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Artillery Row

Are the grown ups really back in charge? 

Centrist commentators are wallowing in limp clichés instead of asking serious questions about policy

Welcome to the era of sensible, adult government. Or so many in the media are currently cheering. According to Guardian sketchwriter John Crace: “The grownups are back in Westminster. The Tory psychodramas inside No 10 have been replaced by a serious Labour government focused on delivery.” 

We have heard this, of course, before. A stern technocrat making realistic promises. Times writers purred with happiness at the return to sobriety: “There were no promises of sunny uplands or a new dawn in this sombre and serious speech from the new prime minister on the steps of No 10.” Oh yes, “the grown-ups are back in charge”. That was Rishi Sunak. 

Two years on, this political “grown up” called an early election in a fit of self-entitled impatience. By the end of this thoroughly ill thought out campaign, which did more to unsettle his own side than an eager Labour opposition, what was left of his already fraying reputation was in tatters. He soberly left D-Day early to do an ITV interview. He calmly and realistically dithered as multiple Tory officials decided to quite literally gamble on the future of the country. 

And it’s not just Sunak that the experts have misjudged. When Biden, who in 2020 was barely making public appearances, and already considered to be dangerously decrepit, was elected as President, the Financial Times crowed that “The grown-ups are back in charge in Washington”. 

Biden is certainly a grown-up. In fact, he has grown really rather old. Although his administration would achieve some successes, on the world stage he projected weakness in a way Trump did not, and some of the worst shocks to American hegemony occurred on his watch. The bungled retreat from Afghanistan. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The closing of the Suez canal. And on, for the FT, the most important metric — seeing off “populist nationalism” — he has now potentially secured Trump’s return by way of his own senility, finally undeniable following the recent debate. 

The problem with this particular class of centrist is that if technocratic leaders are “the grown ups” then we’re all, implicitly, a bunch of babies. And this follows from more than overly strained analogy. The very logic of technocracy is that leaders look to institutional and scientific expertise rather than popular opinion when making decisions. At most, electorates are in the situation of consumers, entitled to “delivery” of a product they have purchased through their taxation, but whose opinions are at best taken into account, rather than listened to, let alone heeded and obeyed. 

It’s a perspective that ends up babying not only the electorate, but the commentator themselves

It’s a perspective that ends up babying not only the electorate, but the commentator themselves. Rather than asking hard questions about policy, including “expert-led” policy, they put themselves in a position of comforting dependence, waiting for the “grown-ups” with their inscrutable, secret expertise, to return us all to a lost political “sanity”. Despite the emphasis on a supposedly scientific, rather than emotive, basis for decision making, as broad but shallow generalists themselves, their own relationship to such expertise is entirely non-discursive, leaving them with a discourse as emotive as the populists. But rather than the language of adolescent rebellion, its thumb-sucking nursery politics. 

And like very young children, there is a very limited ability to recall their own prior attitudes and mistakes. There has been no pause for thought, no moment of self critique, following the catastrophic failures of so many of the once acclaimed “grown ups”. Rishi Sunak, former adult, can now be safely dismissed as a populist, with no consideration given as to whether political reality might have been behind his (purely gestural) attempts to placate an increasingly unrepresented section of political opinion. 

Sunak’s failure is instructive here — he had all the things the centrist commentariat like: a high flying professional background, ethnic minority status with a safe public school polish and an aversion to emotive rhetoric. All these “strengths”, which carried him smoothly to the heights of power, proved catastrophic weaknesses when he finally arrived at the summit, and encountered the British public face to face. He has never experienced serious struggle, is desperately unfamiliar with ordinary life, and fully allergic to the messy, passionate world of politics as opposed to technocratic policy mongering. The D-Day debacle was not some tactical failure by an insufficiently smooth political machine, it was the sort of mistake that nobody with even a modicum of political instincts could have made.

Keir Starmer clearly has strengths Sunak lacks. Though he has the professional background in common, it is a background as a steely competent lawyer, who must make his arguments in court, and deal with unsavoury characters on a regular basis. And unlike Biden’s basement election campaign, or Sunak’s second time lucky leadership coronation, Starmer has pushed his way into power the hard way, with years struggling in opposition, and achieving an extraordinary victory in a general election. It’s too easy to dismiss him as a sheer technocrat. Rather, like Macron, he is a leader who, though far from beloved, has great gifts of political organisation, genuine brains and a capacity for boldness. 

But even with this more flattering comparison, Starmer, and those who welcome him, should see plenty to worry about. Macron has successfully put a lid on populism in France, but has only intensified it in the process. The recent victory in the legislative election of the Popular Front is being greeted with the familiar adulation by the centrist cheerleaders, who seem happy to ignore the elevation of the French Jeremy Corbyn — Jean-Luc Mélenchon — so long as Le Pen is beaten back for the moment. Far from calming things, Macron has achieved a delay that has only fueled the growth of the extremes on both left and right. 

These parallels throw clear light upon the double danger of technocratic delivery as an answer to populism. On the one hand, apolitical “experts” can fail to achieve anything, because they are unable to persuade and manoeuvre on behalf of their visions. On the other hand, even when they are adroit enough politicians to succeed, if they do so whilst ignoring or sidelining populist voters, they store up worse trouble for the future, resolving nothing. 

The emphasis on “delivery”, whilst skating over culture war divides is not a solution, just an elaborate policy of evasion. The sotto voice implication of this alleged pragmatism is really just the old idealism masked by managerialism. Whether mass migration and international finance are liberating us from all ancient prejudices, or just the only sensible way to keep the NHS going, the result is the same, and the political anger generated will not go away. Marginal improvements in transportation, waiting lists and housing supply will not solve generational transformations of national life, and it is not clear that such gains can even be sustainably made when such structural causes are unaddressed. 

So, given all that, should we be welcoming Starmer’s “grown up” government, “unburdened by dogma”? Only if the pragmatism is real, rather than a cover for a hidden liberal utopianism. True pragmatism is political, not technocratic, and answers the embodied desires and feelings of voters. The real political “pragmatist” by this standard, the one British centrists never seem to mention, is Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Social Democratic prime minister who has taken a hardline stance on migration, seeing off the populist right in the process. Now that’s a grown up government.

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