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.