Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Art of Political Bullshit

I've been trying for a while to put my finger on what is distinctive and new about the Cameron coalition government, and I think it requires conceptual innovation. How much of this is down to the novelty of coalition for the UK, and how much to Cameron's mob being genuine political path breakers is a question for another day. But for now I'll settle for coining a new term for this way of making, or pretending to make, policy. And that term is: bullshit.

OK, it's not that new a term. I've taken inspiration from Harry Frankfurt's well known essay On Bullshit, that didn't claim to address political life in particular, and whose arguments are not perfectly applicable to my concern here. The bits that I do think are relevant to the Cameron government are the wilful misrepresentation of reality, and of themselves. Of course, there is nothing new about politicians being economical with the truth, but what is distinctive about this form of political bullshit is that there is nothing very concrete underneath the deception and half-truths.

The key feature of the Cameron government is that there is no real aim to change anything very much, or at least anything that matters to the plutocrats that are this government's main audience. Things are rolling along just fine for this group, and the policy changes needed to keep them happy generally don't require much innovation. Backdoor privatisation of the NHS and blocking re-regulation of finance are tried and tested policies, and the Labour party is showing no real signs of attacking the government on these staples. It's business as usual.

What is new is the fodder served up for the rest of us. I've experienced two periods of government before this one - Thatcher-Major and Blair-Brown - both of which had an identifiable set of policy goals. The first probably made much more in the way of lasting transformations than the latter, but whichever way you look at it, there was a plan and there is a legacy. But this coalition's legacy will for the most part consist of the consequences of inaction on the one hand, and damaging policy confusion on the other.

Just a couple of examples will suffice to make the point. First, welfare reform. Iain Duncan Smith's Universal Credit has turned out to be an unworkable and expensive disaster, more or less as anybody who knows about social policy in this country predicted from the start. Other policies, such as the bedroom tax, are spiteful and nasty, but will not achieve their stated aim of cutting waste and avoiding overspending on welfare. In essence, what we have here is policy which isn't designed to achieve what it claims. Instead, it is designed to play well in tabloid newspapers, and fit in with a broad narrative about Labour profligacy.

The other obvious one is immigration. Immigration has made a big contribution to economic growth in the UK, it's unlikely that it has genuinely had much of an impact on wages or job opportunities for the British-born, and in the long run will help pay for pensions and rebalance the government accounts. Moreover, the policy levers available are ineffective, since the UK is bound by law to allow asylum seekers and EU citizens into the country. Immigrants are not a drain on the welfare state, and on average increase the skills base and educational resources available to the economy. Immigration will continue despite whatever the government does to make foreigners' lives difficult. Current government policy, based on the ludicrous objective of trying to hit a target which is a function of two barely controllable phenomena - immigration and emigration - is pure political bullshit.

There is a logic to this government being particularly prone to bullshit, because it was elected on a premise which was entirely at odds with the facts: that the financial crisis was caused by Labour increasing public spending by too much, and that the Conservatives could reduce government debt by targeting spending cuts on recipients of means-tested benefits. Given this starting point, there were two options: admit it was all nonsense, and change to a more sensible policy, or stay with the bullshit. The latter, of course, implies a further descent into the sticky mess, much in the same way classic situation comedies take small lies and magnify them into a chaotic and unmanageable web of whoppers.

The big question is, does bullshit work? A Conservative victory in 2015 would send a clear signal to the political class that bullshit is a winner, and make reality-based politics increasingly hard to sustain. The polls are not pointing to such an outcome, but the economic recovery - which deserves a book-length study of policy bullshit in its own right (for now, see Simon Wren-Lewis) - opens up some space for Tory optimism. We can expect an election campaign based on fantastical notions of 'making work pay', 'clamping down on migrants' and 'standing up for Britain in Europe'. After seven years of declining living standards, British voters will have the chance to call bullshit, or sink deeper into it. We'll see.