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The job of policy makers . . .

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I try to avoid political current affairs commentary on my blog - it is not as if there is a shortage of it. But I can't resist commenting on my old Boss's speech about the media.

I think it is brave - partly because he recognises the impact of New Labour's spin machine but more so because any criticism of the media is bound to be met with fury by the media.

I agree with almost everything Tony Blair says, but I think he misses one important point.

He says that the big shifts that have made the relationship with politics worse are to do with the impact on the media of technology and the market, more specifically the emergence of real-time news, the explosion of new TV, radio and internet channels and the consequent fragmentation of the market.

This is true but the problem is not just to do with the media and the political classes, it is also to do with the nature of modern society.

When I went to work in Downing Street, I hoped to find out which of the classic views of the state that I had grown up with would prove to be true.

Would it be the Marxian view that the state in a capitalist society ends up serving the interests of the ruling class, or the new right view that a combination of public choice and producer capture means the state will see every challenge as an opportunity to extend its own size and power?

Or the liberal pluralist view of the state as holding the ring while competing interests in society battle it out for supremacy?

Rarely a day passed without compelling evidence for all three views. And I noticed something else, not just politicians trying to reconcile interests in different groups but also confronting conflicting interests within the same people.

This is nothing new; voters have long expressed a simultaneous preference for lower taxes and better resourced public services. But, as the world has become more complex and as we have become less deferential, the need for us to acknowledge the tensions between our interests and desires has arguably become more acute.

In more and more areas it can feel like people demand incompatible outcomes: cheap flights and action against climate change; affordable housing and protecting every inch of countryside; low inflation and enough service workers but a crack down on immigration; less centralisation of power and guarantees of uniform service standards; tough action against security threats and the extension of human rights.

It is the job of policy makers and politicians to find ways through these dichotomies but this can only be done if citizens are posing problems which they are willing to see solved.

It is in this more challenging context that the destructive relationship described by Blair becomes so much more damaging.

The media help people deny that these are real dilemmas and that their resolution is as much a matter of our own behaviour as it is of the skills of politicians.

Instead the media has become a disorganised conspiracy to maintain the population in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage.

At a time when new challenges in our world and our lives mean politicians and citizens need a richer relationship than ever before the nature of the modern media help to ensure that it is more impoverished.

This is why a grown up discussion with the media and the development of new, more balanced and discursive online forums is an important part of a pro-social strategy.

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  • The issue of popular expectations of politics is a difficult issue. If we are to expect people to change their expectations of what government can achieve, then this can only happen as part of a bargain through which political leaders show greater honesty and leadership than they have done over recent years.
    Too much political discourse has become implicated in consumerist rhetoric. Parties and leaders must position themselves by showing that they can satisty "what people want". This is an absolute illusion, for government is often about telling people why they cannot have certain things. This contradiction between how mainstream political leaders construct their legitimacy and its medium-term credibility breeds cynicism.
    Creating a politics based on community and solidarity requires a more self-limiting form of political discourse. I suppose I would like to hear someone in office tell me that there are no easy solutions to issues of immigration and crime, education and the provision of social services.
    Such a step sounds simple, but, it means quite a radical change in political language, culture, and public policy.

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