The end of politics is the attention-grabbing title of Douglas Carswell’s book. But the book ends without offering a genuine consideration of what politics is really for – just that it is broken.
The book argues that government has got much bigger over the last few decades, providing and spending more to the detriment of ordinary people who are now weighed down with excessive levels of government debt. As a result people have stopped voting and governments these days are merely a collection of departments with long names and funny acronyms that spend our money on pointless things like health and safety regulation. The book then goes on to argue that the internet will solve this problem by allowing people to commission their own health, education and services and making government largely redundant. The back cover blurb declares triumphantly that we should “be optimistic. We are going to be able to manage without government – and thrive.”
But in truth, the book carries no such optimism. The forces summoned in support of Carsewell’s argument are largely paranoia and fear – there is no attempt to entice the reader with a positive vision of what the future could be like if all the problems described were to be solved.
In a sense, that is partly the point. Carswell rages against the concept that economies or public services can be planned and managed. He curses the day the Fabian Society was founded precisely because it was premised on the notion that the broad majority of people could assert democratic control over state and market to deliver better outcomes.
Carswell gives very little regard to what organisations like the Fabian Society came together to rally against in the first place. The book has nothing to say about poverty or the manner in which universal access to education, health and welfare have improved the lives of countless people throughout history.
Beyond these flaws in the argument of the book, there are other gaping holes in the case being advanced. The internet is presented as the phenomenon that will undo government and replace the need for experts. But the manner in which use of the internet is developing is actually towards the greater identification of online experts and information worthy of our attention. What is Twitter if not a smart filter of information and opinion? The rise of services like Kred or Klout demonstrate the appetite for helping people identify people and services worth following and those who are not.
In terms of journalists, the internet has launched some new ones but many of the most read pieces will be by established names like Polly Toynbee and Fraser Nelson – largely because they are good writers.
Carswell’s disdain for the intellectual or the expert is a recurring theme in the book. But there is an amusing inconsistency here. The main-stream media are repeatedly criticised as one of the terrible forces that prevent public access to the truth, but the index is littered with references to the Daily Mail, Evening Standard and the Telegraph. Indeed, many of the facts that back up Carswell’s arguments are little more than angry editorials from the Mail on Sunday.
Think tanks, bureaucrats and researchers also get a good deal of criticism. They are painted as the meddling class obsessed with data, doing damage whilst trying to understand the world – but the book has no problem using YouGov polling and OECD data (often selectively interpreted) to illustrate points. Carswell mocks those who narrowly worship ancient intellectuals yet makes constant reference to the wisdom of Hayek.
Large parts of the book rest on arguments that suggest delivering public services is like delivering radio services – the internet now allows us to commission our own personalised radio so public services will surely follow. Similarly education is discussed as if it were akin to a supermarket chain. This kind of analysis leads nowhere sensible. Education and health are public goods precisely because it should not be left to the market to allocate them – it is not right that some have access whilst others do not. It also misses the sense in which it is important that people experience things like health and even radio entertainment together as these things foster the common good that allows nations to flourish.
The internet is trumpeted as the thing that will save us from government but ignores the fact that the internet was largely developed by government subsidy. Also not everyone is online and nor do they necessarily want to be. The main point about the internet though is that it simply allows us to do things we have been doing already – talking to each other, accessing information and entertainment. It does not change the character of these activities or the importance of providing some goods publicly.
Ultimately what this book represents is the Sarah Palin analysis applied to Britain and Europe. It is written from a starting point that levels of government debt and spending are the biggest problems of our age. But in the same way as his treatment of the internet – Carswell oversimplifies the point so that it loses all relevance. There are some governments that spend very little with disastrous outcomes for its people whilst some spend a lot in order to achieve very good outcomes. The same is true for levels of debt. Government debt can and will be repaid. The lives of those who have been impacted by austerity and unemployment can be forever scarred.
Politics is not without its flaws and there are many things that must be done to improve it. More working class representation, greater efforts to engage those who do not vote and more genuine participation in the management of local goods and services are good places to start. Politics is at its best the vehicle through which people from all backgrounds can come together and reason about how we want our communities and country to develop. If we are to meet the real challenges of the future such as reducing poverty and inequality, avoiding dangerous climate change and reshaping the economy to deliver better outcomes for people and planet then we must see the hope in politics. This will mean rejecting the fear offered by the likes of Douglas Carswell.