Demos's brave new words

Life after Politics

July 11, 1997

Life after Politics offers the edited highlights of Demos, the think tank founded by Geoff Mulgan and Martin Jacques in 1993 to chart the course for a new kind of politics - sometimes called a postmodern politics - for the 21st century. Demos was founded as a self-conscious imitation of (and tribute to) the Institute of Economic Affairs, the mother of all modern think tanks, founded by Ralph Harris, Arthur Seldon and Mike Fisher in 1955 to find free-market solutions to what they saw as Britain's economic and social problems, known to their contemporaries as social democracy. The IEA survived on the fringes of politics for 20 years before their ideas were taken up with gusto by the Thatcherites and caused the IEA to flourish at the centre of politics during the 1980s.

This is the optimal narrative for any aspiring think tank - from this year's rebels to tomorrow's orthodoxy - like the Fabians and IEA before them. Demos has set out its stall in a similar way, happily dismissing today's politics as redundant, hacking through the rubble of "exhausted ideologies", Thatcherism, communism, social democracy, and inviting us to set our eyes on the future, the post-modern world of virtual reality, globalisation and "lean democracy". As Mulgan writes: "Today we are thinking in the echo of these crashes, the end of the old polarities of left and right, capital and labour. We are thinking in a time of unprecedented possibilities to remake institutions and relationships." The presiding genius of the IEA, Seldon, used to use a military metaphor to describe the IEA's work as the heavy artillery firing the shells (ideas) which would clear the way for others to do the work of the infantry later on, but the institute would never be the infantry engaged in the short-term, face-to face grappling with the enemy. This is Demos's self-appointed role in the present scheme of things; they are long on ideas and broad principles, but often short on specific proposals, let alone suggestions for legislation. This will bother many who are sympathetic to their broad aims, but if the ideas alone of Demos catch on, then we may be sure that a whole host of organisations will come along later for all that face-to-face grappling.

But whether Demos is taken seriously in the first place depends on the basic supposition that the "old polarities" have gone, that the old clashes of labour and capital are a thing of the past. For my part, Demos dismisses the broad accumulation of historical antagonisms far too quickly; so much is dismissed airily in a rush to be cutting edge and up to date. Those who like their politics with red meat and "great causes", can throw this volume straight in the bin. Sometimes reading Demos I am reminded not so much of the IEA as of Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, the bible of the Gaitskellites. Crosland's entire edifice of social democracy rested on the erroneous assumption that the "old polarities" were dead, that Keynesianism had made all the old politics redundant, solving the problems of production forever. On top of these shifting sands he sketched out a socialist utopia of individual liberty and open air cafes, a country fit for social democrats to live in. Of course, when push came to shove in the mid-1970s, the old polarities reasserted themselves with a vengeance and the Croslandite dream collapsed.

However, the central contention of Demos is surely correct, that the age of great ideological narratives is probably over for good, and in their stead are numerous, often conflicting ideas and interests which make politics a more complex and heterogeneous business than at any time in the past. Their principal and most positive contribution is to argue that the political debates of the recent past have been far too focused on a narrow spectrum of economic issues. Politics has thus become reductionist, marginalising and exclusive. Demos sets out to widen the criteria by which we judge the political, to describe and promote debate on what could be described the "quality of life" issues which, until recently, have been mainly mediated to the public through the bile and prejudice of self-promoting right-wing political commentators.

Of course, broadening the range of what constitutes the "political" has been an orthodoxy in academic circles for decades, but it is still remarkable how little of that debate has penetrated the archaic party political posturing that passes for political debate at Westminster. Demos tries to provide a link between the two, employing a range of different writers from different disciplines (anthropology, management, biology) to inform and broaden our political discourse. This is long overdue, and if they succeed in penetrating the skulls of just a few MPs, they will have done sterling service.

The most instructive essays in this volume are those which deal with the areas in which the Westminster debate has been at its most sterile for decades, the world of work and learning. Howard Gardner of Harvard University and David Hargreaves both argue persuasively that our education system is anachronistic, evaluating and assessing a very limited range of a student's abilities. Douglas Hague, in "Transforming the dinosaurs", complements Gardner and Hargreaves with a list of reforms for universities and other public institutions to make them better attuned to the demands of the real world. These essays reflect new policy thinking at its best, distilling a range of new research and ideas into sane and important proposals for change. Helen Wilkinson and Mulgan are equally convincing in their exposition of a new approach to the relationship between leisure and work. This is an excellent example of a subject where there is almost no public debate on an issue of pressing anxiety at the heart of people's lives. They are right to argue that we must refuse to condone a drift towards a "leisured' society (too often a euphemism for the dole - and those on the "job seekers allowance" will tell you exactly what they think of leisure time). "The challenge for a post-industrial age is not to escape from work altogether but rather to achieve more autonomy, more ways for people to control the terms on which they work, its pace and texture."

There are equally innovative attempts to reinvigorate democracy in "Democracy and government" by Adonis and Mulgan, to reconnect the government to the governed. Again, some of the ideas here might seem impractical, or just futuristic, but at least they suggest some practical solutions, rather than indulging in apathetic grumbling as most of my students do. Roger Scruton also writes brilliantly about the animal rights debate, with no surprises as to which side this wannabee squire comes down on.

However, if only as many of these essayists wrote as lucidly as Scruton or Mulgan himself. There are other interesting, more speculative pieces by Samuel Brittan and John Ashworth, but too often they wilt and expire under the deadweight of jargon and management-speak. This is the obvious risk of importing undigested chunks of analysis from other disciplines into politics as the writers obscure rather than elucidate in their rush to be so unrelentingly heterodox. Management speak is the besetting sin of Demos. Perri 6 manages to throw a vast amount of verbiage at the subject of "Governing by cultures", deploying a couple of highly confusing "flow-charts" which purport to show "the tools that give more direct leverage in cultural change", before admitting on the last page that "in some respects this is nothing new", as the Tories have been doing it for the past 15 years. Indeed, only Mr 6's assault on the English language is new. Others - Bob Tyrell, Charles Hampden-Turner - all trot out their potted management seminars to little effect.

This blend of the constructive, the speculative and the inane is what you would expect of a think tank engaged in this sort of long-term thinking. In fact, by comparison with their predecessors, it is a remarkably wide-ranging and coherent collection of essays for an organisation which has only been in business for four years. I fervently hope that many of the ideas in this book will become tomorrow's orthodoxies, just as many of them will pass deservedly into obscurity. But in a political age where incremental pragmatism seems to be the prevailing working method, Demos's addition to the political debate is both timely and relevant, which is a lot more than you can say about the current contribution of most contemporary politicians.

Richard Cockett is lecturer in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Life after Politics: New Ideas for the 21st Century

Editor - Geoff Mulgan
ISBN - 0 00 638755 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £7.99
Pages - 458

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