Jonathan Powell’s book The New Machiavelli ranks for me as one of the best exposes of political power and attitudes under the Blair administration yet written, though largely not in the way Powell intended. His comments on Michael Barber, David Blunkett’s ‘successful special adviser’ who introduced ‘literacy and numeracy hours into primary schools’, brought to mind my own experience of looking for a School for my eldest child in Southampton in the late 1990s. We visited a few Primary Schools in the local area including one Beacon School with a very highly regarded Head, who I later got know and appreciate first hand as a School Governor, I well remember her bitter complaints that she had spent the last five years getting the approach to literacy and numeracy in the School in the form it was now only for that all to be junked by the introduction of literacy and numeracy hours by the Blair Government. As Marx might have pointed out under capitalism problems, solutions and impacts look very different depending on where you are standing in the system.
This is one example of a deeper issue illustrated by Powell’s book, which is the way that the nature of British government has changed since the 1970s. Before Thatcher, conservatism and socialism had clear ideological meanings. One sought to avoid social change, the other sought to change society on the basis of greater equality. Certainly there were issues of implementation, definition and the extent to which either of these ideologies were truly represented by the two main political parties. In Thatcher we had a path-breaking Prime Minister, a radical ‘Conservative’ and a very electorally successful one. For her quiescent conservatism was not to be countenanced, the new conservatism was about actively intervening to move society towards the interests of business, portrayed as the interests of us all. One legacy of this has been a new attitude to ‘progressive’ government, the Blair administration cementing this in the Labour Party and our new coalition reaffirming it for both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It would seem that ‘progressive’ government now does not mean government seeking fundamental social change affecting underlying structures of power and control in society, but rather governments which are obsessed with the minutiae of policy in an attempt to convince us that they are doing something. Pragmatism rather than ideological vision are the watchwords of the day, and change is aimed at resolving specific perceived issues in society rather than altering society itself.
In this brave new world austerity measures are unquestionable, even when the evidence of them not working is gathering by the day, whilst uneven educational performance is laid at the door of ‘failing’ schools, ‘failing’ teachers, and ‘failing’ assessment criteria. As a result anyone working in, for or in any connection with the public sector can expect constant and unrelenting change introducing new and then newer policies to resolve problems identified by policy debates rather than social outcomes. Teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, local government officers, voluntary workers, and so on are faced with a kind of permanent revolution with no particular objective in mind except creating the perception of action. Immanuel Kant admonished us that people should be treated as ends in themselves and not purely as means, but the new progressivism sees individuals only as means with no apparent end relating to them as individuals. It is the preservation of power for its own sake, of society for its own sake and the sacrifice of the individual to that preservation. It is, in short, George Orwell’s 1984.
Gerald Taylor works in social policy at the University of Glamorgan
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