The government’s frenetic campaign to “save our summer” has suspended the normal rules of the silly season. Amid the many confusing and shifting statements about the lockdown, No 10 has announced: a “strategy” to reduce obesity; “plans” for a “cycling and walking revolution”; a “bonfire” of planning laws; and, more ominously, the establishment of a panel to reassess judicial limits to state power.
You might have even missed the start of an online consultation on flood risk management in Carlisle, the £450,000 spent repairing a flood wall in Hereford, or chancellor Rishi Sunak’s visit to Stokesley, North Yorkshire, to learn about flood alleviation. Meanwhile, 127 employers were given awards for supporting the armed forces, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced £589m to “kickstart rail upgrades across the north”, plans for “congestion-busting” near Swindon were “unveiled” and a monument to the battle at Gallipoli restored.
A government focused on ‘eye-catching’ initiatives is not preparing for or equipped to deal with a pandemic
Twenty years ago, Conservatives accused New Labour of “initiative-itis” and “legislative incontinence”, endlessly moving from one gimmicky announcement to the next. The current government appears to suffer from a similar affliction. Young governments, like young people, are eager to prove themselves and be approved, but short on patience – and ambitious personnel in government departments are keen to demonstrate their “on-message” competence.
This government’s initiative-itis is, of course, also about politicking. (No 10 – not for the first time in its history – is staffed by campaigners in place of policy specialists.) The pandemic and Brexit are both complex policy challenges that our government has proved uniquely ill-equipped to address. Governing by announcement is a way to distract the press and the public from the truth of this incompetence.
Bashing judges, praising veterans and publicising investment in “The North” is red meat to throw at one part of the electorate. Appearing serious about diet, exercise and green transport is the vegan meat substitute for another.
This permanent campaigning mindset is how we do government now. The phenomenon of the “permanent campaign” was named in a 1980 book by the American journalist and political adviser Sidney Blumenthal. His argument was that government decision-making was increasingly based on assessments not of what might be good policy, but of what would look good, keep sponsors on board and appeal to key voters. Government was reduced to “an instrument designed to sustain an elected official’s popularity”. The tail was wagging the dog.
Boris Johnson’s permanent campaign is symptomatic of a deeper change in our politics. Even before the Tories won the 2019 election, Britain was becoming a “post-democracy”. One of the founding propositions of 20th-century mass democracy has been that government should act not for the few, but for everyone. Inherent within this idea is a concept of “the public interest”, or “the common good”. We might not be sure what that is – and we certainly won’t be able to agree on it. But in a democracy, so the argument goes, we can come together politically and our representatives will broker a settlement between the competing interests of various social, economic and political groups.
Such groups are now more complex and less stable. People’s occupational, economic and even geographic locations are more likely to vary over a lifetime. Connections between distinct social interests and their political representatives have been attenuated. In our post-democracy, aggregations of individual tastes and preferences, expressed through opinion polls and surveys, have displaced parties and other civic forums as the means by which government comes to understand “the people”. Instead of public interest, we now find public opinion. Indeed, this government spent more on polling between January and May this year than in the whole of 2019.
In place of elections or collective deliberation, opinion polls serve as an ongoing referendum on the government, providing constantly updated information about people’s attitudes and reactions, vital for the formation of campaign strategies. There is an argument that this has been a good thing. It means that government is continually apprised of and attentive to public opinion, able to incorporate public concerns within policy-making. If people want a war memorial repaired, and if, in search of their support, politicians repair it, then perhaps democracy is working well.
A counter-argument is that governments are no longer experts in governing. Instead, they can think only according to short-term campaign strategies, choosing to do what is most popular rather than what is best for people. As the academic and former government adviser Patrick Diamond puts it, this damaging short-termism becomes endemic. A government focused on “eye-catching” initiatives, as we have seen, is not preparing for or equipped to deal with a pandemic.
In our post-democracy, “public opinion” is not only a source of policy. It’s also an object of policy. Public attitudes, outlooks and behaviour are now a central focus of government policy – the goal of which is not to change the situations people find themselves in, but to change people’s feelings about their situations. Post-democratic government is not unconcerned with what you think or want or need. But it doesn’t require your participation. It just needs to know how you might respond to the various things it might do to you.
What the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, understands that most politicians do not is that polling, surveys and focus groups don’t tell you what people think or what public opinion definitively “is”. They provide a rough map of possibilities and probabilities of what people might come to think, depending on various potential scenarios and actions. In the leave campaign, different versions of adverts were tested, refined and retested in what Cummings has called a “constant iterative process” and combined with feedback from polls and focus groups. In government, this approach has turned the Tories’ permanent campaign into a permanent experiment, the endless measuring and testing of means for managing and shaping political attitudes.
We are the subjects of this ongoing experiment, the single data points in a larger firmament. That, in post-democracy, is what constitutes citizenship. And while it won’t save summer, it might – as you enjoy your half-price Sunak-branded meal next Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday – change how you feel about its loss.
• Alan Finlayson is professor of political and social theory at the University of East Anglia