Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The New Post Modern Politics - Living in an Alternative Reality

Peter Osborne, who writes for The Spectator, gave the 2009 Sir Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture for the Centre for Policy Studies recently and its well worth reading (see here for a copy). In particular, there is a key idea which he explores which is worth repeating.

There is a new kind of politics which has emerged post Bush (41) and John Major which involves what might be termed a post-modern view of facts. Politicians and the chattering class has abandoned the idea that there is an independent reality “out there” which can be independently verified and assessed. The new political epistemology moves us from truths that can be proven and verified or falsified to narratives that can be constructed.

Lord Mandelson, the British cabinet Minister (for the third time) and ex EU Commissioner, speaks of the need to “create the truth” - of building a story that is compelling and enables the government to act. For him, narrative has the appearance of reality. The old dictum that “comment is free but facts are sacred” (C P Scott, editor at one time of The Guardian) is no longer the case, since in many cases (school standards, emission reporting, global warming, number unemployed) facts are “fitted” to the narrative. Even such simple things as the tracking of temperature from monitoring stations across the world are “adjusted” to fit the narrative of climate change.

What happens when this occurs is that Government lives in a parallel universe from those of us who still think that there is an independent reality out there that can be verified and that we seek to understand through science. They pursue policies – whether about climate change or schools, health care or grizzly bears – which are based on their own narratives and their own “fitted” data.

Barrack Obama is looking like a master of this skill. His “green economy” and the creation of millions of new jobs is an example of this. As experience elsewhere has shown – see my blog post on Spain below – each green job usually leads to the loss of between 3 and 4 jobs elsewhere in the economy and also increases either government expenditure or debt and leads to higher energy costs and more energy poverty. But the narrative sounds good and, there is no doubt, Obama believes it. There will be an army of public servants committed to demonstrating that the narrative is true, whatever it takes it terms of manipulation of data.

Margaret Thatcher made the point in her Sir Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture some years ago that “integrity lies in the conviction that it is only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning”. With the new truth’s based on post-modern narratives, ordinary citizens are now doing the work of public servants in ferreting out the truth and making clear what, as far as they can tell, the facts are. For me, this means a genuine focus on a few things that matter and the exploration of these “as if” my task as a writer was the pursuit of truth. It is what used to be the guiding principle of the public service which, in this new age, appears to lose its way in an attempt to appease the current master as opposed to serving the public. While this view of the public service is not true for all (and there are notable exceptions to this view), it is true often enough to be a cause for concern.

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