The Limits of Modernisation: Blair, Cameron and Salmond


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, May 12th 2012

‘Modernisation’ is one of the defining words of our time, along with ‘legacy’ and ‘journey’. It is a word used by Tony Blair, David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

It is an in-word for those who feel they shape and define the age, change and the world. It has had an interesting trajectory; it was once bright, shiny, confident, swaggering with confidence, impatient with opposition, and believing the future was theirs for shaping.

It became associated with Tony Blair and New Labour; modernisation was about ‘the project’ and ‘the narrative’; it was against ‘old Labour’, dinosaurs, vested interests, and ‘the forces of conservatism’.

Modernisation was in Blair’s view about optimism and embracing globalisation as a force of liberation. This was ‘an unstoppable force’ and one for which he had no time for opposition, putting it to the 2005 Labour conference that people who wanted ‘to stop and debate globalisation’ might as well ‘debate whether autumn should follow summer’: an elemental view of the change sweeping the globe.

New Labour’s reactionary politics might be obvious to most now, but it did for a period pre and post-1997 open up new questions. There was an awareness that Labour had to change and understand aspiration, transform public services, look at the role of civil society, and challenge the conservatism of trade unions.

Modernisation slowly became stuck in a time warp, of Labour leadership distrust and detesting of the traditions of ‘the Labour movement’ and trade unions. Thus, from an early point, Labour modernisers would rail against the ‘producer interests’ of unions and public sector workers, but as they marketised and outsourced services, not one of the New Labour generation ever acknowledged the threat of ‘corporate interests’, from the likes of KPMG, PwC and McKinsey, the new insiders of the Blairite world.

New Labour’s modernisation became a caricature of anything progressive. Instead, it degenerated into an adoration of big business, accountancy and consultancy firms.

The track record on this is conclusive: PFI/PPP, foundation hospitals, academy schools, and tuition fees. The entire logic of the Cameron administration on the public sector, and English NHS reform, free schools and the whole ‘choice agenda’ derives from Blairism.

The electoral success of New Labour and its presiding triumphantly over the political agenda, both fascinated opponents and in particular David Cameron and Alex Salmond, and gave them a model to emulate and challenge.

Cameron’s fixation with Blair and New Labour is well documented, but Alex Salmond’s and the SNP is less examined. In Salmond’s first stint as SNP leader he repositioned the party unequivocally with a ‘social democratic identity’. Then when the party ran its ‘A Penny for Scotland’ campaign in the first Scottish Parliament election, and was outmanoeuvred by Labour, it adopted a less explicitly tax and spend stance.

Modernisation for the SNP has meant the same ‘Big Tent’ politics and way of seeing the world, and of attempting to claim that mantle from Scottish Labour. They could not be the cheerleaders of modernisation in George Kerevan’s words because of its unholy alliance of ‘conservative Scottish lawyers plus assorted ex-local government leaders linked to the quangocracy’.

The case for independence became focused on economic and business grounds and tax competition. This is where the ‘arc of prosperity’ vision pre-crash emerged, joining together Nordic social democracy with the Irish vision of lowering business taxes.

More widely the way public services are seen has become dominated by the Crawford Beveridge-Richard Kerley worldview of managerialism, challenging ‘entitlement culture’ and charging for services. Social justice has become less and less explicit.

Modernisation may once have had its attractions but it has increasingly become the ethos of the new conservatism: of the world as it is seen from the top floors of the Shard, the City of London and corporate organisations.

SNP modernisation follows the same broad mix as New Labour: a language of progressivism, social democratic populism to keep the base happy and centre-left commentators, along with free market economics. And like New Labour there has been an embrace of ‘Big Beast’ men, the Murdochs, Trumps and Goodwins of our day.

This has taken us as academic Ben Jackson explores in a challenging piece in ‘Renewal’ journal on Alex Salmond as a moderniser to the current situation where the SNP presents independence as more continuity than change involving maintaining monetary union with the rest of the UK and retaining the Bank of England as Scotland’s lender of last resort.

Fascinatingly, Salmond (born 1954) is of the same generation as Tony Blair (1953) and Gordon Brown (1951), the three most successful post-Thatcherite politicians of their generation, and all born in Scotland. And yet they have all been defined by the retreats of the left in the 1980s, and the failed prospectus of modernisation.

Modernisation is a dead-end for progressives and the centre-left. It is not as the late Philip Gould, architect of New Labour, claimed about the belief that ‘every voice had an equal worth, with an equal right to be heard’. Modernisation is about the exact opposite to that, in an almost Animal Farm like manner. It has become about a narrow prism of the voices of the powerful, the quasi-businesses of today’s global giants and their bloviator apologists in public life.

I once many years ago bought into the moderniser view of the world but it hasn’t delivered instead regressing into reactionary ideas. Its jargon of ‘evidence based policy’ and ‘what matters is what works’ has disguised its ideological straightjacket, and that it hasn’t created the bright new dawn it promised.

Modernisation was characterised by Tony Blair’s panglossian hope and optimism, but it has produced anxiety, doubt, insecurity and pessimism, of change being ‘done’ to us by powerful economic forces. It is one voters across the developed world increasingly don’t buy into, and when they have a say, as in France and Greece, reject.

Its dominance has lasted so long because the political elites have bought into it and because of the absence of a credible alternative. Yet that is beginning to change as the paucity of the moderniser’s world becomes apparent. The challenge is to articulate a post-modernised politics without falling into the trap of traditionalists and old vested interests.

This is a terrain as yet unclaimed in Scotland. Self-government and the appeal of the SNP has had a distinct moral dimension based on a revulsion at some of the actions of the British state and a sense we can do things better. Time for a new Scots communitarianism perhaps?

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –