Not reflecting but creating division


The latest edition of Political Quarterly – which commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Crick’s influential book ‘In Defence of Politics’-  contains a piece by me entitled ‘Changing the Subject – the case for a social politics’. As usual with my work it is slightly stuck at the level of concepts, reflecting both my intellectual limitations and me not being a full time academic with my own original research to quote.

I’m also unsure about the ugly title phrase ‘social politics’. What I meant by it was an approach which starts by asking how the processes and conduct of politics might most usefully contribute to developing the model of social citizenship needed for the 21st century. This is a wider question than normally asked by those interested in areas like constitutional reform; they tend to focus on the criteria that political scientists deem most important such as being more representative or more accountable.

More concretely, I argue, the adversarial nature of politics (and the poor level of much media analysis) encourages parties to argue dishonestly that the policies they are recommending are failsafe and entirely positive. But all policies have risks and downsides; otherwise they would have been implemented a long time ago. Those risks and downsides are often a function of public behaviours, so by overpromising politicians relieve us of the responsibilities we might (or might not) accept to help make policies work. For example, when the Labour Government pledged to abolish child poverty it failed to recognise that delivering such a massive ambition would involve all citizens playing some role actively in families and communities more passively as taxpayers and as a whole in committing to this as a national aspiration.

If Labour ministers had been less statist and overbearing, and more patient, they could have grown public commitment to the goal and, if they had it, might have been harder for an incoming Government to drop. We will not in the foreseeable future be able to say – as did a Finn I spoke to recently ‘but Matthew, we don’t really have any children in poverty’.

Another example is the need for a new corporatism– hinted at in Lord Heseltine’s report last week –  in which social partners are fully engaged in designing and delivering policies rather than standing outside Government making shrill demands and special pleading.

The relationship between political processes and social outcomes was also illustrated by the American election. A lot of the commentary has said or implied that the election campaign result reflects the deep divisions in modern America. But it is equally possible to argue that the two party, multi-billion dollar Presidential race is a very major factor is generating and cementing division.

I have seen no compelling evidence that the spectrum of opinion among Americans is substantially different to most other developed countries, with some people at either end and most people closer to the middle. But few politicians think they can win an election by saying ‘I’ve got my faults and the other guy isn’t all bad’ so it is in the nature of the process that opinions on intellectually unrelated issues like support for tax cuts for the well off, the death penalty and antagonism to gay marriage are bundled together.

Similarly, the fact that the elections recently have been so close does not mean America is exceptionally divided down the middle. Instead it reflects the outcome of a process whereby a candidate must win the support of a relatively politically homogenous activist base and then lean as far as they can into the middle ground to win the votes from a much less politically motivated public. This was exactly the journey undertaken by Mitt Romney and, who knows, he may have won had he not had to shift so far so quickly from his base to the centre.

So what we see in America tells us about the impact of a particular system (two party  Presidential) and the dominance of political parties, which in America as elsewhere are tending to get a narrower base and are therefore more vulnerable to take over by the zealous. It is not the system that reflects the pathology it is the system that breeds the pathology.

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