The Lure of the New

By Cockett, Richard | New Statesman (1996), October 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Lure of the New


Cockett, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


All governments find it convenient to promise "modernisation". It is a dangerous pledge

"Modernisation is the ideology of the never-ending present. The whole past belongs to 'traditional society', and modernisation is a technical means for breaking with the past without creating a future. All is now; restless, visionless, faithless: human society diminished to a passing technique. No confrontation of power, values or interests, no choice between competing priorities is envisaged or encouraged. It is a technocratic model of society, conflict-free and politically neutral, dissolving genuine social conflicts in the abstractions of 'the scientific revolution', 'consensus', 'productivity'."

Which critic of new Labour is this writing? A fogeyish young historian on the Spectator, perhaps, or even a resentful palace official, impaled on a flagstaff?

The phrase "scientific revolution" betrays the real hands. It is a passage from the May Day Manifesto of 1968, written by Stuart Hall, E P Thompson, Raymond Williams and others and published as a Penguin Special. Theirs was a critique evolved during the previous three years of the Wilson government which, like Tony Blair's, used "modernisation" as a key theme. Indeed, the leitmotiv of new Labour has a long pedigree going back to the early 1960s, when a series of writers such as Anthony Sampson, Hugh Thomas, Andrew Shonfield and Arthur Koestler, all feeding off each other, first expounded the thesis that Britain was "stuffy, backward-looking and traditionalist" - to use Robin Cook's recent description of the public image of his department, the Foreign Office.

The Wilson governments owed much of their original inspiration to the crusade for modernisation. The 1960s version relied on the transformative powers of the "white heat of technology" ("the scientific revolution"), exemplified by the young minister of technology in his not very modern incarnation as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, promoting all those cutting-edge technologies such as Concorde and civil nuclear power, which turned out to be expensive white elephants within a decade. The great historical significance of Wilson's government was that he set the agenda: every one of his successors in Downing Street has set out in pursuit of "modernisation", all obsessed by the idea that Britain was being left behind by everyone else.

Who that "everyone else" is has varied from time to time. In the 1960s we were supposed to be falling behind the modern, centrally planned economy of the Soviet Union, while in the 1980s the freemarket economy of the United States represented Margaret Thatcher's nirvana. In the early 1990s many returned to an older locus of modernity, Germany, which became the country of economic preference for Will Hutton in his best-selling The State We're In. From having been the 19th-century model of a modern state, which Europeans from Cavour to Napoleon III came to study and emulate, Britain seems to have spent most of the past 40 years in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown about our lack of ability to keep up with the global Joneses.

Since Wilson's appeal to the "white heat of technology", a succession of prime ministers have relied on a variety of political projects to usher Britain into that elusive modern age. Heath negotiated our entry into Europe in the hope that EEC competition would stimulate Britain's industry to match the performance of its continental rivals. Thatcher used the bracing application of union-bashing and the free market to modernise British industry, to make the country globally competitive. And now Blair is claiming his own distinctive version.

He would do well to reflect on this recent history. It highlights two dangers inherent in the project of "modernisation" as it has evolved since 1960. First, the instant appeal of the theme as a "big idea" has allowed it to became a displacement activity, producing change in selected high-profile areas at the cost of neglecting other kinds of hard choices. …

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