The demise of the New Labour government has perhaps witnessed the dawning of the end of an era in British politics. That era has been characterised by the attempt to systematically advance policies promoting social liberalism and economic conservatism simultaneously. Some commentators (notably Nick Cohen, particularly his What’s Left – How the left Lost its Way, Harper Perennial 2007) have remarked on this, but for the most part it has gone largely unnoticed. Yet, in all probability, future social and economic historians, as well as political analysts, will regard this as one of the most striking features of the British political landscape from the early 1990s until the onset of the recession in 2008. The consequences of trying to implement what are effectively right-wing and left-liberal policies at the same time have had some profound and disturbing effects on UK society and culture which we shall outline below. Ironically, it may be the advent of a coalition administration consisting of conservatives and liberals that may rein in and temper some of the more adverse consequences of what has been the political equivalent of trying to ride two horses at the same time.
Throughout the 1980s in Britain, Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher transformed the political landscape, dismantling the post-war consensus that had prevailed throughout most of the period since 1945 and reaping a dividend by winning four elections in a row. Her successor, John Major, continued her policies into the 1990s, allowing the Conservatives, against expectations to win the general election in 1992.
In response, the opposition Labour Party embarked on fundamental reforms and renewal which culminated in New Labour and Tony Blair. This provided the platform for Labour to win a decisive election victory in 1997, but did so by crucially committing to maintain the framework of the Thatcherite economic legacy. This highlighted the convergence which had occurred in British politics, so much so that Blair and his policies were sometimes referred to as “Blathcherism” (a combination of Blair and Thatcher) even before he became Prime Minister. Another sardonic reference to Blair in this vein after he took office was: “To Thatcher a son!” To be sure, Labour did embark on a substantial increase in public expenditure, but at the cost of no inroads into the private sector and utilising methods of raising private finance to pay for public sector projects such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that the Tories had only timidly resorted to.
This attempt at co-habitation of free market capitalism and left/liberal social democracy has resulted in the emergence of some profound paradoxes. From the mid nineteen-nineties, but particularly marked since Labour took power in 1997, a liberal left agenda or value base has predominated in the social and cultural sphere, while a right-wing agenda has predominated in the economic sphere. The rights of the individual, the emphasis on equality, inclusion, multi-culturalism, diversity, respect for all backgrounds, the drive to end poverty co-exists with privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing, the emergence of huge corporate enterprises, the commercialisation of the public sector, the profit motive as one of the most exalted ethos within society, vast disparities in incomes, increasing surveillance and loss of civic freedoms etc.
The consequence has been the emergence of what can be identified as a Bipolar Society. The term bipolar is borrowed from geography where it refers to having two physical poles or extremities. More recently it has become an alternative term for manic depression within psychiatry, expressing more clearly alternate episodes of mania and depression. I would want to use the term in its wider definition of “having two completely different ideas, two completely different opinions, attitudes or natures”. The term bipolar society, therefore, means that the society under study is attempting to achieve mutually contradictory policies, ideals and ‘value bases’*.
All societies, to a certain extent, are guilty of hypocrisy and double-standards, some more than others. Thus, in communist regimes the official ideology proclaims there to be a classless egalitarian society when the reality is of a privileged, ruling bureaucratic elite vested with near total power. But the hypocrisy is stark and most people pay lip service to the propaganda while getting on with their lives as best they can. In bipolar societies, life is much more confusing, if less dangerous. This is because they lack boundaries as a bi-polar society is striving to attain competing and mutually contradictory oughts. Take the starkest example: Under Labour there has been an unprecedented focus on equality; this word has now become ubiquitous throughout the land and informs every part of government strategy as well as that of private and voluntary organisations: never, it is fair to say has so much emphasis been placed on striving to achieve equality.
And yet, levels of inequality in UK society are now greater than at any time since the 1930s. Because, at the same time as equality has been promoted so assiduously, the previous government was also emphasising the primacy of the free market with little or no controls and was ‘relaxed’ about people accumulating vast wealth. Similarly Labour in power spoke often of freeing up the individual and encouraging enterprise, initiative and innovation, while in fact frenetically producing a legislative and regulatory torrent which has effectively enmeshed civil society in bureaucratic red tape to an extent which reduces people and organisations to risk averse, tick box compliant entities profoundly inimical to innovation or enterprise, presided over by an all-pervading quangocracy.
There have been no less than 3,000 separate items of legislation passed since 1997 and for most of them an entire edifice of quangos/regulatory bodies have been set up to oversee them. In social policy, as in other areas, a plethora of bodies have now been established to ostensibly implement and direct policy, but which in fact often duplicate each other as well as blunting the effect of policy. In the field of addiction and drug policy I have personally seen numerous initiatives, projects and policies set up over 20 years (often with great fanfare and money) only to fade away. Over the same period an alphabet soup of agencies has been formed to try and ‘co-ordinate’ policy in this field, to much confusion and with little actual direction.
One of the hallmarks of Labour has been its excessive centralism. All decisions, all initiatives have been led from the centre. Yet much was made of the empowerment of communities, of social inclusion of those groups marginalised and outcast, of participation and consultation. The reality is that decision making has been more centralised and put in the hands of fewer people than ever. Walk into any public sector agency, health board, local authority or what remains of government departments and you will see notices, glossy brochures and other media prominently displayed about listening to, consulting with and seeking the active participation of customers/consumers/service users/clients (the terms are inter-changeable) in the planning and running of services or actually serving on the governing bodies of those agencies. In almost all instances the result has been tokenistic, superficial froth: Power, policy and decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few; same as it ever was.
Labour, in government, in fact achieved a remarkable feat. It constantly spoke of community involvement, inclusion and achieving grand aims, particularly in the field of social policy. From alcohol and drugs, through to homelessness, child poverty, welfare, unemployment and others it had the highest ambitions and loftiest ideals. But these aims and initiatives were almost instantly diluted by being directed from the centre by civil servants and government ministers who would then proceed to delegate day-to-day operation and control to quangos or other statutory bodies with the obligatory token but toothless co-opting of some voluntary agencies or community activists in an ‘advisory’ role, but with no real say over policy. Finally, having divested itself of any tangible means to direct economic policy, through intervention or redistribution, no major impact was achieved with the result that the government and its flotilla of agencies, quangos and task groups was reduced to trying to achieve macro ends with micro means. And these micro means, in the absence of wider societal or radical measures, often became focused on individuals with an almost intrusive focus on people’s personal lives and habits such as diet and lifestyle. Grand aims which began with the noble intentions of eradicating poverty and reducing inequality ended up by shouting at people to brush their teeth, parent properly, eat five-a-day and don’t drink too much!
This also applies to other areas of social liberalism. Throughout the last 30 years there has been an unprecedented focus, as prominent as that given to equalities, on a set of values and aims revolving around diversities, anti-discrimination, multi-culturalism and health and safety. Again this emphasis has emerged from the most altruistic and progressive of motives and been reinforced by legislation, protocols, procedures and rules until they have become enshrined in every aspect of social and organisational life.
But, once more, what began as a legitimate attempt to prevent or diminish racist and discriminatory behaviour and practice or eliminate grossly unsafe working environments has via a concentration on central direction, legislative fiat and a dependence on following rules, become absolute concepts, taken out of context and stripped of any nuance.. At its lightest this can have absurd consequences which can become the focus of much sarcasm and scorn and can bring the whole notion of anti-discrimination, diversity and health and safety into disrepute. At its worst people, including those for whom these measures were introduced, can bridle at the enforcement of norms of behaviour or ridiculous safety laws, which in some cases can lead to a backlash making the environment surrounding anti-discrimination or health and safety worse than before such measures were introduced. Equally, enforcement of anti-discrimination measures without sensitivity can lead to a backlash from a previously dominant group.
Bipolarity, excessive centralism, a legislative binge, the encouragement and almost slavish dependency on a quangocracy, the reduction of social policy to micro-managing people’s lives and the promotion of noble, liberal principles taken to absurd lengths are, to a certain extent the product of a political party wedded to a certain amount of statism as a result of its history. But the real culprit in all this is the belief that social liberalism and economic conservatism can be maximally pursued without contradictions or breaking apart.
For a while, as the economy prospered through the 90s’ and into the first decade of the new century, it appeared that Labour could marry the two successfully as the booming economy produced the tax receipts that allowed for increased public expenditure, which would in turn stimulate the economy further, giving rise to even greater tax receipts and so on in a virtuous circle. We now know of course that economic growth was being funded by debt and the entire basis of the simultaneous promotion of social liberalism and economic conservatism, of bipolarity, has unravelled, based as it was on extremely flimsy foundations.
But the impact of bipolarity, of tying to pursue contradictory policies with equal conviction, not only confuses the general population, leading to much cynicism and apathy and even stress as people trying to make sense of what is going on, but also lies deep in the body politic. For, while Labour (and the Lib-dems) ceded the economy to economic conservatism, the Conservatives equally conceded much of the field of ideas in social policy, politics and culture to social liberalism. To the chagrin and despair of many Conservative Party activists, their party has taken on many of the social values, such as anti-discrimination and multi-culturalism, which were once the preserve of the left and strongly disavowed by the right. Ironically, the 2010 general election did produce a real debate about the role of the state between the parties (if not always honest and forthcoming, particularly around the extent of cutbacks in public spending that will need to take effect), but virtually no discussion on social values; these are virtually off-limits in British political debate.
The recession, the general election and the coming to power of a coalition government, may actually provide the space for debate and discussion around these trends in British politics over the past 30 years to be opened up (and they are not confined to Britain, being mirrored around the world). Questions about the role of the state, centralism, reducing the quangocracy, micro-managing people’s lives under the façade of promoting liberal values have to be addressed. Above all persistent attempts to maximally advance two sets of often conflicting political principles, i.e. social liberalism and economic conservatism have to be minimised.
British Liberal-Democracy, in its widest sense, was a broad church that could encompass people from the left-of-centre through to the centre-right. It was based primarily on pragmatism and what worked and was largely devoid of ideology. In fact it neither advocated nor decried social liberalism or economic conservatism, but took from both in order to achieve the optimum policies which produced the greatest benefit. Somehow, possibly begun by Thatcher’s pursuit of maximum economic conservatism and Labour’s reaction to its apparent success, this pragmatic, optimal approach has been lost. Instead pragmatism has been cast aside and ideology has largely taken centre stage in the attempt to achieve the maximum of both at the same time: this has resulted in a bipolar society with some deep contradictions and strains. The coalition may offer us the opportunity to revive pragmatism. The era of riding two political horses at once is possibly over. After all, what happens when you try to ride two horses at once? You either fall off or get torn apart!
*To obtain a more in-depth overview of the concept of the Bi-polar Society and its ramifications see unpublished work by the author, The Bi-polar Society or how we lost our common sense. For more details contact email@example.com