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Peter Burnham

(Draft summary of paper, please do not quote without permission)


During the 1970s and the 1980s a number of radical accounts were developed which sought to explain the apparent ‘revolution’ in state policy associated with the demise of social democracy and the rise of Conservative governments. Numerous explanatory dichotomies (often cross-cutting and overlapping) were introduced such as the movement from ‘keynesianism to monetarism’; from ‘fordism to post-fordism’; from ‘collectivist postwar consensus to neoliberalism’ and from ‘national to international systems of capitalism’. Alongside such characterisations there appeared other more idiosyncratic attempts to capture the novelty of political and economic change focusing on ‘the free economy and the strong state’ and the influence of personality in terms of theories of ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganism’ (Clarke, 1988; Kavanagh, 1990; Bonefeld, 1993; Gamble, 1994).

From the vantage point of the late 1990s many of these dichotomies and characterisations look rather tired and their utility questionable. Is it for instance profitable to ask whether the Major administration followed the precepts of keynesianism or monetarism? Or whether the current Blair government is ‘neoliberal’ or in the tradition of the postwar consensus? Given the incoherence of economic doctrine, the uncertain relationship between economic theory and political practice and the unwillingness of major political parties to present current policy in these terms, such exercises are of limited analytical value. Nevertheless these characterisations persist and continue to dominate much academic discussion since there are very few attempts to theorise state strategies in the 1990s.

This paper aims therefore to contribute to the development of radical explanations of how the British state has sought to restructure political and economic relations in Britain in the 1990s. In so doing it will introduce the notion of the politics of depoliticisation. The central argument is that during the 1990s the Major and Blair governments have fused aspects of traditional economic management (drawing in particular on some of the themes underlying Britain’s commitment to the classical gold standard) with new initiatives to create a powerful tool of governing organised on the basis of the principle of depoliticisation. In essence, depoliticisation as a governing strategy is the process of placing at one remove the political character of decision making. State managers retain, in many instances, arms-length control over crucial economic and social processes whilst simultaneously benefiting from the distancing effects of depoliticisation. As a form of politics it seeks to change market expectations regarding the effectiveness and credibility of policy making in addition to shielding the government from the consequences of unpopular policies. Moreover it is a process cloaked in the language of inclusiveness, democratisation and empowerment. It is, I will suggest, a potent form of ideological mobilisation which reflects and capitalises on the rejigging of domestic bureaucratic practices and changes in the wider international political economy (particularly those involving the deregulation of financial markets).

The introduction will lay bare some of the theoretical assumptions which underpin the argument. The second and main part of the paper will explore in detail how ‘politicised’ forms of economic management gave way in the late 1980s to ‘new’ thinking on the relationship between expectations and inflation control. The idea of adopting ‘credible rules’ has, since 1990, formed the centrepiece of the British state’s economic programme and underwrites the politics of depoliticisation. So far this technocratic form of governance is most evident in three main policy trends: i/ the reordering or reassignment of tasks from the party in office, ii/ increased accountability, transparency and external validation of policy, iii/ acceptance of binding rules rather than discretion particularly in the area of monetary policy. Finally, the paper will consider how this approach can help illuminate the restructuring of the public sector in Britain and it will point to some of the contradictions of depoliticisation as a governing strategy. Since the discussion of NPM is likely to be of most interest to conference participants, it is reproduced below.

Conclusion: new public management and the contradictions of the politics of depoliticisation

In the guise of ‘technical efficiency’ the British state in the 1990s has sought to restructure political and economic relations in order to enhance its managerial autonomy, maintain international standing and breakdown the resistance of powerful groups of employers and workers. This latter point is particularly important when considering the restructuring of the public sector in the 1990s and the reforms often labelled, ‘new public management’ (NPM).

Popular perceptions of the restructuring of the public sector are often couched in terms of ‘rolling back the state’. In this view the process of public sector reform and privatisation involves a simple transfer of services and assets from public to private hands. Such characterisations fail to grasp the complexity of the current constitution of the public sector and fail to accurately identify the political logic behind restructuring. Fairbrother (1998, p. 1), as noted above, offers a more sophisticated starting point indicating that the public sector is now best defined, as ‘a permeable set of relations, where there is a mix of responsibility between public sector enterprises and the private sector for the provision of public sector functions’. This recognition of the complexity of current arrangements gives rise to a view of public service regulation involving, as Cope and Goodship (1999, p. 5) point out, ‘both "regulation inside government" and "regulation outside government", with regulatory agencies (firmly located within the public sector) shaping the activities of those agencies delivering public services (located within both the public and private sector, such as central government departments, executive agencies, quangos, local authorities, private contractors and voluntary bodies)’. In this context NPM as a set of formalised procedures, involves, ‘simultaneous moves to centralise and decentralise the management of public services’ (Cope and Goodship, 1999, p. 6). It centralises policy making in the hands of the core executive (Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and Treasury) whilst decentralising the delivery of policy to a number of agencies which operate within limits set by the centre. Although this can be, and often is, dressed up by Ministers in terms of furthering accountability and empowering users, Cope and Goodship’s research indicates that public service regulation is primarily a ‘control mechanism’ enhancing central government management whilst off-loading difficult issues of provision to local agencies. A useful analogy they borrow from Osborne and Gaebler (1992) is that NPM separates ‘steering from rowing’ (steering being the proper activity of the central government). In short, ‘central steering agencies (such as central government departments) increasingly, both directly and indirectly, regulate local rowing agencies (such as executive agencies, local authorities and quangos) by setting policy goals for rowing agencies to achieve, fixing budgets within which rowing agencies must operate, awarding contracts (or quasi-contracts) to competing rowing agencies, appointing the "right" people to head up rowing agencies to do the "right thing", and establishing regulatory agencies (such as the Audit Commission) to monitor the performance of the rowing agencies’ (Cope and Goodship, 1999, p. 7: Clarke and Newman, 1997). It is hard to disagree with the conclusion reached by Cope and Goodship (1999, p. 7), that NPM is ‘all about managerial surveillance - the ability of steering agencies to monitor and direct rowing agencies more effectively, and within rowing agencies the ability of managers to control workers more effectively’. NPM in summary is designed to enhance central government control and reduce public expenditure. In this way the regulation of public services in the 1990s is perfectly consistent with the broader governing strategies outlined above in terms of the politics of depoliticisation.

As with all governing strategies however there are limits and contradictions inherent in the attempt to manage class relations. First, it is evident in particular from this brief discussion of new public management that although one important aim is to enhance government control, in practice it may reduce the significance of state managers. Cope and Goodship (1999, p. 11) note in this regard that not only does the establishment of regulatory agencies fragment governance but it is also possible (given the longer chain of command and the role of intermediaries) for regulators to be ‘captured’ (or partly captured) by the regulated. As Croft and Beresford (1998, p.191) point out in a different context, notions of ‘user involvement’ entail the ‘paradox of participation’ - ‘participatory initiatives can be a route to redistributing power, changing relationships and creating opportunities for influence: equally they can double as a means of keeping power from people and giving a false impression of its transfer’. Although state managers would, through depoliticisation, aim to achieve the latter outcome, arms length control may, in principle, result in the fragmentation of authority. Second, although a central aim of depoliticisation is to disengage the state publicly from the process of policymaking, the permanence of the state in the reproduction of accumulation always threatens to undermine this stance. As Clarke, following Marx, notes, ‘the state secures the general interest of capital in the first instance not by overriding the rule of the market, but by enforcing the rule of money and the law, which are the alienated forms through which the rule of the market is imposed not only on the working class, but on all particular capitals’ (1988, p. 124). The rule of the market however does not resolve the contradiction between the individual and social interests of particular capitals, ‘but gives rise to periodic crises which call for the substantive intervention of the state’ (ibid, p. 24). State intervention therefore is not due simply to ‘market failure’. Rather the state has a permanent presence in the reproduction of capitalist social relations, particularly in the core areas concerning the management of labour and money. The strategy of depoliticisation is thus liable to be undermined particularly in the wake of financial crisis and/or widespread industrial/civil unrest when the state is called upon to intervene publicly to secure the ‘illusory communal interest’.

Finally, the success of depoliticisation depends on the visibility and credibility of the rules state managers claim to follow. Governments have looked hard to find such rules following Britain’s withdrawal from the ERM in 1992. In the absence of a viable international regime they have opted for second-best solutions in the form of domestic restructuring, focusing in particular on operational independence of the central bank. However given the historically close relationship between the Bank, Treasury and government in Britain, it is unclear to what extent operational autonomy constitutes a credible rule. By contrast, the core states of Europe embracing full European Monetary Union are now bound by a series of clear, credible monetary rules which discourage expansionist policies and are costly (if not impossible in the eyes of the public) to change. Britain’s participation in this system is the logical next step for deepening the politics of depoliticisation.



ESRC Labour Studies Seminar Searies Back to Index