This worsened the financial crisis forcing the London government to ask for an IMF loan, which came at a heavy price. The price was the acceptance of the free market ideology of the Neo-Liberals and an end to any possible policies of state socialism.
There are other events, but to discuss them would needlessly lengthen the essay to no purpose and would not alter the conclusion of my essay, that the immaturity of the current political debate is in a large part due to the loss of confidence within the political classes. Politicians need to find a new sense of purpose, possibly hope can come from the margins, with parties such as the Greens with their plans for a renewal of British society.