The Backlash Begins

July 25, 2011

One of the striking features of the banking crisis was the way in which the Left utterly failed to capitalise upon it. A casual observer would’ve thought that worldwide financial calamity brought on by the mismanagement by the private sector of the planet’s finances would provide the perfect prop to those demanding more state intervention. But this failed to happen – across Europe, right-wing parties cemented their grip on power, in the US a tidal wave of populist anti-statism arose, and in South America the previously leftist governments reached their high water mark.

The populace of the West did not demand revolutionary change. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the ideals of Thatcher and Reagan remained dominant, and libertarianism – the belief in the moral worthiness of the unrestrained entrepreneur – rose in prominence. The reason for this may simply be the absence of an alternate model; with the failure of socialism, what remains? The Left remains mired in a quagmire between infeasible socialism and an economic model – the Third Way – that shackles social concerns to the cyclical nature of capitalism.

There are signs that this may change, however. The third of the UK’s Transparency Crises, the hacking scandal, has reinforced a point that was not made opaquely in the first two. The banking crisis revolved in part around the mis-selling of financial products complex to the point of opacity. An information failure in the banking system – the inability to know whether the people borrowing money were able to pay it back – led to the freezing up of credit. The MPs’ expenses scandal involved the revelation that the complex mechanisms by which MPs were paid for ‘expenses’ were in fact de facto wage hikes concealed in paperwork. The hacking scandal has demonstrated that individuals in possession of a great deal of power and influence are apt to abuse it.

For this is a crisis not just of the relationship between media and Government, but of individualism itself. Markets perform inadequately when their participants have insufficient information. If the power structures of a given market lead to the concealment of information, then that market fails to perform effectively. The post-Thatcher society of individuals maximising their net worth lends itself to the creation of these power structures, as we have seen. If individuals cannot be trusted, then a political and economic system based on that requirement is cast into doubt.

It is notable that the first response of Government to this latest crisis has been to reach for the regulatory toolbox, which stands in contrast to the way in which regulation was only dragged out of the Government in the previous two crises. There is an implicit recognition that individualism has failed, and some form of collective regulation is necessary. Even The Telegraph begins to accept this.

This is a tremendous challenge to libertarians. Socialism failed not because it was perceived as immoral, as they would have you believe, but because it failed to deliver sufficient benefit to those living within it. It failed because individuals are selfish, and best motivated by that. But if that selfishness is so extreme as to necessarily subvert the restricted power structures endorsed by libertarians with ones born of money, then libertarianism fails for the same reason. Morality doesn’t come into it; practicality trumps all.

Chris argues that this failure of individualism requires that some mechanism is set up by the left to prevent capitalists capturing the state in the way in which the hacking scandal has illustrated. I would disagree. These are transparency crises, and the way to overcome transparency crises is to provide more information. I would argue instead for a General Right of Information, giving any member public the right to see any document held by any corporation or similarly legally constituted entity, as well as the public sector. As a liberal, one would think this challenge to individualism is a challenge to my political beliefs. Not a bit of it. At the centre of liberalism has always been the understanding that education – information provision – is necessary for the effective state. It is now our task to extend it.


Post-mortems there will be aplenty in the coming weeks; it seems to be a near certainty that regardless of the outcome on May 6th the present Labour Government will not continue in its present form. Even if Brown somehow defies predictions and Labour remains the largest party following the election, it seems near-impossible on present showing that they will end up with anything like a workable majority. I would therefore like to anticipate this and launch into a pre-mortem study of the impact of Labour upon our society over the last thirteen years. I will then argue that this impact makes it impossible for any Liberal (with a big ‘L’) to consider an electoral pact with Labour, and that claims that the Lib Dems are closer to Labour than the Tories are false.

I wish to argue that there has been a clear theme running throughout much of Labour’s legislation, which can be interpreted via the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault. The headline of this piece is a reference to the role that Jeremy Bentham’s model prison plays in Foucault’s 1975 work Discipline & Punish. The Panopticon is a prison in which a warden may observe every prisoner without that prisoner being aware of whether they are being watched. The intent is to instil a forced obedience; an obedience based on the constant fear of observation. A prisoner will be punished if they transgress, but naturally that punishment is predicated upon being observed in the act of transgression. The knowledge that they may be being observed at any time forces the prisoner to internalise their obedience – they must act as though they were being observed, regardless as to whether they are.

Now, it may appear that I am making a rather obvious point about the surveillance society Labour has engendered; the level of control lent to the state by the expansion of CCTV, the parameters of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the centralised ID database and ID cards themselves all point to a clear policy agenda of curtailing civil liberties in the name of security and public order. It is certainly true that each one represents a new avenue by which the Government may observe the lives of its citizens, opening up entirely new ways in which a law-breaker may be caught. But this is a familiar point; while the seriousness of the above policies in terms of our freedoms is not to be underestimated, the arguments around these new rules and regulations have been bandied around for years.

I am arguing for a stronger conclusion: that the philosophical approach to government taken by Labour is entirely antithetical to the Liberal stance. That philosophy may be summed up in a single sentence: the individual is not to be trusted. This attitude, I will demonstrate, lies behind much of the major legislation and public sector management practices Labour have implemented, which can be demonstrated to be constructed on the Foucaultian lines given above.

The most clear-cut examples of this approach that are not derived from legislation are the ever-multiplying targets Labour has imposed on the public sector. These constitute the ‘discipline’ aspect of Labour’s approach to management; they are designed to determine the behaviour of public sector workers in the absence of observation. The reporting requirements laid upon each constitute, in this sense, observation. The bureaucratic requirement of reporting progress towards a target after every effort to reach it produces this form of being observed: the individual charged with achieving the target is unaware when their performance may be assessed by someone higher in the hierarchy. It therefore has the impact of changing their behaviour to focus on achieving the target rather than achieving the ostensible objective of their organisation.

To give an example: one of the targets placed upon the Ambulance Service is to reach all Category A cases (i.e. having a heart attack/similar risk of imminent death) within eight minutes. The reasoning behind the target is that survival rates dramatically decrease following the eight-minute limit. This would, on the outside, appear fair enough. However, this approach has been criticised for the very obvious reason that it matters little to the ambulance service whether the patient reaches hospital alive under this target, only that they reached them within eight minutes. The data presented by the DoH to justify this target involves, bizarrely, assuming that it saves lives and then estimating the number of lives it has saved based on services reaching their targets. And this is not the only controversial target.

This discipline distorts the way in which individuals act; instead of setting trusts a general objective (i.e. ‘Respond to 999 calls and get people to hospital alive and well’) and allowing them to determine how they achieve it, these specific targets (and the monitoring associated with them) produces very specific patterns of behaviour. This, of course, is the intent, but that intent itself is based on a lack of trust in the individuals employed to provide public services. It is fair to say that Labour has implemented the principles of the Panopticon in the public sector, as well as for the members of the public affected by their curtailment of civil liberties.

But we need to go deeper than that. Labour has fostered a society based on radical mistrust of the individual, in which only the collective can be seen as a moral authority. But to assume that the collective refers to the state in this philosophy is to misinterpret how deeply this approach is embedded in Labour’s attitude to the role of the individual in making moral judgements. This approach is again demonstrated by one of the darlings of Liberal policy, the Freedom of Information Act.

The ostensible intent of FoI is to hand citizens the power to know how their money is being spent, about actions the state is carrying out of their behalf and to ensure that the ultimate arbiter of the worthiness of state action is public opinion. This is all fine and Liberal; it is clear that those to whom we entrust our taxes to provide services for us should be accountable to us. We must know whether our interests are harmed by the state. But the mechanism by which we do so is equivalent to the one presented above; it is through observation, its consequences, and the constant possibility thereof that the public now holds the state to account. We no longer trust our public sector workers to provide our services unless we can see exactly how they do so. Non-transparency is a dirty word, and trust in the state is at a low ebb.

How can, you may be asking, this be something a Labour government might want? How can a Labour government want a constant air of suspicion to hover over the public sector? You may as well ask why Labour implemented FoI legislation in the retrospective knowledge that it would inevitably lead to the expenses scandal (even without the leak to the Telegraph, the content of MP’s expense returns would have eventually been prised from the House of Commons under FoI). It all leads to the same conclusion: the individual is not to be trusted. The individual, be they a member of the public, a doctor, a civil servant or even an MP cannot be trusted to behave unless they are observed to do so. This is an inversion and a culmination of the Panopticon: the guard watches the prisoners, and each prisoner in turn watches the guard to ensure that he is watching their fellow prisoners.

It is telling that one of the key proposals of the Walker Review – Labour’s effort to improve banks’ corporate governance – is of increased transparency in the banking sector, both to the public and to shareholders. Stronger regulatory measures are available to Labour, but instead Labour have worked to bring banking within the Panopticon, to counter the lack of trust in bankers by putting their actions before the public.

The end point of Labour’s impact on our society is a nation that is radically non-hierarchal; made of interest groups that exercise control over one another through observation and discipline. The public watches the state and the media. The media watch the public, and the state. The state watches the public. More recently, bloggers now watch the media, the state, and each other. This is a generalisation of the array of interest groups in operation, but it serves to illustrate my point: in a society in which no one individual can be trusted wholly, hierarchies are impossible. The authority to give commands rests upon a trust in that person’s ability to give the correct commands. If that trust does not exist, then someone claiming an entitlement to rule or command cannot be taken seriously. Only the aggregate of the interest groups, what might perhaps be called society or public opinion, can be a source of authority. In Britain today, only the collective has power, not the person.

Labour’s lack of trust in the individual and its expression in legislation has led to a country in which traditional Tories can never achieve power again. There can be no such thing as a ‘natural party of government’, or deference to the well-bred and well-educated. This is their aggregate achievement: a country in which without paying due heed to the common interest the Conservatives cannot achieve power. Much as the consequences of Thatcher’s policies forced Labour to accept the effectiveness of the market in the 90s, Labour has now forced the Tories to accept that the common interest, the Public Good, should be a factor in their policy-making.

Why should this be a factor for the Lib Dems? Surely a non-hierarchal society is a liberal society, one in which the arbiter of that society’s values is no one person or interest group, but rather the sum of all debate and discussion within it. This would be true, but for one important proviso: the only arbiter of an individual’s opinions and morality where they do not impact upon others should be that individual. This is not the case in a Panopticon society: it is the aggregate of social opinion that determines the individual’s internal morality – their internal discipline – rather than that individual.

A clear-cut example of this took place yesterday. Chris Mounsey, the leader of the Libertarian Party UK, appeared on the Daily Politics as part of their election focus on minor parties. Although I think the more extreme policies espoused by LPUK are largely insane and in some cases deeply immoral, in a truly liberal society only those policies would be the subject of debate. Instead, Andrew Neil rather took his personal blog to pieces, resulting in Chris pulling it entirely and offering his resignation as leader. Here, observation by the media has led directly to a change in Chris’s own approach to discourse, and consequently his own internal discipline. The formerly wonderfully sweary blog at Devil’s Kitchen is no more, because it came under the observation of a broader sector of society. And no-one compelled Chris to do it. They didn’t need to.

Internal discipline – morality, if you will – is not something which should be determined by anyone other than the self. But if it is possible for all to see your actions, and your life is lived in the full and certain knowledge that your actions may be examined at any point by any one, then it cannot be claimed that knowledge will have no impact on how you choose to conduct your life. Partly this is the impact of the internet, but Labour’s governing philosophy lies full behind this societal shift.

For our society to be considered truly liberal, we must restore trust in the individual. We must re-evaluate the relationship between an individual’s personal morality and the capacity of the rest of the world to observe and judge it. Labour have demonstrated repeatedly over the last thirteen years that their philosophy will always be antithetical to this position. As liberals, we should not consider ourselves close to a party that does not celebrate individuals, for otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the guardians of liberty?

Disclaimer: Mentioning particular pieces of legislation within this piece does not mean that I am opposed to them, rather that they are useful illustrations of the argument given herein.