Wednesday, 15 December 2010

What is the role of government?

Reaction to the leaked US diplomatic cables reveals an uncomfortable truth in the attitude of those elected to represent us

The perceived roles of government are diverse and differ depending on to whom you speak.  For some the role of government is to provide jobs and a stable economy, for others it’s there to support the disadvantaged and vulnerable via the welfare state, for others its simply exists to provide a stable environment in which the economy can grow and private organisations can profit; by producing a growing consumer base, a suitably educated workforce or in extremis defending the realm.  For most, it’s probably a mixture of all of the above.
On a more fundamental level the role of government is much simpler, defined by a basic principle, upon which competing interpretations of its functions and priorities compete.  For those fortunate enough to live in a representative democracy (the overwhelming majority of Europe and the Americas) the primary function of government is to represent and serve those that have elected it.  The clue is in the name and it is ultimately answerable to the electorate.  For those executive functions and personnel that are not directly elected such as civil servants, their role is to serve the elected members who appoint them to assist in the service of the electorate.  This can be viewed as a linear relationship; at the top the electorate, below them the elected members (government ministers et al) that are elected to serve their interests and directly beneath the them at the bottom are the civil service that serve the government.  It’s a simplistic model, having no place for the private sphere, but it serves to illustrate the basic structure on which modern society is built.

The leaking of US diplomatic cables and Afghanistan files by Wikileaks during recent months have called into question the nature of the relationship between citizen and government.  Government officials, media and citizens from across the US, Europe, the Middle East and beyond have sought to criticise the leaks on two fronts; that they put lives in danger and that some information should not be shared with the public.  Diplomats and civil servants should, according to this analysis, be free to operate in secrecy above and beyond the knowledge and concerns of the citizens to whom they are ultimately answerable.  This represents a significant shift from the linear structure of the relationship between citizen, government and civil service described above to something considerably more ambiguous.  This new structure more clearly resembles an inverted pyramid; the electorate at the bottom and elected officials and the civil service above, side by side.  This structure illustrates that the  government and its unelected functions operate on an equal footing and in cooperation, neither directly responsible to each other or the electorate that serve them. 

To claim that this structure exists in reality rather than in the minds of those that have sought to criticise the leaks is actually a moot point.  More importantly the whole affair demonstrates that an attitude pervades both governments and media that free sharing of information is undesirable, that those in power should not have to adhere to principles of transparency nor be answerable to those that appointed them, to whom they are responsible.  This belief that ordinary citizens are incapable of understanding nor have the right to this information betrays an inherent arrogance and more than a whiff of authoritarianism.

This attitude has been further demonstrated in the pressure applied to private organisations that have provided support to Wikileaks.  The image of the internet as independent and beyond the power of governments has been utterly shattered as state pressure has been used to prohibit the actions of citizens, specifically from gaining knowledge of those appointed to serve them.  The United States has blocked access to the Wikileaks website, Mastercard and Visa have denied their customers across the globe the right to choose whether or not to spend their money supporting an independent organisation, knowledge of corrupt practices by Pfizer and Shell, which are undoubtedly in the public interest, are viewed as state secrets that should be hidden from the public.  That much of the information leaked is of little surprise or in many cases much tamer than expected, is inconsequential.  The image rendered is of insecure governments clinging desperately to as much control as possible as it slowly ebbs away.

Sadly the shift from in attitude from the linear to the inverted pyramid model described above may never have occurred.  It is perhaps more evident that the last century represents a shift toward a less authoritarian stance as education and knowledge continued to diffuse throughout societies and across national boundaries.  The post 9/11 authoritarian tendencies were a  reaction – that have since lost momentum - to external threats of a once in a generation magnitude  and the Freedom of Information act highlighted the desire for those in power to illustrate their transparency and good intentions (though Tony Blair’s confession that he now considers it a huge mistake is perhaps a hint of how power can breed arrogance).

That progress has been made toward the synchronization of what we are lead to believe and what actually occurs in reality is simply not enough; these insights into the machinations of power only serve to highlight that much more progress must be made.  If knowledge is power, then it is imperative that these leaked documents continue to pour into the public domain.  

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Evidence based policy takes another hit

Government proposal calls into question the role of science in drug policy making

It is self evidently logical that those best placed to advise government on a policy are experts working in that, or a closely related field; be they scientists, front-line staff or academics. This does not always happen in practice; thankfully drug policy is one area where it has for several decades, though it must be noted that it has not necessarily translated into evidence based policy. That presupposes that policy makers are predisposed to implement the recommendations of their advisors. This is best illustrated in the refusal by successive governments to move drug policy away from the criminal justice system to the realm of public health.

Worryingly, drug policy looks set to drift yet further away from the healthcare system.  It has been reported recently that legislation will be passed in the British Parliament that will remove the legal requirement for scientists to be appointed to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).  The ACMD is a body comprised of experts from several fields including vetinary, medicine, pharmaceuticals and chemistry.  Their remit is to conduct research and advise the Home Secretary on how to regulate and legislate controlled substances in the UK.

This apparent act of sabotage appears ideologically motivated and as such, represents a body blow for evidence based policy making. Removing the requirement for scientists creates the possibility that the panel could be repopulated with acquisecent individuals willing to support the governments approach, free from the constrains of evidence.  The Council provided a sustained challenge to New Labour and their pretensions of evidence based policy making; the coalition seems set to neutralise it before it creates the same problems for them.

There is evidence and support for policies that view problem drug usage as a public health, rather than a criminal justice issue.  Instead of putting drug addicts in prison - where drugs and boredom are both in plentiful supply - put them into care; rehabilitation and medical care is not only more humane but also delivers greater results.  A key step toward this is decriminalisation, a policy followed in other parts of Europe with success.  Decriminalisation paves the way for addicts to be channelled into healthcare rather than the criminal justice system thus removing problem users from the cycle of drug abuse and crime.  It should be noted that despite billions of pounds of investment prohibition of drugs has not only utterly failed, but continues to exacerbate the problem; their availability to end users continues to increase as their price continues to fall.
Unfortunately decriminalisation (a key step toward reform of drug policy into an issue of public health) has been unpalatable for British governments since the 1960s when the current classification system was introduced.  The punitive populism harnessed by Michael Howard in the 1990s (subsequently continued by New Labour) pushed drug policy further toward the criminal justice system and away from the control of health professionals.  The ACMD ran into trouble with a number of New Labour home secretaries for having the audacity to perform its primary role; advise the government on drug policy using scientifically researched evidence.  It represented a contradiction; an expert source of evidence based policy for a government whose primary concern was the consideration of public perception.

This contradiction was played out when it came to reclassifying Cannabis and other controlled substances.  A particularly interesting report in which the government had no interest was published in 2007 and sought to rank controlled substances by their harm (both physical and social).  The report suggested that under the current classification system Ecstasy should be a Class C drug, Alcohol Class A; this was summarily ignored.  The Advisory Council also opposed the reclassification of Cannabis from Class C to B in 2009, stating a lack of evidence on which to base the move.  Several public clashes involving the head of the ACMD professor David Nutt occurred; in a particularly controversial article he compared the death rates for equestrian sports and ecstasy usage conclusively concluding that the former was a significantly greater risk to public health.  This use of evidence to illustrate holes in government policy was not welcome and following a further clash over the classification of alcohol  professor Nutt was sacked.  Several other scientists resigned over the incident.

Removing the requirement for scientists to sit on the ACMD is still just a proposal, yet it serves to highlight two things.  First that support for evidence based policy making has diminished; secondly that explicitly ideologically motivated policy has very much returned.  Sadly, it also augurs badly for the treatment of problem drug usage becoming a public health issue, a development that might actually begin to tackle it.  Tackling problem drug usage and related crime as a criminal justice issue is 'treating the symptoms' at its best.  The causes of the symptoms are complex and diverse, some medical some social; it is no coincidence that the majority of problem drug use occurs amongst the poorest and least educated members of society and that thousands of educated, stable individuals indulge in recreational drug usage each weekend without harm to themselves or those around them.  But just because an issue is complex and difficult does not mean we should not take the hard road, take the difficult decisions and begin addressing it in a logical, evidence based way.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The spurious relationship

Role models play an essential role in everyday life.  When looking for new ideas, inspiration or best practice individuals and organisations often turn to others to guide them, or at the very least, provide a counter-point to their own approach.  But which to choose?  In any given situation there are a plethora of different role models from which to choose and it is this decision that is often more instructive than the behaviour or idea that is borrowed.  

It’s fair to say that if I chose to take as my role model an arrogant individual that believed in the universality of their opinions, that the principal of an eye for an eye was a legitimate practice in the 21st century, that poor people wouldn’t be so if they worked harder, that extreme wealth inequality is desirable, that providing healthcare to the most vulnerable is evil, that institutional racism and homophobia should be quietly ignored, most of my peers would be quite alarmed.  They would be especially concerned if the individual from whom I was seeking advice also had a higher than average likely hood of developing mental illness, was more likely to be obese and live a shorter life than the majority of people in the West, was more likely to commit a sexual offence or commit murder than everyone else around them .  If such a person did exist, they would be a truly terrible role model for us all.

Unfortunately in the United Kingdom this type of role model is viewed as the ideal candidate.  Successive governments and now the incumbent administration have turned to the United States for policy inspiration irrespective of the sad truth that for all its wealth the USA is ranked absolute or nearly bottom of every index of wellbeing, health and equality in the Western World.  That Scandinavia, France and Germany gravitate toward the top of all these indexes, that they sit on our doorstep as positive, functioning role models, is sadly inconsequential to the policy makers of the United Kingdom.  That the United States is a largely conservative nation in which its most progressive party sits to the right of centre, sadly failed to deter those on the mainstream of the British Left from imitating it as a legitimate route back to power.   

There are two truths in modern wealthy societies; the first that more equal societies (irrespective of overall wealth) rank much higher in terms of wellbeing (this includes mental health, stress, physical health, education rates, equality of opportunity) and are generally less consumed by major public health issues such as teenage pregnancy and alcoholism.

The second is that the law of diminishing returns applies to the growing wealth of Western economies such as the United States and the UK.  In fact, as overall wealth increases the benefits it delivers grow progressively smaller.  At the same time the number of major public health issues has continued to increase.  It does not take a genius to spot the problem; as the US and the UK have become wealthier the benefits have shrunk to the point that wealth is creating as many problems as it solves.  To exacerbate this problem further the UK and US have concentrated their growing wealth at the top of society, it has not ‘trickled down’ to the wider population.  The growth in inequality has sent both nations plunging to the bottom of almost every meaningful measure of a decent society available (most of this also applies to Australia, a fellow ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nation).
Three things to note; firstly there are two forces both working in tandem, both detrimental.  Secondly many of our European neighbours are wealthier and healthier than the UK, so the current situation is not an inevitable consequence of wealth.  Third; in the post war period the UK has followed where the US has led. 

There are a number of reasons why the UK and its policy makers have pursued this masochistic path, best summed up as the rather spurious ‘special relationship’.  This apparent bond is far greater than that which concerns foreign policy, it also encapsulates the feeling that the UK is a kindred spirit of the United States both culturally and socially.  There is the idea of the Protestant work ethic, a shared and fundamental element in the nature of both nations.  Then there is laughable propaganda that is the ‘American Dream’, the idea that in the US wealth, fame and a better life are just a bit of hard work away.  Why should we not seek to be more like the wonderful land of opportunity across the Atlantic?  Conspicuous consumption and better standards of living looked so much fun to those in austere 50s Britain; there was seemingly no time or desire to ask where it may take us.  That much of the American dream that we pursue, like Hollywood, is actually an empty illusion has been ignored.

The post-colonial hangover has also fuelled close ties with the US as those in power in Britain sought to keep up with their predecessors, no longer possessing their own strategic clout they simply hung onto the coat tails of the new world power regardless of where it took them.  This original ‘special relationship’ continues to direct foreign policy to this day as policy makers live out their West Wing fantasies of walking Washington’s corridors of power. 

The United States is a vast place full of neuroses and contradictory forces and to caricature it as an out and out basked case is a little glib.  It is in theory and reality fifty different states, not just one nation.  But the fundamental point remains; the United States provides a terrible role model.  

The central issue is that the very problems we attempt to tackle are the result of chasing the United States down the path of deindustrialisation, of retail and service led economic growth constructed on cheap consumer credit and vast, damaging, inequality.  To think that the solution is essentially more of the same is to ignore the root cause of the challenges we face; until the US is able to adopt a radically different approach to tackling its own problems the spurious relationship should be ignored at all costs.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Student protests: The challenges ahead

The recent student protests have provided positive evidence that political apathy in the young people is not as prevalent as many assumed, though it remains to be seen if this political awareness stretches beyond mere self interest.  If recent British history teaches us anything it is that peaceful protest does not work; Gleneagles, the Stop the War Coalition and previous marches against fees have left little or no legacy.  The poll tax riots were the last protests to get violent; not only were they successful but they proved the straw that broke the camels back for the Conservative cabinet who promptly consigned Margaret Thatcher’s premiership to the history books.  Other recent protests taking direct action such as those at Kingsnorth provide an indication on the most effective form of action.

Although participating in vandalism and or violence during a protest is neither a guarantee that your aims will be met or the best course of action, it does at least garner you much public attention.  The vandalism at the recent student protests in London and around the UK hint at a wider disenchantment; if these protests are leave any lasting impression this wider disillusionment must be harnessed. To do this, three challenges need to be addressed.

The first obstacle is the National Union of Students itself; an organisation dominated by Labour party supporters and members has predictably positioned itself in direct opposition to the coalition, opposition for the sake of opposition and its protests are also woefully late, by more than ten years.  The introduction of fees by the Labour party in 1999 established the principle that those that benefit directly from their education should pay for (at least, some of) it.  The Browne review was commissioned by Labour who were committed to carrying out its recommendations; by doing the same the coalition is following Labours policies through to their logical conclusion.  Though they have ignored some of Browne’s recommendations and the financial crisis has probably accelerated the timetable, it’s still essentially Labour party policy; hence the voice of Labour is conspicuous by its absence in the fees debate.  By placing the blame solely on the coalition the NUS leaves itself open to accusations of partisanship and lacking credibility, protesting because it suits the partisan agenda of its executive rather than the interests of members.  To this end the NUS has already been circumvented by the ‘grass roots’ protesters, forcing its president into a public apology in an attempt to save his own skin and remain relevant.   The ‘demolition coalition’ strategy is also a non-starter; it intends to bring down the Liberal Democrats with a policy that they have yet to introduce into parliament and probably won’t do for two years at least.  The ‘demolition’ message is likely to have little resonance by then.

Secondly, the NUS and fellow protest groups need a credible and coherent message.  When the coalition claims the new system will be more progressive, that’s because it is more progressive than the previous system introduced by Labour.  It’s not as progressive as abolishing fees altogether, but it’s far too late for that.  uts to the Educational Maintenance Allowance are regressive and they are recent; this should form a more significant focus of their message.  Ideally protest should also be directed at the commodification of higher education, the belief that its sole purpose is to generate a greater GDP, but the risk is that it would ring hollow.  Tens of thousands of students embrace the cheap credit and commodities that the globalised, modern capitalist society offers, whether to buy Iphones, Uggs or cheap clothing from Primark.  You can’t argue against the former whilst indulging in the latter, that’s classic double think.  This narrow focus on university fees and false claims that poorer students will be priced out of higher education (they may be put off, but perception is not reality) undermines credibility and leaves them open to accusations of merely protesting against the increased costs for middle class students – mere self interest.

This leads us to the third challenge and an opportunity.  The protests seem to encapsulate anger and frustration at the coalitions cuts programme as a whole, but this is currently only being expressed through immediate student concerns such as EMA and university fees.  The message needs to be explicitly broadened, the trade unions and third sector organisations brought into the fold.  For example, Shelter has highlighted the regressive nature of housing benefit cuts and this ties in to a greater sense of anger that the coalition does not have a mandate to enact sweeping cuts that will leave thousands worse off.  A single unified message from a coalition of unions and charities would be much more persuasive; the Big Society in action, perhaps.  

This is easier said than done, but it looks as though it may be beginning to happen.  If participation becomes more inclusive and a coherent, non-partisan narrative is formed then this nascent movement may begin to resonate with the wider public and actually affect some meaningful change.  Otherwise the protests will be remembered as a rite of passage for the latest generation of students much like the Stop the War was for the previous; I cared, I was there, but nothing really changed.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A brief introduction Part 2 : The return of ideology

The return of the Conservative party to government heralds the return of ideology (for now, the coalition will be considered a mainly Conservative enterprise as there has been only minimal Liberal Democrat influence thus far) to mainstream British politics.  The Big Society will redefine individual responsibility and the role of the state, further cementing neoliberal ideology at the heart of British society.

But return may not be an accurate appraisal of the situation; to label New Labour as lacking in ideology is perhaps a little disingenuous.  To understand where we are now we must first understand the discourse that led us here.  

The story of British Politics today began in the 1970s (in so much as history can really ‘begin’ anywhere).  The election of Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election brought Milton Friedman and the Chicago school’s economic policies into the British mainstream, following their disastrous implementation in Chile.  The election of Ronald Reagan a year later represents the beginning of a Neoliberal paradigm.  

The key elements of this were the primacy of the individual, the rejection of the state as a means of affecting economic or social change and embracing unfettered capitalism that was free of regulation.  Crucially, the adoption of market principles into everyday life and the belief that all things can be commodified, (broken down into a monetary value and traded) would be its most pervasive characteristics.   

The 1980s saw the disintegration and subsequent rebirth of the Labour Party, heralding a significant shift in Labour Party policy to the centre, or as some argue, to centre-right.  New Labour tried to combine the best elements of both Thatcherism and social democracy.  The fate of the NHS provides an excellent example; huge investment - aimed at providing a 21st century health care system to be proud of – shaped by the market principles of consumer choice and built by Private Finance Initiatives .  Started by the Conservatives Private Finance Initiatives involve paying astronomical sums of money to private companies to construct infrastructure projects such as hospitals).  It is this straddling of both Left and Right, the attempt to cherry pick and combine the best of both into a vote winning, centre ground occupying win-win strategy that gives New Labour its post-ideological appearance.  

Despite the best efforts of Anthony Giddens to furnish New Labour with an ideological narrative (the much maligned Third Way) many have come to regard this approach as blatantly Thatcherite.  The reason is simple, though its ends were socially democratic, the means were predominately neoliberal.  The issue here is that this is a contradiction, embracing neoliberal means immediately precludes the social democratic objectives.  Placing a profit motive at the heart of its methodology could only result in a neoliberal product.  

This false dichotomy between objectives and methodology has resulted in two troubling results for the Left in British Politics.  For example, social mobility and wealth inequality have both increased, their negative effects rippling out into public health, education policy and beyond. Secondly and more disconcertingly neoliberal frameworks and methodologies have been embedded throughout the public sphere.  Put simply, the tools are all in place for a government to accelerate the process of neoliberalisation, privatising and commodifying nearly every aspects of public life.  Were this to happen the small gains that New Labour achieved in creating a more fair and equal society would rapidly disappear.

And this is exactly what is beginning to happen.  The Conservatives return to power has heralded a much more relaxed approach to ideology.  Areas where New Labour introduced market principles, the NHS, Higher Education and Academy Schools will soon undergo much more rapid transformations as market principles become entrenched.  

From this perspective New Labour was an ideological project that sits comfortably within the Neoliberal paradigm.  Though it may have made some gains toward its socially democratic agenda, these have been undermined by its furnishing of a more right wing administration with the tools to continue significant marketisation of the public sphere.  In this regard the Conservative led coalition is following New Labour policy through to its logical, Thatcherite conclusion.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Putting the ‘p’ into politics

Politics with a big ‘P’ is the arena of political decision making and its associated organisations and institutions.  Westminster, your local council, the European Union.  These are all big ‘P’.  The party  politics as reported through broadcast and print media is almost always big ‘P’ and is one reason why many claim a lack of interest in anything political.

politics with a little ‘p’ can be roughly defined as relationship in which a power relation exists.  That is, any situation in which one person, organisation or institution exerts influence over another. The relation between husband and wife, teacher and pupil, advertiser and consumer, these are all little ‘p’.  This carries it way beyond concerns of left vs. right, Labour vs. Tory, concerned as it is with ‘big’ concepts and philosophical positions.

The significance is that, although my ramblings and observations will cross into both the realms of the little and big ‘p’, I make the claim that the world cannot be understood via the big ‘P’ alone, the problems of our world reside in the former whilst the solutions originate in the latter.  Ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of this fundamental principle may well explain why those who practice big ‘P’ Politics often fail to tackle the underlying problems that vex them.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A brief introduction, Part 1 : Evidence Based Policy Making

Politicians treating the symptoms of a problem rather than its cause is as old as Politics itself.  Some may hold the belief that the status quo has prevailed since man first emerged from the primordial forest. Perhaps it has.  Yet a light to lead the way out of the darkness did emerge as recently as thirteen years ago and it is from this moment that my analysis proceeds.

New Labour were elected by an overwhelming minority of the British population, some 26% of those over eighteen years of age cast a vote for Tony Blair et al.  Our antiquated electoral system translated this into a large parliamentary majority, granting a real opportunity for real change and reform across all aspects of government, from electoral reform through to reform of public services.  With this came the promise of Evidence Based Policy (EBP), a determination to delivery reforms that really worked, that could be demonstrated through material results.

This represented a significant change in British politics, the dawn of the post-ideological era.  New Labour occupied the centre ground, bridging the gap between the desire from the left for a fair society and the aspirational consumer driven reality borne out through successive Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.  Whether this was actually achieved is for the moment, a moot point.

In this post-ideological era government was to be about the New Managerialism, Tony Blair the CEO of Britain Plc.  He would lead the organisational change going forward, adhere to quality assurance principals in monitoring the outcomes of the policies they embraced.  No more would a government simply pursue a particular course because their ideology demanded it; New Labour would use what worked.  Policy would be based upon hard facts, visible evidence.

This largely positivist approach to politics did not last particularly long.  EBP it turned out, revealed some unpalatable truths.  Prison doesn’t work, privatisation does not necessarily improve public services, prohibition of drugs is counterproductive, there are no weapons of mass destruction.  The punitive populism of Michael Howard was continued as the number of offences mushroomed, the prison population soared.  Voters wanted to see a government ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.  In reality they had little appetite for the causes, but an insatiable hunger to see punishments handed out to criminals.  EBP was quietly abandoned, though not all went quietly.  The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) made it quite clear that there evidence on drug classification was both evidence based and ignored by the very government that appointed it.  

Though there were some positive results, many in the realm of education, proving that EBP has the potential to make some headway with some of the findings influencing policy on the shape of the national curriculum (this has since been shelved by the coalition).  The social mobility unit identified the issues of wealth inequality and lack of opportunity; the former was ignored the latter tackled in the Widening Participation agenda.  Some progress was made, some diseases at the heart of Britain were challenged, if not defeated. 

So where are we today?  The post-ideological era is over, though it can be easily argued that it never existed in the first place (More on this later).  David Cameron’s Conservative Party is, despite initial doubts, pursuing a deeply ideological path.  Its key facet is the redefinition of responsibility, the transfer of risk from the state to the individual.  It begins with students bearing the cost of their education, it logically concludes with individuals bearing the cost of everything else that the state provides (such as healthcare).  Thus far, EBP has had seemingly little influence on the Coalition government.

The result is that we return to an era in which policy and action is directed solely by ideological concerns with scant regard for any form of evidential base.  But it is this basis on evidence that helps to identify the causes of the problems that we face.  This isn’t to say that there is no place for ideology, one set of evidence can suggest a multitude of possible solutions, how does one decide?  Yet the decision to ignore evidence, whether qualitative or quantitive, is self defeating.  The flicker in the dark, the hope that our elected representatives might begin tackle the causes of society’s ills, rather than the symptoms, has been extinguished.