1997 and 2020: what they meant and what lies ahead
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
I was asked on the BBC Analysis programme this month to reflect on whether 1997 represented a turning point in British politics, and what the long-term meaning of 2020 might prove to be. The programme, which can be heard here, also looked at other big turning points in British politics – in 1945, 1979 and 2010, and asked whether 2020 would be as, or more, momentous. These were some of the points I made (though there was only time for a few of them on the programme).
I was first asked to explain whether Blair’s election in 1997 represented a genuine turning point. The year certainly wasn’t a profound crisis like a war or depression. The country was prosperous and calm. But there was a hunger for change and a sense that things had gone badly wrong with public services, inequality and social division. A big reset was needed, essentially a shift towards more collectivism. That meant big additional investment in public services – recognising that they are not just a drain on the economy (as had been Thatcherite orthodoxy) but were also a vital support for it. It meant much more attention to what had been a big rise in inequality during the 1980s, helping both the working poor (through the minimum wage and tax credits) and addressing social exclusion (from rough sleeping to the neglect of so many housing estates). It meant devolution and other constitutional reforms that many thought long overdue. It meant much more attention to questions of equality – gender, race, gay rights, disability – all of which had been anathema to Margaret Thatcher. And it meant a shift to more green policies, a more globalist agenda (including the creation of DfID) and much more engagement with the EU. That all added up to quite an ambitious agenda.
But it was far from being a revolution. Significant parts of the Thatcher legacy were kept. These included a relatively laissez-faire approach to the economy, with financial deregulation left intact (which, the other side of 2007/8 looks a lot less smart). The privatisations were also left in place (though, again, this looks a lot more contestable now).
Blair was very much a centrist, and was skilled at winning over the main power centres of the British establishment, not least Rupert Murdoch and the City of London. Keeping some of the Conservative policies intact was important both substantively and presentationally, since Blair was keen to be seen as a pragmatist, interested in evidence and what works, in contrast to the very ideological style of government of the 1980s, which often began with the answer (more markets) and then looked for a question to apply it to.
In retrospect, it’s striking how much of the Blair programme was retained after 2010. There were no moves to dismantle policies like the minimum wage; devolution had a momentum of its own which made it inconceivable that it could be reversed. David Cameron knew that he had to be seen to engage with the big cultural shifts and social movements of the last half century – feminism, changing patterns of race, green movements, gay rights - if his party was to be credible, even though many of his MPs and media backers hated these movements.
Cameron and his team were also curious to engage with people – like me – who had been involved in the previous transition, and they were agile enough to pick up a bunch of ideas that had been offered to Blair and Brown but not taken up. These included behavioural economics and nudges; open data; an explicit commitment to happiness and wellbeing; a bigger role for civil society; social investment; and the creation of national citizens service).
However, just as Blair’s period in office ended up tarnished by the Iraq debacle, Cameron’s was overshadowed by austerity and Brexit neither of which were remotely in his mind when he was first elected to lead his party. Such is political fate.
So what of 2020? It’s too soon to make definitive judgements about whether the COVID crisis will turn out to prompt a profound change of direction rather than a one-off shock. But I made three main arguments:
First, that the crisis has brought a further shift in the Overton window, in a broadly collectivist direction. Many policies that were unthinkable no longer are. Government is deeply involved in providing incomes. Spending and taxes are bound to go up. FDR rather than Ronald Reagan is now the benchmark for what happens next, and options such as minimum income guarantees and jobs guarantees are now on the agenda and will be for some time to come. I also argued that new taxes were bound to come onto the agenda given the scale of extra public spending – including taxes on land, wealth and property (which have seen extraordinary windfall gains) on the one hand, and digital industries on the other.
Second, many of the big tasks of next ten years are no longer contested. These include: developing a distinctive post-Brexit national economic strategy; improving equality and levelling up across the country and for large groups who had faced stagnant income even before the crisis; cutting carbon emissions; and sorting out care for the elderly. These big tasks all involve a big role for the state. So the important arguments will not be so much about diagnosis as about prescription, and we will see fiercer competition between the parties as to which are credible in their answers.
Third, the crisis has shown that the UK state is no longer a front-runner in terms of capabilities. Something similar often happened in the past in wars, when, suddenly, nations discovered that their armed forces had fallen behind others. The disastrous handling of the COVID crisis has shown some of the technical weaknesses of the UK state compared to the best of east Asia and other parts of Europe. I suspect few UK politicians or journalists had any feeling for this before 2020.
So far, however it is unclear whether any party has a serious programme for making the government better suited to the tasks ahead. Michael Gove’s recent speech was interesting for acknowledging the issues, and I welcome that the government is now back on board with many of the public reform ideas that became commonplace in the 2000s – open data, use of evidence, systematic support for innovation and risk. But, as with the comments of Dominic Cummings, there is a striking gap between the grand rhetoric on government reform and the lack not only of any detail but even of any clear ideas that might lead to those details. All that we have seen so far is a very traditional centralisation of power in the hands of a small clique in No 10: not exactly an imaginative revolution.
Nor have we yet seen any serious engagement with the obvious lessons of the crisis: the poor handling of data and intelligence on which I have written elsewhere; the lack of even basic arrangements for coordinating the multiple tiers of government; the glaringly low calibre of some ministers.
Here one of the other oddities for me is the lack of interest in digital technology. Gove’s speech, like so many others, has the obligatory references to AI and data, but that is pretty much it. Although we use Google, Facebook and Amazon everyday – no political party has yet appreciated just how different government could be if it really made the most of data and collective intelligence in all its forms (the topic of my Cambridge Bennett Lecture a few months ago)- this is a big contrast with countries like Taiwan and South Korea. So while it’s good that No 10 briefed the media a few days ago that it is now setting up a data team it’s much less good that they appear to be unaware of what was learned by similar teams, such as Etalab in France.
Here we see an unfortunate combination of parochialism and an odd shift in our politics which has become surprisingly elderly in tone and vision. May, Corbyn, Johnson and Starmer are significantly older than Blair and Cameron were at similar points in their careers (and much older than leaders in some of the best performing countries, like New Zealand and Finland). We badly need a bit of rejuvenation – both in chronological terms and also in mindsets.
For Keir Starmer, who has made a remarkably good start as opposition leader, the big challenge will be to develop a distinctive account of how the British state could be transformed to make it better prepared for the big tasks of the next decade. His arrival has already greatly increased the likelihood that Boris Johnson will be replaced before the next election. Meanwhile for Johnson the big challenge is to find a No 2 who really is interested in how the machinery works, not just talking about it (Gove and Cummings are essentially writer/observers rather than having much evident capability in management or implementation).
It’s too soon to judge whether 2020 really will be a turning point. If it does represent a shift in a collectivist direction – as the mid-1990s were - then the parties of the left should be better placed to capitalise on it. But there is no god-given law which guarantees that will happen. Instead British politics looks set to be surprisingly open and competitive in the next few years.