'Depoliticisation' – our old friend 'Authoritarianism' in another guise

To ‘depoliticise’ something means to take the politics out of it.

It is a strange and paradoxical term when you think about it, because to take politics out of something is a political act, and to be non-political is political. After all, power doesn’t disappear when a group of people decide they don’t want it or remove it from others through ‘depoliticising’. It goes elsewhere.

In practice, depoliticisation means taking a sort of politics out of something, a type of politics – probably a kind that advocates of the process don’t much like –democratic politics for example.

The term has received something of an airing recently in British public debate, and one guess for by whom ...

... That’s right (or wrong): the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. Step forward Mr Tony Cocker, chief executive of Eon UK:

It would be really helpful to depoliticise this debate [on energy],” Mr Cocker told MPs on 29th October.

You bet it would ... all those pesky politicians, concerned about people being able to heat their own homes - they need to be removed.

This is the sort of attitude that I have written about here before, under the title: ‘A Stealthy Form of Authoritarianism’. It is part of a process in public life in which politicians have willingly given up their democratic powers and passed them over to other bodies like Commissions, the eponymous ‘Quangoes’ (Quasi-Autonomous-Non-Governmental-Organisations) or simply given up their powers altogether.

This isn’t always bad by any means: for example there is no good reason why governments should be controlling car production as ours used to do with British Leyland.

But this abnegation of responsibility can have some troubling consequences. After all, we elect our governments to make decisions on our behalf. When they cede that decision-making power to others who don’t have that responsibility to us, on decisions that have big effects on our lives, we could be forgiven for questioning the whole point of our democracy and whether it has completely forgotten or lost its reason for being.

Yesterday, I was surprised to hear a form of this ideology from Jeff Masters, a policy adviser to Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, at a seminar organised by the think tank Civitas. When asked what Labour’s plans for corporate governance and takeovers were, Masters repeated several times that his team was anxious to depoliticise it and keep the politics out of it.

To which my response was: what is politics for if you’re going to keep the politics out of it?

Big takeovers, like of our energy, water and rail companies, or of the iconic Cadbury’s by Kraft, are important: they are therefore natural political territory. Yet our guiding economic consensus is that they should be left to the market and our politicians should not interfere, whatever the consequences for our national interests, whether in jobs, skills or energy security.

Civitas’ seminar, organised to promote a book by Patrick Diamond, a former Head of Policy Planning in 10 Downing Street under Tony Blair, started with a summary of Diamond’s conclusions in his book (titled ‘Transforming the Market: Towards a new political economy’). The discussion ranged widely across the various endemic problems in the British economy and possible solutions (of which Diamond offers a number – while admitting the failures of various schemes followed under the New Labour governments).

The businessman and Labour Party donor John Mills made the point that £615 billion of UK assets were sold to foreign buyers in the period 2000-10, and that the City of London made a total of £40 billion in fees and other payments from managing these sales. He pointed the finger partly at Labour’s abolition of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1999 and its replacement by the Competition Commission– a change that removed any public interest considerations from takeover decisions.

That was a political decision to reduce the importance of the wider public interest in favour of a narrower consumer interest (to be guaranteed by protection of competition). It was a ceding of authority away from democratic control to markets and money interests.

Yet the public interest is what we elect our politicians to protect. If they feel that they can’t or shouldn’t be doing that, then surely they shouldn’t be standing for election in the first place?


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