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19 September 2023

Technocrats and populists symbolise our anti-political age

Political vision has been hollowed out by “expert knowledge” and “the will of the people”.

By Adrian Pabst

After the revolution comes the restoration. First Boris Johnson’s complacent boosterism crashed and burned amid chaos and contradiction. Then Liz Truss’s libertarian rocket imploded upon contact with reality. One year on, a new consensus has restored the old orthodoxy, which had ruled for two decades prior to Brexit – Westminster’s managerial technocracy at the service of the City of London. 

Both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer propose variations on technocratic pragmatism that amount to little more than managing decline. Neither have so far offered a bold political vision or a transformative policy programme that might manage national renewal. Competence and caution override other factors – and undermine political courage and imagination. 

But technocrats are not alone in being bereft of ideas: populists of various stripes struggle to articulate a political position that amounts to much more than waging culture wars, which mask the economic insecurity experienced by millions of people. At most, right-wing populism proposes a form of state capitalism that offers limited protection from global economic shocks. But it leaves in place the dominant model of low-wage precarity and high-welfare dependency.

Increasingly, technocracy and populism are mirror images of each other. For technocrats, politics amounts to law and expert knowledge. For populists, politics is some supposed “will of the people” that trumps the sovereignty of parliament. Technocrats supplanting politics with law create a clash of individual rights or perceived entitlements that cannot be resolved through political reasoning. So disagreements are settled in court by an increasingly politicised judiciary. After the divisive Brexit referendum and narrow victory of 52-48, the Supreme Court was repeatedly asked to overturn the result, with far-reaching consequences for democracy.

But the populist alternative is no better. Once in power, populists tend to circumvent parliamentary and even constitutional arrangements in order to appeal directly to the masses – they use mob-rule tactics to get their way. Anyone who opposes gets branded an “enemy of the people”. Neither technocrats nor populists are interested in winning the political argument, and both end up shutting down democratic debate. Emptying political life of any substantive ideas has ushered in our anti-political age.

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At the hands of the technocrats and populists, politics has mutated from a contest between rival interests and ideologies to a PR spectacle. Major policy announcements are routinely leaked to the partisan press before being presented to parliament. MPs’ time to scrutinise proposed legislation is curtailed in favour of individual grandstanding or shouting matches between the two front benches. Our democracy slides into a politics devoid of conviction. Winston Churchill’s description of an age “of clutter and buzz, of gape and gloat” still holds.

Little wonder the public feels alienated from politics. What’s on offer is minimal, especially as compared with the scale of the task involved in rebuilding the country. With technocrats and populists putting people off voting or joining parties, abstention is no less dangerous to popular democracy and representative government than polarisation. At a time when the UK needs greater solidarity, a growing sense that “we’ve had enough of politicians” does not bode well for the hard choices ahead in dealing with economic insecurity and ecological disaster.

Neither populist revolution nor technocratic restoration will do. We need a richer sense of politics that transcends both failed ideologies and entrenched vested interests, and focuses on how to organise common life in society. Living together in pluralistic societies requires some sense of what can bind us together as holistic beings. That means rethinking politics as the pursuit of shared interests and values such as the dignity of labour, properly paid jobs, decent housing, safe neighbourhoods and pride in the places people call home. It’s time to leave behind the failed experiments of technocracy and populism.

[See also: Labour must escape the death grip of technocracy]

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