Our leaders must abandon the cult of speed

Meaningful change takes time to get right. We need a strategy of slow politics.

It is, of course, reshuffle week. To be honest, I don’t care much about who is up and who is down. Not only is this government heading in the wrong direction on almost every count, it's even stopped being interesting. Compassionate conservatism, as a strain of one nation conservatism, could at best have been something to engage with, at worse something vaguely watchable.  But that moment has gone. What is interesting is the spectacle of the reshuffle and what it says about the culture of modern politics.

The point of a reshuffle is to publicly demonstrate the quickening pace of government, to promote the new and the fast and punish to the old and the slow. Yes, the government now dresses slightly further to the right, but the reshuffle says more about the aura of delivery than it does about ideology. In fairness, David Cameron has held out longer than his predecessors – fending off demands to change the pack right through to mid-term. The impatient ultra-modernisers of New Labour could never manage to sit still for so long. For them, it was the fast and furious politics of an endless, restless, twitching fidget.  

The average tenure of a New Labour minister was 1.3 years. It's one of those remarkable facts that reminds me of the 1980s Paul Hardcastle hit "19", which highlighted the average age at which US troops died in Vietnam. How can anyone possibly achieve anything in the complex world of politics in 1.3 years? Remember, that’s an average.  Many posts were held for less and having Gordon Brown in the Chancellor's job for 10 years must have skewed the figures. There have been eight transport secretaries in 10 years, a turnover now mirrored in the civil service as three departments have had three different permanent secretaries in the last two years. Surely only football managers are scalped faster?

Of course, everything in politics is speeding up as everything in life speeds up. Short-termism defines the economy. In 1966, institutions held shares in FTSE 100 firms for an average of eight years, today the average is less than one. Our culture is dominated by fast food, always on communications, omnipresent media and the ever-quickening pace of the consumer treadmill as obsoleteness becomes not just technically built in but psychologically embedded. Besides, China never sleeps and never slows down. We either run faster or we lose.   

Politics has found it impossible to avoid the same fast fate. As politicians give up managing the economy in the interests of society, or saving the planet – they have to justify their existence by meddling in ever more areas of our life, at a faster and faster pace. A dangerous bout of displacement activity sees political leaders justify their existence any way they can – other than dealing with the causes of the problems we face. So within the tight time cycles of our first-past-the-post electoral system they go for the quick fix; the big IT project, another piece of legislation or another round of re-organization to fill the 24/7 media channels, look busy and impress the people. Speed begets speed, as the knowledge of your almost certain shift in one to two years means acting fast now or facing the chop. And worry not, as you’ll be in another post long before anyone notices how many novice mistakes you made.

Today, the abiding philosophy is that change can only be imposed quickly from above. It’s a mish mash of Soviet-style centralisation and target imposition alongside the heroic CEO of the free market as the drivers of change. What neither model can do is trust the people to change things for themselves by themselves. It is raw elitism over pluralism, the politics of the blueprint over politics as a shared journey, it refuses to allow people to learn best by learning from their mistakes as power is used over rather than with the people. It’s the short-term over the long.

What we need instead of the cult of speed is a slow politics, which seeks fundamental and deeply embedded change. Such a slow politics is based on the recognition that meaningful, sustainable and popular change takes time to get right, that a consensus needs to be negotiated to build popular agreement on the way forward and that decisions need to be shared if people are to feel ownership of change, work for it and pay for it. It is the politics of the tortoise, not the hare.

Raymond Williams, the brilliant Welsh cultural theorist and socialist, understood all this better than most. His book The Long Revolution was written because Williams saw the sheer complexity of any kind of socialistic change towards self-government, rather than the easy paternalistic forms of nationalisation.  Which all reinforces one of the golden rules of the left, namely that democracy may take more time than the target or the market – but it comes up with better solutions.  And more than anything else it is the planet that needs us and our politicians to slow down.

The lesson of history, whether Bolshevik or Blairite, is that you cannot short cut history. If you try, then disaster looms. It's not just reforms that take time but truly hegemonic transformational change is a slow process too. It took ten years for the welfare state to emerge from the 1930s crash. The new right gestated for three decades before it took power.  My favourite example is the Swedish social democrats, who took power in the 1930s and steadily, surely, and slowly built a rather good society that didn’t reach its peak until over half a century later. 

We need a different theory of change, one that matches principle with patience, the purpose of which is to head in the right direction and find as many fellow travellers as possible to share the journey with. A switch to proportional representation would help, then a long-term progressive consensus could be secured. Ironically, the perpetual failure of one-party-fast-politics is delivering just such hung parliaments. Meanwhile, this week's reshuffle will change almost nothing. 

More film references to end with. Politics is not akin to Keanu Reeves on a bus that will explode if it slows down, it is more akin to Walkabout and a process of self-discovery through tough terrain with others.  And then there is the brilliant line in the otherwise rather average film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: "It will all be okay in the end, and if it's not okay it's not the end". With that I leave you for this week – sorry, I’ve got to rush.

Neal Lawson's column appears every Thursday on The Staggers.

Short-termism defines the economy and politics. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder