Friday, 27 February 2015

The triumph of accountancy

This week, Natalie Bennett, the leader of the UK Green Party, suffered what has been described as a “car crash” interview on the day of the launch of her party’s election campaign. Challenged about the costing of her party’s housing policy, she experienced what she called a “brain fade” and couldn’t answer the questions. I didn’t hear that interview until later, but I did hear two others she gave that day and, frankly, neither of them was impressive when it came to questions about the funding of Green policies.
Naturally enough this provided ample ammunition to critics of the Green Party, but my reaction was to wonder about the way that political debate is now framed almost entirely in terms of accounting: what are the costs of this or that policy and where will the money come from? This is a relatively new development. In the past, political programmes were articulated in terms of broad commitments, principles and ideologies.
This isn’t a nostalgic false memory on my part. I went back and checked the manifesto of the British Conservative Party for the 1979 election. This was the election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power effecting what is agreed by both supporters and critics of Thatcherism to have been a political sea-change. Yet it contains virtually no numbers and nothing in the way of costed policies. I went further back, to Labour’s 1945 manifesto at another sea-change election which created the post-war welfare state. Again, no costing of policies.
It might be argued that this is a good thing, that politicians should make concrete proposals so that they can be held accountable for their delivery, and that policies should be pragmatic. On the accountability point, it is chimerical. Does anyone think that politicians have become more likely to deliver their promises because they were costed? In practice, the earlier costings get forgotten or departure from them is readily explained away by reference to changed circumstances (and perhaps quite reasonably so, again undercutting the case for costings). Actually, this is very similar to the way that public sector management has in recent years been configured in terms of accountability, with more and more information (league tables etc.) being produced in order to give taxpayers and ‘customers’ re-assurance. Yet, at the same time, trust in public institutions has nose-dived.
On the pragmatism point, the problem is that what it validates is a stultifying small-c conservatism. The journalist Zoe Williams wrote an interesting article on Bennett’s interview, where she says:
“We have lost faith in any of the large available understandings of how structural change takes place in history,” the philosopher Roberto Unger said in a recent lecture in London “and as a result we fall back on a bastardised conception of political realism, namely that a proposal is realistic to the extent that it approaches what already exists.” This is the whole of British politics encapsulated in two lines: unless a policy looks exactly like what the mainstream parties are suggesting; unless it can be funded by minor tootling on existing tax instruments (and even that will be called a “raid”); unless it will leave the fundamental structures totally unperturbed – then it is the most outlandish idea that anybody has ever heard.
This is really the key point. By focussing on narrow issues of accounting, wider issues of over-arching principle are not just avoided but stigmatised and rendered illegitimate. One interesting aspect of this is that it reflects the complex, schizophrenic way that the language of politics and of business have intermingled. On the one hand, we have a discourse about ‘visionary leaders’ who charismatically inspire us with broad brush stories about where we, as organizations or societies, are going. Not for them mundane, prosaic budget spreadsheets. On the other hand, we have the ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ accountants, poring over the last penny of expenditure and the detailed cost-benefit calculus of every decision. In politics, leaders who lack the requisite charisma are seen as not looking like prime minister material but if they try to articulate a vision of a better society they are eviscerated for not having done the sums. Somehow, politics manages to fall into two traps: those of individualised charismatic leadership and bloodless accountancy. What gets lost is the sense, present in both the 1945 and 1979 manifestos (albeit in very different ways), of a collective project to re-imagine society, with the sums being left to take care of themselves.
None of which is to say that Natalie Bennett did a good job in those interviews, just that her mistake was to try (and fail) to answer the questions within the terms they were put, rather than to challenge their underlying premise. In that respect, at least, she might take a lesson from Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigration party UKIP. When challenged on the dire economic consequences of his policies he said that these mattered less than the principle of controlling immigration. Readers of this blog will be aware that I am by no means a fan ofUKIP, but the idea that politics should be about big discussions of the shape of society is surely right.

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