Beyond argument: taking back ‘The Agenda’
British politics is framed and guided by an “Agenda”. We will frequently observe reference to the term whenever we attempt to find out what is going on in our political system, catch up on the ‘news’ or access our political information from conventional media sources, whether newspapers, journals or broadcast. The public may appear to participate in political debate, albeit at some distance from the major decisions; but there is no doubt that the public does not set the Agenda. The “Agenda” is set for us; we dip into a political dialogue the terms of which have already been fixed by an established political and communications order.
Over time the public has come to take this “Agenda” and its recondite creation for granted; the influence of the BBC, for example, has encouraged the broad public acceptance of the terms of political debate subtly being set for us through ninety years of persistently asserted explicatory impartiality; and as citizens we have in consequence too easily, and too often, set aside our natural skepticism, or failed to exercise our critical faculties, only casually to accept views or policies that may be inimical both to our interests or even to the public interest, in order to serve what we take to be a Common Good that, on closer inspection of our phoney-adversarial political system, we would otherwise observe is little more than a Political Cartel serving predominantly established, well connected Vested Interests.
There is even an ITV news/current affairs programme (fronted by Tom Bradby) that titles itself the “Agenda”; it discusses political issues that it presents pre-formed, and which the public has neither initiated nor had any real influence in framing. All of this remote, manipulative political-psychological activity can only have the purpose or effect of subliminally reconciling a politically passive public with otherwise irreconcilable policies or oppressive political dogma. I shall call this overarching, established political framework, that provides us with the pre-formed nature, tone and content of virtually all political debate that is, quite erroneously, offered to the British public as fully-fledged participatory democracy; the “Official Agenda”.
Westminster is central to setting the “Official Agenda” because Parliament provides the only credible assurance the Official Agenda can offer that it possesses the confidence of the wider public it purports to serve, or any claim that the Official Agenda represents the public interest. The power of other formidable institutions that also influence the Official Agenda is parasitic upon the democratic authority of Westminster and its elected politicians.
The mainstream print and broadcast media may also claim authority in setting the Official Agenda either through the reach of their circulations (print), or their approved regulatory access to the spectrum (typically broadcasters, led by the BBC). Other powerful, mainly corporate institutions exercise their influence on the Official Agenda through less direct or open means than either the public pronouncements of media or politicians, and are therefore more insidious in their effects. The methods these institutions use include, but are not restricted to, the lobbying of politicians (or parties) at Westminster, operating a revolving door of career patronage between Westminster and the corporate world, the use of economic or financial power; or the application of extensive, professional, Public Relations machinery, which may in turn be indirect and insidious: hence the disproportionate influence of the banking sector and the City on the Official Agenda.
At the same time the Official Agenda is slowly relying less on politicians or media to influence the public, principally because it is fairly obvious even to politicians and media that neither agency has been able to sustain public trust in the face of recent, persistent, obvious and damaging failures. We are thus now frequently persuaded to follow orthodox, conventional opinion on political policy, not through the direct appeal of politicians (with whom we may not agree), or the editorialising of the media (which we may believe are biased), but by the routine appeal to the support of “expert opinion”: commentators, critics, analysts, to whom both media and politicians frequently resort. These experts typically represent a wide variety of ‘Think-Tanks’, ‘Research Organisations’, ‘Industry Specialists’ that we, the public, know nothing about (and which may be funded by Vested Interests), but we are invited to believe are the only people who understand “the facts”; experts who are scrupulously “impartial”, and of course experts who are never wrong. Their credentials are rarely debated. It has become commonplace for politicians to attempt to de-politicise highly political issues by quoting so-called independent experts, whose assertions are not themselves challenged, thoroughly analysed or de-constructed in detail; but whose conclusions are invariably in harmony with the Official Agenda. We rarely hear from a dissenting “expert” whose thinking is not in harmony with the Official Agenda, but their absence from the debate only serves to feed the general impression supplied, the implicit acknowledgement that there are no dissenters among ‘real’ experts; dissent from the Official Agenda is thus rendered absurd. Dissent is the prerogative of cranks.
Everything debated publicly and widely disseminated in British politics is framed within terms and contexts established and guided by the Official Agenda. There is therefore no alternative narrative to the Official Agenda. It should be noted however that the Official Agenda relies on the conduct of political debate being first established, then expressed, reported and disseminated through a very narrow range of interconnected interests: Westminster, politicians, the mainstream print and broadcast media, or skilled public relations through a wide variety of outlets.
The defence may be offered that while the Official Agenda may be largely pre-packaged, it nevertheless offers alternative solutions; there is a political choice. The choice offered by the Official Agenda however, you will invariably and inevitably find will turn out to be singular; it is Hobson’s Choice. The Official Agenda simplifies and bifurcates debate into two simple options: the preferred and ‘sensible’ option, and the ‘cranks’ option: thus Government and political parties (whether Conservative, Labour or Coalition), media, the City, and other major institutions coalesce around a stock, consensus, orthodox conventional wisdom, typically a hard-line, impermeable neo-liberal economic (or neo-conservative political) ideology, which is presented in very simple terms as responsible, common-sense and obviously representative of virtue, and as the only honest representation of real and permanent human values: an exemplar and a consensus. This consensus claims to be tough-minded, but it typically prefers the anodyne and the anecdotal to thorough evidence, rigorous analysis, hard facts or a candid exposition of recent political history, as it must do if it is to avoid controversy or quickly unravel. It is the principal purpose of the Official Agenda therefore to compare the ‘consensus’ in contrast with a single and alarmingly dysfunctional alternative (there is no complexity, no multiple options); loopy sentiment and irresponsibility is the supposed foundation of any challenge to the consensus. A mere distortion is manufactured in opposition to conventional wisdom, a “straw-man” argument that is set-up only to be struck-down. It is not sufficient that this alternative possesses flaws; it is presented as being obviously irrational and irresponsible. The conclusion is obvious; there is no alternative.
Let us examine one example of what the effects of the operation of the Official Agenda actually means. The rescued banks have not only had their losses underwritten by the taxpayer, but were granted an open-ended guarantee of central bank support, effectively no matter what they do (the ‘too big to fail’ [TBTF] escape clause that Mark Carney said in June 2014 that the Bank of England was “seeking” to end; seven years after the Crash); RBS shares currently held by the state will be returned to the private sector at a low-point (at a loss to the state, but with all the future upside reserved for the private sector); while the Vickers Report’s regulatory regime, designed to control bank excesses, was amended to meet the objections of the banks that had failed the country, before implementation and in spite of Vickers himself warning that the Report should only be implemented in its entirety, or not at all. The banks have in consequence of all these confused and contradictory policies, effectively come out of the Credit Crunch more powerfully placed than they were before the crash, but little chastened: they have successfully passed their losses on to the public sector, survived almost unscathed the consequences of their own folly, effectively continued to consolidate their reach and range of influence, and now have almost succeeded in dominating the whole economy; while they have largely avoided material restrictions on their continued freedom to take whatever risks they choose. According to the Official Agenda this is a triumph of good government.
The sobering context to illustrate the scale of the problems we have not been prepared to face is found in comparison with the US: in 2010 the assets of only six major banks was equivalent to 60% of US GDP (Johnson & Kwak; ’13 Bankers’): a situation bad enough to concern wise Americans who may at least be reassured that however flawed the banking system, their country is protected by the scale of the greatest economy in the world. In the UK however, RBS total assets in 2008 were alone over 100% of UK GDP; in 2014 they were still circa 60% of UK GDP, accounted by a single bank; and there are a number of other very large UK banks operating on an international scale. The UK compared to the US however, has a relatively small economy that is effectively now the prisoner of a financial behemoth of a financial sector that it does not regulate adequately, manage or control. The elephant has squashed the room.
This is allowed to happen because the Official Agenda asserts that the financial sector, the City, is effectively the principal driving force of the UK economy; and the City’s success effectively funds government expenditure and provides Britain with the standard of living it enjoys (or for the many who are overlooked, the standard of living they ‘survive’). Any attempt to challenge the power of the City and the Banks is met by arguments that “over” regulating them (which appears to mean all attempts to introduce any effective regulation or control at all) would destroy business confidence, lead the banks to move their key activities abroad and ruin the UK economy.
Why do I say this? The banks already protest at the level of fines, the constant criticism (as if it was undeserved), while at least one major bank has been reported to be considering moving its headquarters out of London. At the same time the banking sector apologists argue that the more we attempt to make a bank safe “the less likely it is to take risk …” (Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph 12th June); as if what we really require in the UK, even after the catastrophic Crash, is risk-taking banks: but this is how the Official Agenda works; the preposterous becomes conventional.
The Official Agenda account survives in spite of the fact that the distortions caused by the City, and the unbalanced nature of the British economy are well understood to require radical reform. The Official Agenda survives in spite of the fact that it is not the banks but the taxpayer (represented by the Bank of England as ‘lender of last resort’) who carries all the risks of the TBTF regime. The real criticism, the real indictment of the way the Official Agenda has ridden rough-shod over wisdom or basic judgement, however is found in the fact that eight years after the Credit Crunch Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, in his Mansionhouse speech (10th June) was reduced to threatening (some might think not before time) that serious actions would at last follow the appalling activities within the sector that have continued long after the Crash, and some three years after the new tripartite semi-Vickers regulatory regime was implemented to change the banking culture. After £3Bn of FCA fines for failures in the financial sector have so obviously failed to stop persistent misconduct, the Governor was nevertheless prompted to claim, somewhat prematurely we may surmise, that: “The Age of Irresponsibility is over”.
For the avoidance of doubt, the age of irresponsibility should have been over long before 2007, and after that catastrophe it should certainly not have been allowed to fester until 2015. What can be said of a Coalition Government (which included the current Conservative Prime Minister and Chancellor) which presided 2010-15 over a banking sector that the Governor has now described in the following terms?:
“The Bank of England’s general approach [to regulation] was consistent with the attitude of FICC markets, which historically relied heavily on informal codes and understandings. That informality was well suited to an earlier age. But as markets innovated and grew, it proved wanting.
Most troubling have been the numerous incidents of misconduct that exploited such informality, undercutting public trust and threatening systemic stability.
This has had direct economic consequences. Mistrust between market participants has raised borrowing costs and reduced credit availability. Falling confidence in market resilience has meant companies have held back productive investments. And uncertainty has meant people have hesitated to move job or home. These effects are not trivial, and they have reduced the dynamism of our economy in the post-crisis years.
Widespread mistrust has also had deeper, indirect costs. Markets are not ends in themselves, but powerful means for prosperity and security for all. As such they need to retain the consent of society – a social licence – to be allowed to operate, innovate and grow. Repeated episodes of misconduct have called that social licence into question.
We have all been let down by these developments. And we all share responsibility for fixing them”.
The Governor went on to say that: “common standards, cast in clear language” were now required; this would be laughable if such an expression of need for something so basic that has failed to be provided was not already teetering on the edge of utter intolerability. The fact is, such “standards” are not difficult to assert. What has been lacking is the will to implement them, and that is an indictment of the whole culture, not just of banking, or the City, or of regulators, but of government and Westminster. Furthermore, the regulatory “informality” to which Carney refers was quite obviously never well-suited to the post-Big Bang era (1986), when the respected and stable banking culture, especially that which had been built in Scotland, was callously and systematically destroyed. The failings of the new orthodoxy were never addressed by the Official Agenda, in spite of the fact that it did not require hindsight to perceive the folly. Thirty years of inappropriate “informality” is not an oversight, but at best a form of regulatory and legislative cowardice: I am being kind for the failures have been gross. Similarly, the “social licence’” has not been questioned, it has been torn up by the banks without raising a moment’s dissent in Westminster.
Similar observations could be made about the shallow, duplicitous nature of the Official Agenda when it is called-up to defend or obfuscate inconsistent, unedifying, failed Government policies across the spectrum. For example, over “austerity”, where the Government’s front-bench backwoodsmen now proudly display their economic illiteracy as a badge of neo-liberal honour; or on “immigration” where the current anti-immigration stance is inconsistent with a UK economic policy for ‘growth’ that relies so heavily on immigration-driven population growth, which in turn is used by the Government to consolidate a low wage environment which exploits the opportunities for zero-hour contracts. The major flaw cannot be hidden however, as the policy inevitably produces the critical economic tell-tale that goes with such shoddy policy manipulation; endemic, low UK productivity: a very British disease.
Foreign policy also provides numerous examples of Official Agenda distortion: our Libyan adventures first promoted policies that cultivated the Gaddafi regime, then actively sought regime change. Bad judgement and erratic politics fed irresponsible interventions to change the regime, which has now produced the worst of all possible outcomes: Libya is a failed state and a power vacuum that has managed to destabilise the whole Mediterranean coastline. We are all paying the price of British Government folly, but an account of the deplorable mess that Britain did so much to induce will not be found in the British Foreign Policy Official Agenda; save only quietly to sacrifice the Foreign Secretary, William Hague who vigorously prosecuted regime change in Libya, and celebrated the achievement: presumably a sacrifice made by the Conservatives to avoid culpability falling on the Eden-esque figure of David Cameron. Britain’s profoundly failed foreign policy agenda in this sphere has not wavered or changed, no matter the scale of the catastrophe or defeat.
You may have your own example of the Official Agenda’s failings. There is virtually no area of government that would not provide similar evidence of a cynical, counter-rational, Official Agenda that was solely constructed to present systematic government policy failure as informed wisdom.
It is noteworthy that social media does not follow this mainstream ‘Official Agenda’, often in subject matter, invariably in content, even if a social media dialogue is sparked by an ‘Official Agenda’ issue or event. Social media allows, indeed asserts an agenda that is set principally, if not wholly, by the large number of participants communicating through direct interaction with websites, or through such media as Facebook or Twitter: in short, the public sets the agenda. I shall term this public communication space provided by social media, the “Public Agenda”; not because it is fully representative of the public, but rather because it is the only genuine space in which public opinion may not only be heard, but initiates for itself the terms of debate. It is also the only substantive alternative to the Official Agenda.
The Public Agenda undermines the credibility of the Official Agenda. The current discomfort of the British political system through the sudden, radical changes to the nature of Scottish politics over the last year, and the required terms of debate about the future of a quasi-federal Britain, is a function of the inability of mainstream British politics to communicate with the public openly, or even with itself outside the framework of an Official Agenda that does not recognise any terms of debate that it does not first (and exclusively) set.
The Public Agenda has liberated the public in Scotland; two years of referendum debate opened politics to a new dynamic of public political engagement and participation; largely through alternative media, websites and social media. It was empowering, and through both the referendum and the 2015 General Election, the Scottish people discovered that they could take control of the political agenda, and both the direction and pace of political change. In Scotland it is now the public, not the politicians who are in charge of the Agenda: for only a political Agenda set by the public, and not by politicians, parties or media could produce a ‘No’ vote in the referendum in September, only for the same public, systematically and ruthlessly, all but destroy everything ‘above ground’ in all three Unionist parties in Scotland (Better Together), in the General Election the following May. The Scottish people have taken the political lead for themselves (perhaps from the point they realised neither David Cameron nor Better Together were going to offer the second referendum question the Scottish electorate clearly desired and expected) in a new climate of change and reform. This would not have been possible without social media, and it is striking that successful politics in Scotland over the last two-three years is less a function of the (apparent) leadership of the SNP, than the swift adaptive capacity of the SNP to follow the lead provided by the public mood, and to use social media adroitly to serve the public demand. The SNP leads cleverly, but only by following the lead provided by the Scottish people.
Meanwhile, we should remain vigilantly aware that the Official Agenda is not there to explore the critical issues of the day, but to ensure that they are not aired. The Official Agenda is intended to close debate, not open it; its purpose is not to inform, but misinform. The Official Agenda is not the servant of reason, but its enemy. The Official Agenda is there not to celebrate democracy, but to defeat it.
The public response should not be to rise to the faux-challenge presented by the Official Agenda, but to override or discard it altogether; in order to establish political aspirations and debate through the creation and maintenance of a Public Agenda set by the Scottish people. This is hard, most of all to sustain over time; but it is the price of democracy in the 21st century.