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April 30, 2008

Richard D. North on the disastrous rule of the baby boomers: How 1968 ruined government - and how to get over it

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: 10 years of inspired rule, 1997-2007 - laments the long shadow of 1968 over the way we are now governed.

We are headed for a long, long election campaign. The politicians are not sure what they're fighting over, but they know their competing charm and offence offensives have started. Oddly, the newest feature of the campaign may be that victory goes to the party which understands that the British would quite like to have a government again.

The end of baby boomer politics
We've had it with baby boomer politics. We've had it with coteries and courts, dens and sofas. But if we are fed up with that private politics, we are also tired of the public face of politics. We are told that modern politics is about TV studios: that poisonous truth may be about to become untrue. Westminster and Whitehall might yet make a come-back, as bastions of decently-argued policy and its delivery. This is a switch away from post-60s trends. But it needn’t be a backward step to snobbery and stuffiness.

British baby-boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) have damaged the government of their country. They grew up believing they had the key to the universe and everything, but have left their children with a large repair job.

They were the generation of peace, love and Les Événements - but forty and more years on, their passion for immediacy and informality, and their perpetual pseudo-dissidence, have left Britain a much less sound democracy. Their thought-leaders in universities, publishing, the arts, the media (of course) conceived of themselves as liberationists. They didn't notice how perilously close this comes to a creed of demolition. The politicians amongst them wear suits now, but they have a horror of institutions, hierarchy and structure.

The baby boomers wanted to invent a new world. They could not bear their own back-story. In particular, they loathed Westminster and Whitehall. The very idea of representative democracy, with its subtle and covert elitism, was abhorrent to the baby boomers. Instead, they enjoyed and celebrated the shift of power to the media and campaigners. This wasn't People Power, but they sold it as that. It was, rather, the power of the baby boomer establishment.

They were out of step with their country. Most British people are tolerant and pragmatic, but not nearly as liberal as the new media and political elites think they are or ought to be. The left has had to adjust to a new mass understanding
that capitalism improves living standards. Even the Imagine and Blowin’ In the Wind generation has stealthily changed: the Aldermaston marchers and Grosvenor Square warriors are now Saga tourists (and their children and grandchildren are on an Asian gap year).

The Imagineering generation comes of age
In place of the old politics of division, the 1990s saw the creation of a new politics of the imagination. It was as though the old, very temporary, glamour and magic of John F Kennedy had been revived by the generation which most fell for it. Bill Clinton's triumph was to be thought the first black President, a victim for the therapy age. The trend lives on. Barack Obama, like JFK, wraps himself in unspecified "change" and has managed to seem to be a movement rather than a campaign. Tony Blair pulled off an even smarter actorly stroke. Even more than Kennedy, he inhabited the change that was required. He was the muse of a Britain rebranded in the baby boomer image.

The '68 Revolution hits Downing Street
From start to finish, Tony Blair never understood government. He only knew how to make it work less well. From start to finish, hardly anyone noticed. The result was that he achieved very little. He couldn't even see that Whitehall was ready to delineate and deliver the next stage of the Thatcherite reforms he wanted and she hadn't risked. He got one big result: having sidelined representative democracy, he could embark on an unpopular war. (Leave aside my view that this was his one noble act.)

The issue now is whether a post-baby boomer generation will reinvent good government. I think they may. Modern young people - those under 30 or even 40 - are aware that they have been failed. They have not had the luxury of growing up alongside - even against - real adults who understand social responsibility and structures, and their political equivalents. Sensing this deficit, they are probably up for some quite big shifts. They are the post-dissident generation.

The essence of the present failures of government are easily grasped. For ten years, the New Labour project was successful in undermining Westminster and Whitehall. Tony Blair had reason to fear parliament, home as it was of Labour MPs who hated his reforms. Whitehall horrified Blair, perhaps because it talked about detail. Whitehall knew that things didn't happen merely because they could be imagined and had been announced. Sweat, brains and constancy were required.

The enduring facts of government
Government has struggled with delegation and it always will. From Robert Peel to Harold Wilson and beyond, ministers have wrestled with an intolerable work-load. The answer has been to build a strong, responsive, impartial and apolitical Civil Service in Whitehall. It is corralled into departments, each headed by a member of parliament appointed as a minister with collective responsibility in Cabinet. The Prime Minister is primus inter pares, both supported and challenged by his ministerial colleagues, each with a three-way charge. They are in the PM's Cabinet; they are parliamentarians; and they hold an appointment from the Crown. It's not simple or pretty, but it can and has to be made to work.

Anyway, we have had the remarkable spectacle of four successive Cabinet Secretaries - the most senior men in the Civil Service - queuing up to denounce Blair's "coup" - the silent but deadly trashing of that system. One may wonder why they didn't speak out at the time, when it would have helped much more.
Tony Blair gave us government which could produce a blizzard of eye-catching initiatives before breakfast, but couldn't deliver them in a decade. Our sprightly leader produced a style of government which was casual but closed. He made a Kremlin out of Camelot. Even now, only Sue Cameron's pieces in the Financial Times give us much insight into Gordon Brown's paranoid continuation of Tony Blair's folly.

Restoring things requires us to understand representative democracy, as understood by Edmund Burke and nearly everyone else. This is to say that our version of democracy allows the mass of people to choose an elite - part professional, part patrician - to run its affairs. Subtle but robust institutions ensure that the many tensions within the mass are represented as decisions get made.

Modern government has some schisms and fractures, but no Great Rift. It isn't prone to great narratives. We have no need of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics. The next generation of politicians have to be midwives to a painful evolution of the welfare state and maybe of post-materialist consumption. We need to understand and nurture political and managerial elites in Westminster and Whitehall. These people will have difficult and quite tedious work to do, and will make many mistakes. We need to elect, appoint and retain the best talents we can find. These men and women are not likely to be as well paid as they would be in the private sector. So they will need to be rewarded in respect.

The details of modern representative government will have to be negotiated. Should Civil Servants be more accountable to Parliament, or to ministers, or to their own structures? Can we outsource even more Whitehall functions? How strong should political parties be? What does proper consultation look like? Is politics a profession or a hobby?

What matters first is to get it across that a Prime Minister is only as good as his ministers, and ministers are only as good as their civil servants. And the core of all that is that the PM isn't a visionary, a rock star, a protestor, or a campaigner. He isn't a father to his people, as one suspects Brown would like to be. I know that politics is a retail business. It has to flirt with populism and appearances. But the public are ready to accept that PMs - and all other politicians and civil servants - need to respect and be respected within a great tradition which they can reform but must not traduce. The baby boomer way needs to be history. I am a conservative, and have a certain faith that the Tories will "get" this stuff quicker than anyone else. The LibDems could be very helpful in applauding anyone else who gets it. In the unlikely event of Labour really getting it, they might be rewarded with another term of office.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its 2007 digital update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007.

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From yesterday's Telegraph:

Nicolas Sarkozy blames the generation of 1968

Interesting comments follow the article.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 30, 2008 07:15 PM

Readers might be interested to read the account of The New Culture Forum's 68ers discussion last December: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Posted by: peter whittle at May 1, 2008 11:48 AM
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