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Why Iain Dale hates politics

Jon at The Third Estate brings to my attention Iain Dale’s waning love for politics.  Says Iain:

Our public life is being corrupted by a permanent sneer and cynical outlook by those who report on it. Yes, to some extent it’s the fault of those who serve in public life. The trouble is that the way politics is now reported in the print and broadcast media, it’s a wonder anyone wants to go into it.

His plaint puts me in mind of Colin Hay’s marvellous 2007 Why We Hate Politics. While Iain blames the decline of res publica on sociological and agential changes – the idea the people who now collectively make up the body politic and the political media are just worse people than their predecessors – Hay prefers to focus on the political and ideological roots (which are in turn rooted in the material structure of capitalism and its neoliberal/public choice turn):

[T]he systematic questioning of the motives of political actors and public servants has its origins in the projection of instrumental assumptions on to such actors. This, in turn, can be traced to the development of public choice theory within political science in the 1960s and 1970s, and its growing influence on public policy in the 1980s. The extent to which such assumptions are true is an index of the degree to which it is irrational to trust politicians and public servants to act in the collective interest. Consequently, the extent to which such assumptions are believed is likely to be an index of the rational disengagement of the electorate rom the political process. It would certainly seem as though public choice’s theory’s cynicism with respect to the motivations of political actors is now deeply shared (p.4).

So the ideology that drove Iain’s beloved Thatcherism is essentially responsible for the collapse of Iain’s faith in politics. A sweet irony, indeed.

More importantly for our purposes, Hay’s structural explanation is also relevant to Jon’s more politically mature analysis:

The tenor of the complaints about MPs’ expenses has always been anti-political. It gives us no sense of what politics is for, only what we hate about it. It teaches us to hate politicians not for the shitty things they might do, but because they are politicians in the first place. It resigns us to our fate. Furthermore, it is something that has been pushed aggressively by the media elite and members of the business lobby with less than noble motives, something not considered by those who gleefully joined the anti-duck house brigade when all this shit started. We can have a sensible politics conducive to the building of a better society, or we can have a politics based on this childish posturing. We can’t have both.

Agreed.  The question, though, is how we move towards a “sensible politics”.  John’s implicitly agent-focused answer seems to be that we should all grow up, be a bit less “childish”.  Yet the idea that we can just agree to do things differently is less of a realistic proposition than it sounds, given the ideological drag, and the ever-present assumption that, deep down, everyone’s in it to maximise their narrow self-interest.

Perhaps, as Chris has suggested, the only way we can really achieve a grown-up (Habermasian?) politics is to change the economic structure which made those politics how they now are, and how they are now perceived, in the first place.

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Categories: General Politics
  1. January 29, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    I wondered how long it would take someone to blame Mrs T!

  2. January 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    @ Iain – he’s not blaming Mrs T, so much as the ideological and social forces that gave us Mrs T. This tendency to attribute too much agency to individuals and not enough to environmental factors is a well-known cognitive bias (the fundamental attribution error).
    Also, the essence of social science is that things can have long-term and unforeseeable consequences.
    Your failure to see these points highlights a large difference in perspective between those who approach politics as a social science, and those (such as journalists and pundits) who see it as soap opera.

  3. metatone
    January 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    It’s actually possible that between post-Hayekian right wing economics and public choice theory, larger civilisation has hit a wall it cannot overcome. We’re now incapable of believing that a system larger than a city-state can function. That belief is of course dangerously self-fulfilling.

  4. Roger McCarthy
    January 31, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson’s 1998 book The Age of Insecurity is worth digging out for its argument that it was the relentlessly anti-establishment mass media of the 1960s and 1970s that fuelled the Thatcherite and Reaganite tide by dissolving public trust in the state and politics itself.

    And I’d be inclined to see the rise of public choice theory as an effect rather than a cause of that much wider and deeper cultural shift,

  1. February 8, 2013 at 11:47 am

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