Last Thursday, Maria Miller announced her intention to boycott The British Open, on the grounds that it was being held in an all-male golf club. Following this, David Cameron also announced his intention to avoid the tournament, and was reported to be highly sympathetic towards his culture secretary’s decision. Next to join the foray was Nick Clegg, who expressed ‘dismay’ and ‘incredible surprise’ at the (apparently new) fact of male-only sports clubs. Harriet Harman, shadow culture secretary, pushed the whole affair considerably further by demanding a ban on such institutions. And on the bandwagon rolled – borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Because this phenomenon is not new; quite the contrary. Margaret Thatcher’s emphasis on family values and traditional relationships were succeeded by John Major’s back-to-basics conservatism; we had some brief respite with Tony Blair, who seemed less enthusiastic about social engineering than his predecessors, but that changed with Gordon Brown’s irrepressible enthusiasm for ‘British values‘. Since the middle of the 20th century, political leaders have found it in their interests to make value-judgements about virtually all areas of individuals’ lives, frequently without translating any of these directives into policy. Of course, there are many ways in which this grandstanding can work to their advantage (which is in itself problematic). But the crux of the matter is that politicians, and most significantly prime ministers, have increasingly taken it upon themselves to issue ethical judgements about issues which have nothing, or almost nothing, to do with affairs of the State.
There are a number of reasons to see this as problematic. The first is, intuitively, that they lack any sort of mandate for acting in this way. Few people vote for politicians because they’d like to hear more about how dreadful their own fizzy drink habit is, or how much more they ought to be enjoying some sports competition or other. It’s true that manifestos often express a commitment to various abstract principles, but the assumption is that these values will be expressed through policy – not the greasy, arrogant rhetoric with which we’re currently laden. To act differently is effectively an abuse of power: Cameron and the rest are using their unique positions to decry social practices in which they have no involvement, no investment, and no authority whatsoever.
It’d be easy to argue that their words, apparently not constituting a genuine restriction on liberty, are therefore justifiable – but the idea that this phenomenon poses no threat to freedom is misguided. This is the thin end of a very large, very oppressive wedge, as has been demonstrated far too often through the increased use of ‘nudging’ within policy. Politicians are welcome to convince us with argument, and it’s accepted that they can force our behaviour through prohibiting or demanding certain activities. But to try to change our minds and habits by stealth – taking away brightly-coloured cigarette packages, raising alcohol prices, even suggesting tax breaks for married couples – is patronising, and paternalistic in the extreme. The fact that a ‘Behavioural Insights Team‘ (described by the Cabinet Office itself as a ‘Nudge Unit’) has become a serious part of policy-making ought to tell us enough. The BIT’s function includes ‘encouraging and supporting people to make better choices for themselves’. Public failure to be unsettled by this is unnerving.
Social engineering on the part of politicians has become normal. It has even been seen as a positive, benevolent way of running the State. The content of the message is largely irrelevant – it doesn’t matter that eating more fruit is good for our health, or whatever; the issue is that Cameron feels justified in ‘nudging’ us to do what he thinks is best. Whether or not we agree with him in a particular instance is beside the point.
Asinine comments like those over Muirfield are depressing for another reason, in that they demonstrate quite clearly the priorities of those in power. Every minute devoted to grandstanding is a minute taken away from doing anything of use. It’s diverting the press (this article included, of course) with entirely vacuous material, rather than any sort of incisive policy analysis, and it’s removing time from policy-forming. Of course, having less legislation developed is usually no bad thing, but that’s not much of a reason to want our politicians distracted. So, to Cameron and his contemporaries; to his predecessors and his successors – for the sake of the electorate, get off the soapbox and back to fixing the economy. Or whatever else it is that you do.