Illustration by Felix Pawlyn

Technocracy versus populism: the new Scylla and Charybdis

There are many clefts which divide political tribes, and at the risk of introducing another, I wish to discuss what I see as the most fundamental of all such splits: technocratic bureaucracy and management versus inspirational populism. Distilled to its essence, this conflict centres around one question- how do you view experts?

We should begin by tracing the emergence of this split to the travel of the left to the perceived centre in the nineties and noughties, something particularly perceptible in U.K. politics. Perhaps the key stylistic feature of the ‘New Labour’ era was to relegate emotion by appealing to rationality and compromise- “what matters is what works” (who would argue for what doesn’t work?). A pertinent example was the rewording of Labour’s long-standing commitment to socialism (Clause IV) in 1995. With rationalism and calculation as its principle, the role of those seen as most qualified- experts- grew exponentially.

It is easy to lampoon Brown and Blair for attaching quasi-messianic status to bankers. But it is within NHS reform that the influence of technocracy was most apparent. From 1997 to 2010, NHS funding increased by half – whilst the number of practice nurses and nursing assistants fell. NHS “managerial roles” increased by 82% between 1999 and 2009. Under the principle of New Public Management, governments from the 1980s to the 2000s introduced target culture, chief executives, a Commercial Medicines Directorate and general managers to the NHS to increase efficiency, but often found these policies had the opposite effect.

With costs increasing, the New Labour government retrenched. Foundation Trusts were established in 2002 and are accountable to Parliament and run by a locally elected Board of Governors. Moreover, marketisation and government retreat had the effect of decreasing the care quality in some areas compared to others- market failure being a problem that only markets have. 

In the U.S.S.R, the joke ran that whenever an apparatchik was asked to disband defunct commissions, his reply would be that a new commission would be set up to investigate. Likewise, as the NHS fragmented, the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 removed the responsibility of the Health Secretary to ensure the health of citizens, with Clinical Commissioning Groups established. The academic Jonathan Tritter, described this as the return of the power over health services to “an unaccountable medical elite”– the epitome of detached rationality encouraged by the mantra of technocracy, a rationality which seeks to increase efficiency and “set the people free” through patient choice; only to swell inefficiency and keep citizens bound.

The opposite of a sometimes vacuous, often dry technocracy, is the vivid energy of populism. Populism is an ill-defined term yet, to butcher Saxe’s poem about elephants, “you know it when it walks through the door”. One identifiable feature of populism is its anti-expert core which sets it markedly apart from technocracy. 

In 2017, Prospect contributors Helen Jackson and Paul Ormerod argued that too much emphasis on evidence and experts alienates the public. Rarely has the Delphic Oracle been so clairvoyant. Rarer still have two fingers been shown to technocracy as unequivocally as Michael Gove’s assertion that “Britain has had enough of experts”. The denunciation of the “liberal elite” is linked to the rise of technocracy as the Left’s move to the centre led to the perception that electoral choices were the equivalent of “yes” and “yes please”; Cameron reveled in the “Heir to Blair” sobriquet, whilst in the 2015 election Ed Miliband’s rebuttal to austerity was austerity- just without the accompanying salt to go with the cuts.

Anti-establishment politics is not inherently negative, yet the normalisation of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, sexism and xenophobia is indicative of a debasement in our politics. More worrying still, and the logical extrapolation of a disaffection with experts, is the ‘post-truth’ era and the lack of a common set of facts. 

Populism is mostly a product of the Left’s shift to the centre, thus robbing the radical and disaffected of their natural habitat and allowing the Right free reign in this hunting ground to pursue its age-old tactic of poaching disaffected voters from the Left.

Nonetheless, it remains up to parties of all political colours to chart a course through the multiple heads of a technocratic Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis of populism. Evidence is important. Experts should not be ignored, yet neither should they dictate policy. A government’s role is to govern. Forgive the sporting imagery, but no manager wins tournaments by playing players out of position. An effective strategy of putting round pegs in round holes is needed; not a striker in defence, nor NHS marketisation for marketisation’s sake.