For much of the 20th century politics was defined by a clash between left and right – radicals versus conservatives, socialist versus capitalists, social welfare versus individual initiative. Politics in the 21st century has dumped these debates in favour of an apparently less divisive form of managerialism, symbolised by Gordon Brown’s apolitical ‘government of all the talents’ including unelected experts.
The collapse of outmoded ways of thinking about the world might provide us with the space and freedom to think more creatively about the kind of world we want to live in. But with the corrosion of old ideological disputes, have we also lost the vision and the inspiration that the world could really be a different place? In place of debates about social organisation, politicians and the state have instead come to be increasingly interested in the organisation and management of our individual and personal lives. Healthcare prioritises healthy living and healthy eating; education prioritises the explicit construction of good citizens who know their rights and their responsibilities; welfare legislation seeks to clamp down on problem neighbours, antisocial behaviour, and individual expressions of discrimination and prejudice. If society can no longer be transformed, it seems, the activities of citizens can at least be micro-managed to create pro-social individuals.
Where the old politics involved conflicts over the nature of the good life and the good society, the new managerialism is not open to question in the same way. It is taken for granted that smoking is bad and drinking should be moderate, that we should respect diversity and do our bit to combat climate change. Dissent on any of these issues is seen as irresponsible or even wicked rather than a political view to be engaged with. Is this a sensible response to the end of ideology and the emergence of new political priorities, or should we aspire to shake things up and think bigger about the prospects for change?
columnist, Independent and Mail on Sunday; visiting fellow, Reuters Institute, University of Oxford; editor, Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations
|Dr David Runciman|
professor of politics, Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), Cambridge University; author, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War 1 to the Present
chief executive, RSA; former chief advisor on strategy to prime minister, Tony Blair
|Dr Michael Fitzpatrick|
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health
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