Since the start of the latest Ukraine-Russia crisis the rhetoric of energy security has re-emerged as strongly as ever. What seems most evident this time around is the degree to which energy companies are deploying the energy supply security card in order to appeal for more state and political support for new capacity. The nuclear industry, never shy about letting a good energy crisis go to waste, has been active across Europe in using fear of Russia and the energy weapon to make the case for more European nuclear energy. In the UK Cuadrilla, ably assisted by William Hague and Michael Fallon, have argued that the UK should reduce reliance on gas imports by fracking for shale gas. It is worth noting the kind of language that is used in such appeals. Cuadrilla’s statement suggests that Britain may declare a ‘state of emergency’ if the Ukraine crisis worsens and in this instance Cuadrilla will ride to our rescue by producing shale within 4 years. This is strongly worded stuff – bordering on war-like discourse – and assumes home-grown energy supply solves the crisis for the UK. Continue reading →
Matt Wood, University of Sheffield, discusses the article that he has written with Matt Flinders, also from the University of Sheffield, called ‘Depoliticisation, governance and the state’. This article is part of the April issue of Policy & Politics, a special issue on depoliticisation, available free until 31 May.
In our main contribution to this special issue of Policy & Politics we aim to set out an agenda for expanding and diversifying the study of depoliticisation in governance and public policy by engaging a broad range of conceptual approaches and definitions. Depoliticisation in general means a narrowing of the boundaries of democratic politics, such that choice and agency over issues of public concern come to be constrained. There are many different ways in which this can occur, and there is a sprawling cross-disciplinary literature that uses the concept of depoliticisation to refer to a range of practices that might contribute to an understanding of the phenomenon. Our aim in this article is to map this literature and identify links between different forms of depoliticisation, such that we can offer a rounded and systematic account.
Our central argument is that the study of depoliticisation needs to be broadened. The most significant studies to date (Burnham (2001) and, subsequently, Flinders and Buller (2006) have emphasised the importance of ‘governmental’, or state-based actors (mainly ministers) as agents of depoliticisation. They arguably ignore, however, the importance of non-state actors (such as the media, interest groups, or even ordinary people in ‘everyday’ situations) in determining whether depoliticisation occurs, or whether it is resisted. We contend that by identifying and mapping a broader range of cross-disciplinary literature that uses this concept to refer to strategies employed by this wider range of actors, we can develop a more sophisticated analysis of the interrelated processes that accumulate into a general shift towards depoliticisation.
Firstly, ‘governmental depoliticisation’ (a shift from the ‘governmental’ to ‘societal’ sphere) refers to the delegation of political decisions away from the central state by ministers, such that they are controlled by ‘technocrats’ or instituted in ‘quangos’. Here, depoliticisation is enacted by ministers placing the ‘political character of decision making’ at one remove away from the central state. This is the ‘form’ that gets most attention in the public policy literature and we summarise it relatively briefly through an overview of the literature on delegated governance and patronage.
Secondly, ‘societal depoliticisation’ (movement from the ‘public’ to ‘private’ sphere) refers to the ‘privatisation’ of issues, not formally, but in terms of their salience as topics in public debate. Here, depoliticisation is enacted by a range of actors in the public sphere, from the media and interest groups to politicians, celebrities and other prominent actors in society. By simply not discussing political issues to the extent that they were discussed previously, these actors effectively depoliticise those issues by preventing their full and open public deliberation.
Lastly, ‘discursive depoliticisation’ (shift from the ‘private’ sphere to ‘realm of necessity’) refers to the ‘normalisation’ of political issues, in the sense that they are presented in political discourse or rhetoric as being matters of ‘fate’ over which humans can have no control. This last perspective can be found in moral panics, for example. Immigration might be a highly salient topic of debate, but if only a single policy option is discussed, namely limiting immigration as far as possible, then it is depoliticised in this sense. There might also be a lot of public discussion over, say, climate change, but if that discussion does not suggest that humans can do anything about climate change, then it is effectively depoliticised. Discursive depoliticisation can also happen at any ‘level’ and need not be ‘public’ but can happen in ‘everyday’ situations when political discussions are presented as being (for example in discussions of austerity as a ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ course of government policy).
Distinguishing between these three general forms of depoliticisation within the literature enables us to advocate a future empirical agenda that examines the interrelationships between them. Such interrelationships can be quite paradoxical. For instance, a policy issue could be dealt with in a very hand’s off or arm’s length way – depoliticised – but also be a highly salient public issue and one where there is a lot discussion over what society should do – politicised. Policies with a strong ethical or moral dimension are often of this ilk, for example IVF treatment or prostitution. We argue in the article that more empirical research may tease apart some of the intricacies and capture some of the complexities in processes of depoliticisation and politicisation, and even investigate whether, again paradoxically, they can be mutually reinforcing or self-sustaining.
Matt Wood is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. He is also Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. His current research looks at ‘everyday politics’ and the challenges for overcoming political disaffection and disengagement.
The April issue of Policy & Politics is a special issue: Perspectives on depoliticisation and repoliticisation. It is available free online until the 31 May 2014.
This Special Issue of the journal centres on the issue of depoliticisation – ‘the narrowing of the boundaries of democratic politics’, according to Matthew Flinders and Matt Wood in the opening article. In that, and the second paper in the issue, they clear the ground upon which the others build, and argue for a broader, multifaceted approach to depoliticisation than has hitherto been the case. The other authors in the issue take up the challenge and offer a revealing set of empirical and theoretical contributions.
Why does art and culture matter in the twenty-first century? What does it actually deliver in terms of social benefits? An innovative new participatory arts project in South Yorkshire is examining the ‘politics of art’ and the ‘art of politics’ from a number of new angles.
“The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed,” a recent report from the Arts Council acknowledges, “while the specifics have just as long been debated.” It is this focus on ‘the specifics’ that is most interesting because in times of relative prosperity there was little pressure from neither public nor private funders to demonstrate the broader social impact or relevance of the arts. In times of austerity, however, the situation is very different. A focus on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) risks eviscerating the funding for the arts and humanities unless these more creative and less tangible intellectual pursuits can demonstrate their clear social value. The vocabulary of ‘social return’, ‘intellectual productive capacity’, ‘economic generation’ may well grate against the traditional values and assumptions of the arts and culture community but it is a shadow that cannot be ignored.
The publication of The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) provides more than a sophisticated analysis of the value of the social sciences across a range of economic, cultural, and civic dimensions. It provides a political treatise and a strategic piece of evidence-based leverage that may play an important role in future debates over the distribution of diminishing public funds. I have no doubt that the impact of the arts and humanities is equally significant. But the problem is that the systematic creation of an evidence base remains embryonic. My personal belief that the arts and humanities are educationally critical is, in many quarters, meaningless without demonstrable evidence to support these beliefs. The methodological and epistemological challenges of delivering that research are clearly significant but as the Arts Council emphasizes ‘it is something that arts and culture organizations will have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’.
As a political scientist I have always been fascinated with the relationship between art and politics. Though heretical to suggest to the arts community, I have often thought that the role of the professional politician and the professional artist (indeed, with the amateur politician and the amateur artist) were more similar than was often acknowledged. Both seek to express values and visions, to inspire hope and disgust, and both wish to present a message. It is only the medium through which that message is presented that differs (and relationships of co-option, patronage, and dependency are common between these professions). But having (crudely) established a relationship between art and politics, could it be that the true value of the arts lies not in how it responds to the needs of the economy but in how it responds to the rise of ‘disaffected democrats’ and the constellation of concerns that come together in the ‘why we hate politics’ narrative?
In a time of increasing social anomie and political disengagement, especially amongst the young and the poor, can participatory arts projects provide a way of reconnecting communities?
François Matarasso’s Use or Ornament (1997) provides one of the most systematic explorations of this question and concluded that “one of the most important outcomes of [the public’s] involvement in the arts was finding their own voice, or perhaps, the courage to use it.” More recently, the New Economics Foundation’s report Diversity and Integration (2013) suggested that young people who participated in arts programmes were more likely to see themselves as “holding the potential to do anything I want to do” and being “able to influence a group of people to get things done.” Other studies tentatively offer similarly positive conclusions but with little analytical depth in terms of identifying between political reconnection, civic reconnection or personal reconnection (in terms of personal understanding, confidence and aspiration). To return to the Arts Council’s recent report – The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society – the existing research base is light on ‘the specifics’.
It is for exactly this reason that the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics has joined forces with ‘Art in the Park’ as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Civic Value’ programme. Young people from all across South Yorkshire will be brought together to participate in an eight week arts project that uses music, film making, dance, writing, painting or whatever medium the young people select to explore social and political issues. Artists are embedded in the research and current and former politicians can be brought into the project to facilitate sessions if that is something the young people request. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews will capture how participating in the project affects political attitudes and understandings – positive, negative, political, civic, or personal – with the aim being able to answer if the arts can breathe life back into politics and reconnect communities. Now that really would be a wider benefit for society.
David Blunkett offers some compelling reasons why we should defend our traditional democratic institutions. But are they increasingly distant compared to people’s everyday social and political lives? Matt Wood suggests we need to investigate new forms of participation and ‘everyday politics’ to address the paradoxes of disengagement.
David Blunkett’s Policy & Politics lecture (you can download the full text from this blog post) is a lucid and reflective statement on many of the paradoxes that we find in contemporary politics. As has become somewhat of a mantra for our times in academic circles, he notes that many British people are incredibly disillusioned with and disengaged from traditional democratic institutions. But he goes a bit further than this, noting that people make unrealistic and contradictory demands of government and that these put politicians in an unenviable position of having to ‘please all of the people all of the time’. People want conviction politicians like Tony Benn or Margaret Thatcher, but they also want an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ politics and ‘common sense’ governing where the solutions, apparently, everyone agrees on. This makes things doubly difficult for addressing disengagement because the causes of the problem are often as contradictory and confusing as the various solutions.
What should be done, then? For Blunkett, the first point is not to resort to extremism. He argues passionately that as a society we should resist the temptations of David Graeber’s ‘anarcho-populism’ and the politics of Russell Brand. Simply ‘taking to the streets’ will be destructive and regressive, as any glance at the history of revolutionary politics tells us. Instead, we should all try and be more understanding and less hateful of politics and politicians. Politics, Blunkett notes, is a deeply civilizing and uplifting practice. Politics may not be perfect, but has been necessary to achieve some of the great social advances of the twentieth century (and hopefully will be the same in the twenty-first century). As he rightly notes, establishing and maintaining those formal political institutions that we in Britain take for granted is critically important for consolidating the gains made in the Arab Spring and to avoid the horrific bloodshed in countries like Syria. Blunkett mentions Bernard Crick’s famous book ‘In Defence of Politics’ as a brilliant statement of precisely this point, and Matthew Flinders’ update of the book, ‘Defending Politics’, makes a similar argument for the twenty-first century. The media, the market and meretricious, Brand-esque figures are in danger of doing down the social, economic and cultural benefits that we gain from our stable Parliamentary democracy, despite all its faults.
Is it enough though simply to defend the old system when, as Blunkett mentions towards the end of his speech, people are still often interested and engaged in political issues, they just might act on that interest in different ways? In fact, as a lot of current research shows, we may be seeing a real sea-change in how people engage with and try to solve what they see as the big political issues. Political scientists have a number of words for this type of behaviour, but a good way of summing it up is the term ‘everyday politics’. People doing everyday politics know all the values Crick defended are important, but they also know that new technology can be utilised to drive change outside the formal system. They do politics when they like, where they like and how they like. This might be on the internet, through a local community project, a charity, or boycotting unethical corporate brands (some people see boycotting the BBC by not buying a TV as a political statement!). These people might vote occasionally, when they get time out of their busy lives, but they don’t see voting as the best way to get things done. They’re similarly turned off by party politics, which strikes them as too narrow or obsessed with media spin, or by Parliament, which seems dispiritingly anodyne and idiosyncratically outdated.
There are, of course, a number of paradoxes and inconsistencies here as well. People might ‘act locally and think globally’, but does that really make any difference? Everyday politics is often sporadic, disorganised and consumer-driven. While people might think they can do more by acting ‘closer to home’ rather than with the system, are we in danger of throwing the democratic baby out with our institutional bathwater? Would it really be better if the NHS was organised on a part-time ‘do-it-yourself’ basis? We think not. Traditional democratic institutions clearly do, and should have a place, as Blunkett makes clear. What we do think is these new forms of participation aren’t going to go away soon, and that simply defending the old system isn’t necessarily enough if we’re going to improve politics for the twenty-first century.
The challenge for us at the Crick Centre as we embark on an exciting programme of research is delving into how people live their political lives in the twenty-first century. While there’s already a lot of research out there on alternative forms of participation, we think there needs to be more into how and why there is a disconnection between people’s increasingly busy and congested everyday lives and the slow, churning world of ‘big-P’ Politics. Once we understand this better, we can begin to address how the institutions we should cherish (our national and regional parliaments, political parties and local councils) can evolve and adapt to our paradoxical political world.
Matt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics, and Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is currently researching ‘everyday politics’ and solutions to political disengagement in advanced liberal democracies.
Sure Start services are popular with families in the UK, but not all families who might benefit choose to attend. Two methods which are commonly used to promote Sure Start are leaflets and door-to-door visits. Both methods are known to be effective in other contexts, such as mobilizing citizens to vote or encouraging them to recycle, but, prior to our study, there was no evidence of their effectiveness in promoting attendance at local services. Working in partnership with a local authority provider of Sure Start services, we set out to test whether a leaflet about Sure Start or a door-to-door visit from an outreach worker are persuasive methods of attracting families to attend Sure Start centres.
We used a randomised controlled trial (RCT), which is fairly novel in research on public services, yet has the potential to provide a convincing estimate of the effect of policy interventions. Using the register of births, we identified children born in the previous eighteen months, whose families had not yet attended Sure Start. We randomly assigned families to one of three conditions: a leaflet about Sure Start, a visit from an outreach worker, or a control group that received no special treatment. Over several weeks we measured the outcome, by recording whether or not the families attended their local Sure Start centre. We compared attendance by families in the three groups to see whether attendance differed across the different interventions. The advantage of random assignment is that membership of the treatment and control groups are very similar in all respects. Therefore, any differences in observed outcomes between the groups can reasonably be attributed to the intervention rather than any other cause. We found that the brief doorstep visits and leaflets implemented in this study were not a worthwhile way of promoting Sure Start to families who are not already engaged: although we cannot rule out a small effect, the results of the visits and leaflets were not significantly different from the effect of the usual service.
We believe that RCTs could usefully be employed much more extensively in the evaluation of public services. Find out more from our book, Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Using Experiments to Change Civic Behaviour, in which we describe the RCT method and offer examples of its use in testing various interventions to promote civic behaviour such as recycling, charitable giving and organ donation.