Technocracy UK – the fate of post-democratic Britain?

Posted on: 17 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

As democracy declines in favour of technocratic government in Europe, what would there be to gain from a British technocracy, and what to fear from one?

Mario Monti - the politician of the future?Many significant things have happened in Europe of late. Greece and Italy have both faced economic oblivion, and might have dragged the rest of the continent, including the UK, down with them. Instead, a purge of the nations' respective leaderships has happened, and new governments have been formed.

What these two new settlements have in common, beyond the Angela Merkel seal of approval (as Germany begins to dominate the rest of Europe), is their technocratic natures. By that what is meant is that those in charge are there because of their skills and purported expertise as opposed to any democratic mandate.

For example, the new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was given his post because of his pre-eminence as an economist. He was not elected, but first made senator for life by the Italian president, having previously served as an equally unelected EU commissioner. Among Monti's first decisions was making himself economics minister as well, and appointing other technocrats to senior posts in the Italian government. Indeed, there are no career politicians in the cabinet, being made up instead of banking CEOs, mandarins, senior military officers and academics.

Greece now has a similar set up. Its new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos heads a coalition government that controls 254 of the 300 Greek parliamentary seats and has popular support but, once again, has not been directly elected. In both cases, political and economic crises have undermined the notion of elected officials and lead instead to government by latter-day philosopher kings. What has happened?

To answer that, we need to define what a technocracy actually is. In many ways, the Italian cabinet is an excellent example because it features not professional politicians but experts in their respective fields. For example, education would be run by teachers, health policy would be run by doctors, foreign policy by anthropologists and foreign language experts, research and innovation run by scientists and engineers and so on.

Needless to say, this is not democratic. Witness how Doctor David Nutt, the then chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was sacked in 2009 after he argued, based on current evidence, that cannabis and ecstasy be downgraded to Class C. For the government, beholden as it is to public opinion, this was very bad publicity and so, keen to maintain the message that it was tough on drugs, it proceeded to show Dr. Nutt the door while the tabloid press rained hell-fire down on him.

And yet, much of our country is and has always been technocratic. Police forces are run by senior officers, universities by Vice Chancellors who have served time in lecture theatres, the NHS is managed by, well, 'managers' and occasionally doctors, who also answer to the General Medical Council rather than parliament, while the army and the judiciary are run on perceived merit and appointment as opposed to popular will.

The Bank of England has been self-governing since 1997, and the BBC is run by a board of governers. The Arts Council runs creative self-expression on behalf of the country and not the government. Charities are increasingly involved in providing services. Independent quangos run many offices of state and, until the previous government's passion for meddling took hold, the UK civil service was both anti-democratic and politically neutral.

And yet even the British public seems to be learning to prefer technocrats. While doctors (88%), teachers (81%), professors (74%), judges (72%) and scientists (71%) are the most trusted professions, politicians are the absolute bottom, with only 14% of the population trusting them, compared with the average man or woman who is trusted to be reliable and honest by 55% of the population. Even journalists, bankers and those old bogeymen, the trade unionists are seen as more trustworthy. Democracy has been discredited in the eyes of the public it depends on for its authority.

What with expenses scandals, a staggering ineptitude to perform most ministerial tasks and a meddling, vindictive attitude towards the citizen, politicians today have made themselves something many people could do without. Some might even point to Belgium, which has run itself perfectly well for 18 months while politicians squabble over the terms of a coalition government.

There is, after all, a certain contradiction at the heart of democracy. You may vote for a party but not agree with all it stands for. Or end up at the mercy of a government you never voted for but claims the will of the majority as the justification to do unto you as it wishes.

Would a technocracy succeed in the UK? It might, at first, be very popular, and would sweep aside the old system in favour of one with legitimate credentials and the indirect support of the people. But democracy itself once had such good will at its disposal. Can we say, in all honesty, that a similar rot won't take hold in a technocracy?

After all, Burma is technocratic, in that it is run by its military, and utterly corrupt. China's communist dictatorship is headed by a politburo of technicians, engineers and scientists - the very model of a technocracy. Anyone who has encountered the self-serving cynicism of the Crown Prosecution Service (run by lawyers) or the police's unwillingness to deal with anti-social behaviour may feel justifiably sceptical about more technocrats making the decisions.

And what is to stop technocrats serving their own purposes? A government run by doctors, architects and teachers might be very good news for those professions, but not particularly for those so governed. If anything, the last 30 years should demonstrate the danger of letting any one group of people, be it politicians or political parties or governments, have too much power.

Perhaps, in the end, human affairs are fundamentally ungovernable, or perhaps our politicians might try to do their jobs a lot better. In any case, if Italy and Greece are any guide to our own future, we may in any case end up with a technocracy by default.

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Alexander Hay

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