June 20, 2004

Nation needs a shrink, not more economic arguments

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For years Irish politics dealt with weighty issues such as unemployment, closing the poverty gap and education for all. Politics was about collective issues and politicians talked about the society and their vision for the rest of us.


There was a right-wing way and a left-wing way of doing things. However, even the politicians on the liberal right believed in the nation, and they articulated policies that were supposedly `best’ for the nation.They still talk the same way, but it is increasingly evident that this is the rhetoric of the 20th century and will have less and less relevance in the 21st century.

Most of our party leaders are products of the 1968 generation and learnt their trade in the 1970s influenced by 1970s thinking.This political school has very fixed views of the best ways of doing things, the power or limits of the state and the extent to which the electorate might be pushed in any direction.
Most importantly, it is the politics of the masses and it looks at the world in an aggregate way. It speaks of concepts such as the `middleclass vote’ or `working-class areas’ as if these were clearly identifiable constituencies with defined boundaries and unique, quantifiable, clearly delineated concerns.

They are nothing of the sort, and it is evident that all the important policy initiatives of the past two years involve addressing individual behaviour rather than group dynamics. Although they speak about the group, most policies concern the rights and responsibilities of the individual.

Think about the past few weeks.The citizenship referendum was targeted at influencing the behaviour of the parents of immigrants.The smoking ban targets the behaviour of smokers in public places.The penalty points system targets the behaviour of the driver.There has been talkof a `fat tax’ to reduce obesity amongst children. Again this targets one of the most basic behavioural functions – eating.

This week, the Oireachtas banned alcohol advertising, again focusing on individual behaviour.The government has also banned advertising to children onTV, once more in an effort to affect people’s buying behaviour. An increasing amount of welfare benefit (back to work schemes, for example) are now conditional on behaviour.

Despite talking about society, many of the most contentious moves these days involve the state trying to change the way the individual interacts with other individuals within the context of a moral debate. Right and left has given way to rights and responsibilities.Why is this? What implications does it have for future politics? And who will be first out of the trap to embrace this change?

Obviously as the country has become richer, a certain amount of the gel that glued society together has loosened.This happened quickly in Ireland.

When a man defines himself by the car he drives,the watch he wears and how many houses he owns, he is less likely to be involved in group activities such as clubs, church, local associations or political parties. He is an individual, and therefore policies must be tailored to his individual needs.

It may well be cheaper for the state to persuade people to change their behaviour rather than suffer the consequences of what it believes to be delinquency.This was one of the key arguments put forward in favour of the smoking ban: by banning smoking in public places,vast quantities of cash would be saved in the health service. So the state tries to change behaviour rather than pay the cost in the long run.

This is the logic behind today’s campaigns against smoking, obesity and sexually-transmitted diseases.

Another explanation for the `rights and responsibilities’ platform replacing the ideology of right and left is that the politics of other people’s behaviour is a crucial doorstep issue.Take vandalism, petty harassment and public order. In recent years, the major law and order drive has been all about preventing antisocial behaviour.

How many times have we heard calls for more Gardai on the streets, and politicians arguing that the parents of antisocial teenagers should be held responsible for the behaviour of their wayward kids? This will increase as the `class solidarity’ that supposedly binds `working-class’and `middle-class’ communities (in the rhetoric of our 1970s politicians) is seen to have no real meaning.

We have imported from the US a moral appendage to our lowish tax economy that involves the government encouraging people to take more control over certain aspects of their lives. This would be grand if the morality were not so arbitrary.

For example, the `Boston’ model of the country regards drinking after hours as criminally immoral, yet paying a chief executive 400 times the salary of an industrial worker is seen as a just reward for managerial `talent’!

These changes have led to a dramatic shift in politics. But with what influence? The most tangible result was seen last week in the citizenship referendum.

Rightly or wrongly,we were asked to vote on the behaviour of other people.We passed a referendum on the behaviour of the parents of children whose legal status would be affected accordingly.This was an extraordinary example of the politics of behaviour at work.

At the core of the government’s very successful argument was the behaviour of certain parents, the impact on our maternity hospitals and the value of Irish citizenship. In the past,we simply sold citizenship to the highest bidder; now we gauge its worthvia an opaque value judgment of other people’s conduct.

The impact on mainstream politics has been seen this week with Fianna Fail backbenchers turning on the PDs. But the PDs should not be their target because the PDs are as flummoxed by the electorate as the soldiers.The reason the electorate is garrulous and unpredictable is that we are moving from the politics of the collective to the politics of the individual.

The reason we have protest votes and evidence of frustration is because the nation now needs a shrink more than an economist to gauge its pulse.

Yet the government still feels that it can win with economic arguments,when national psychiatry would be more enlightening.This is why the coalition looks confused and rudderless.

Who will cop on to the politics of behaviour fastest? Last week’s winners – Sinn Féin – are unlikely to move first, because the party’s centralised command structure suggests that such politics is not yet in its DNA.

The biggest difficulty for any party is to judge the point at which attempts to influence behaviour (via taxes, legislation, information campaigns and penalties) tip over into the nanny state. No party wants to be seen as the Archbishop McQuaid of 21st-century politics, yet no government can risk losing the battle against `antisocial’ behaviour.

What last week tells us is that the new political battle ground will not concern taxes,GDP, social equality or education spending; the fight will be over issues concerning behaviour, such as obesity,vandalism, advertising, junk food and latenight boozing. Future politics will be about `other people’.

Jean-Paul Sarte said that hell is other people. In Bertie’s case he might just be right!