So, this is a rough outline for an idea I’ve had about how to understand and interpret some bits of British politics. I’d appreciate any comments on it, just to know if it’s worth thinking and working on further, or if it needs to go onto the great pile of big ideas that didn’t work.
Beyond the more obviously ideological axes we arrange politicians and parties along (left-right, authoritarian-libertarian etc) I think there’s also an axis on a scale I’d refer to as managerial-transformative. (Another name would be conservative-radical, but I’ve tried to go for something more neutral, and less confusing, as we shall see)
Managerial politics are based on improving things as they currently are through processes of gradual reform. It’s not a blind acceptance of a status quo, with no desire to change it, but more a belief that surface level reform of a situation is enough to make it work better. It presents itself to the public as a vision of competence – the idea behind ‘valence politics‘ – saying that the basic system is fine, it just needs to be run better than it is now.
Transformative politics, on the other hand. say that the system needs to be radically altered in order to achieve anything. This could be because the system was designed badly in the first place, or has just become unsuited to present times and conditions. Transformative politics are about bringing in a whole new way of doing things, not just making small changes to the old system. It presents itself to the public as a change and a break in the existing order of things.
It’s worth noting that these are an axis, not two alternatives. Politicians and ideas can tend to one side or the other and have different opinions on different subjects, though there is a general tendency in which side people present themselves as being overall.
Until historically recently, British politics had followed a rough pattern of alternation between the two poles. Managerialists would run the system until the problems within it became too much for it to continue, at which point power would be won by the transformatives, who would bring in a raft of changes to the system in order to renew and refresh it, be it the Great Reform Act or the NHS. After a while, though, they’d run out of things to transform – or start transforming things that didn’t need it – and they’d lose power to those who would now come in on a promise to manage the new system better than they did (in some cases, these would be the same people who’d managed the old system, but had since accepted the change and were happy to manage it).
The problems we face now stem from this system starting to break down in the 1960s and 70s. Up to that point, the Tories (and their ancestors) had generally been the party of managerialism, while Labour (and before them, the Liberals) had been the party of transformation (in this case, bringing in ‘the white hear of technology’). However, the Tories of the 70s, instead of promising to manage Labour’s changes better than they could adopted transformative ideas of their own – Heath’s ‘Selsdon Man’ and then Thatcherism. This led to the confusion of 70s politics, with Wilson and then Callaghan trying to sort out the mess they inherited, rather than pushing transformative ideas of their own. This then led to the full switch of Thatcher’s government bringing in big changes to the system, followed by Major’s attempts to maintain them and finally Blair being elected. Blair represents both both the end result of the switch that began thirty years before – a managerialist claim to be able to run the changed system better than its creators – and a switch back to the old system, promising to make radical changes to the system. Is the failure of New Labour down to people thinking they were getting something transformative, and instead ending up with something managerial?
The problem we have now is that just about every party now contains a mix of managerialists and transformatives. They can sit in similar positions on the conventional political scales, but are radically opposed on the managerialist-transformative one. However, because our political system is still built on the idea that there’ll be a steady oscillation between the two poles of that axis, things have started going wrong on a more frequent basis. In some areas, new ideas get piled on top of new ideas, with no time between them for them to be managed and allowed to bed in, while others remain stuck in the same mindset they’ve had for decades or more, no one willing to break away from the managerialist consensus.
So, that’s the rough shape of my idea – is it worth exploring further, utterly pointless, or have I just reinvented a wheel that someone else had already explained with much more detail and accuracy?