A clunking managerial manifesto

Over to You, Mr Brown
April 27, 2007

Kenneth Minogue has no time for socialist simplicities in new clothing

The old distinction between Left and Right, some say, is outmoded. It certainly is in current British politics. No one who has observed David Cameron and Tony Blair pirouetting around the same tiny bit of turf, with a resounding clang of heart-warming cliches, would doubt it.

Our masters are centrists now, forever cuddling up to what they think is the median voter. The cause lies in the new technology of election-winning.

Those of us with a taste for the raw red meat of real politics are deeply alienated by it all, but we'd better pay it some mind. And the clue lies in the idea of triangulation. This takes the attractive elements of opposing political tendencies and generates a policy that promises the electors the best of both worlds. Bill Clinton and Blair combined compassion with market-friendly policies. "Compassionate conservatism" is another masterly bit of triangulation. It is the ultimate in electoral bribery, offering the voters everything. You can have it all, is the message. The wolf of partisanship is dressed in the sheep's clothing of common sense, because we all want to be compassionate and stay rich. Elementary, really.

Anthony Giddens is a ranking theorist of this technology. He is a master of its language. His prose is a string of abstractions about contributions and partnerships. Those who find his terminology maddeningly obfuscatory have merely failed to "get it". Triangulators inhabit safe ground, but in his new book Giddens has taken a plunge into election forecasting: the book is called Over to You, Mr Brown .

You might well think that reading through 216 pages of opinions on possible new Labour policies would be like listening to an interminable party political broadcast, and there are certainly longeurs. On the other hand, it reveals a great deal about the current condition of our civilisation.

Triangulation, exemplified in such masters as Clinton, was eclectic, but in Giddens the technique has been deployed in the service of socialism.

Socialism, it will be remembered, was a Saint-Simonian coinage that conceived a modern state as a vast factory. It was in essence a productive unit. The business of managers was to get rid of parasites and distribute the product according to need.

But can we apply these simplicities today? Giddens thinks we can, but only if we remedy the "deep structural problems that make the UK so unequal".

These problems result, of course, from the fact that wealth is produced in something called "an economy", which has a nasty tendency to reward the clever and the energetic. Socialism, however, is "about" helping the less clever and less energetic. Governments must get more people into work, Giddens tells us, and must also recognise (he is holding his nose as he writes) that "the seemingly antisocial profit motive may benefit the public interest..." Antisocial? There's a funny word for you. In fact, satisfying someone's need is not a bad way to make a profit.

Should Labour be relaxed, as Peter Mandelson has said, about people becoming filthy rich? No. Labour can no longer be against entrepreneurs, the driving forces of economic success. But becoming wealthy should carry with it social obligations, and every effort should be made to enforce or encourage the acceptance of these. Here is basic triangulation at work, delicately skirting around the socialist hatred of freedom.

Markets are good, of course, but the state must use its clunking fist to make things come right. The 16 policies Giddens advances for "making Britain more equal" hardly touch what people, especially the poor, might themselves prefer. It is all marvellously top-down. Does anyone but Giddens, I wonder, say to himself: "What brilliant people govern us. I am glad, yea glad, that they tax and invest half of what we in Britain create, because left to ourselves we would just waste it on booze and foreign holidays." But only a basic attitude of this kind could possibly explain the mad managerialism that Gordon Brown is here urged to espouse.

So, Britain must move on - beyond the "enabling state" to that better thing, "the ensuring state", in which regulation is understood not just as restrictive but as "achieving positive results." But does this not mean the state will get bigger? No, it means "the sharing of responsibilities between government, other agencies (such as third-sector groups) and individual citizens" - a much more compelling idea (he adds) than Cameron's "vague concept of social responsibility".

Giddens is an amiable and benevolent man, but at times it is hard to see these vacuities as anything other than a script for Rory Bremner. Thus a little light trot around the problems of the National Health Service leads to the conclusion: "These shortcomings will not be remedied by relaxing the pace of reform or by supposing that one can 'return power to the frontline professionals'."

No one who so adores the wisdom of the powers above us can avoid embracing the European Union. We must shed our "island mentality", Giddens argues, and embrace the "sovereignty plus" offered by Brussels. Such an expression makes it clear that Giddens shares the common muddle that identifies sovereignty with national omnipotence. He has picked up the old Leftist illusion that "the union makes us strong". Actually, it merely obliterates our individual voice.

The remarkable thing is that Britain often plays a powerful role in the G8 and the United Nations, where EU nonsense cannot block out our views. The point is not where wisdom lies, but how our own voice may be heard above the muffle of the Franco-German hegemony. The day after the Robbins report was published, Michael Oakeshott, wandering around Covent Garden where he lived, ran into Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge pointed to the sky with his finger and said: "God is not mocked!" It's not my idiom, but reading the future in Giddens, I know what he means.

Kenneth Minogue, emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics, is writing a book about democracy and the moral life.

Over to You, Mr Brown

Author - Anthony Giddens
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 216
Price - £45.00 and £9.99
ISBN - 97807 45642222 and 42239

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