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Running through the history of the formation of the neoliberal policy regime is the emergence of a new ideal type, displacing that of the rational Weberian bureaucrat: the entrepreneur. What politicians admire, and want at the top of the state apparatus, are assertive, ‘big’ men (very rarely women), capable of some ruthlessness, strong on ‘mission statements’ and targets and impatient with detail, which they are apt to dismiss as the stock-in-trade of professional ‘seers of difficulties’ who will never accomplish anything. Civil servants have been seriously discouraged from playing their traditional role of screening out unworkable ideas. What is valued is a willingness to achieve whatever ‘targets’ the government decides it wants met, brushing aside obstacles and costs. The fact that so many ‘can-do’ businessmen of the kind politicians now hold up as models for senior civil servants to emulate – Gerald Ronson, Jim Slater, Jonathan Aitken, Robert Maxwell, Asil Nadir, John Gunn, Richard Brewster, David S. Smith, John Ashcroft – have eventually crashed spectacularly and/or gone to jail or been otherwise disgraced, losing (or in some cases stealing) the savings of thousands of people in the process, does not seem to dim their admiration. (34)

(34) This list is from Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, London: Harper Perennial, 2004, pp. 59-62, and refers only to fallen business idols in Britain. A list of fallen business idols in the US, such as Enron’s Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow, or WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers, would be a lot longer. 

The result is a new attitude towards evidence. Evidence needed for policy-making relating to global market forces – statistical evidence on production, trade and finance, for example – is taken seriously. Evidence relating to socio-cultural adjustment policies is another matter (unless, of course, it is polling evidence on what voters are thinking and feeling, which is taken most seriously of all). Evidence that looks supportive of ideas to which the government is committed tends to be accepted uncritically. Contrary evidence tends to be dismissed. In Blair’s entourage even pointing to the existence of contrary evidence comes to be treated as close to treason: ‘critics of public-private partnerships, foundation hospitals and [university] tuition fees are branded not as participants in a reasonable debate about the direction of policy but relics of the party’s dark ages, mad lefties jeopardizing the government’s future’. (35) Outside Whitehall, consistently pointing to the existence of politically inconvenient evidence leads to professional marginalization or even – if the inconvenience is great enough – persecution. A cabal of obedient government backbenchers, for example, abused parliamentary privilege to make a scurrilous attack on the work of Professor Allyson Pollock, whose analyses of the private financing of hospital building had left that policy widely discredited. (36) Other examples of the persecution of critics, especially but not only by Blair’s powerful spokesman Alastair Campbell, abound. (37)

(35) Anne Perkins, ‘Regime Change or Climate Change, Tony?’, New Statesman, 29 September 2003. Foundation hospitals – freeing the country’s publicly owned hospitals from central government control and making them compete (or collaborate) with private ones – was the prelude to introducing a health care market. Introducing so-called ‘top-up’ fees for university students was another market-driven idea, deeply unpopular within the governing party. 

(36) For Pollock’s account of this affair see NHS plc, pp. 209-13.

(37) See Peter Oborne and Simon Walters, Alastair Campbell, London: Aurum Press, 2004.

 That this should have become more or less normal, however, presupposes certain enabling conditions. Four stand out: the replacement of the culture of Royal Commissions by the culture of ‘grey literature’; the loss of critical independence on the part of the academic research community; the de-politicisation of the electorate; and the return to respectability of irrational belief.

A lot of fun used to be had at the expense of Royal Commissions, seen as devices for indefinitely postponing action on controversial issues by appointing a group of the ‘great and good’ to mull them over inconsequentially for years. But Royal Commissions not only invited the best experts to give evidence, written and oral, but also commissioned research, and all of this was published in full, along with the Commissioners’ final reports. Their recommendations could languish unimplemented, but the published research and evidence, publicly given and publicly interrogated, constituted a significant obstacle to the implementation of policies that flew in the face of the best evidence there was. Today, however, no one under the age of 45 has known the policy culture of which Royal Commissions were a significant part. 

In place of the products of Royal Commissions there is ‘grey literature’. Most definitions of grey literature focus on the idea that it is literature ‘made available to the general public by public and private sector organizations whose function is not primarily publishing’. (38) And as governments cut back on free access to even routine official statistics, and as privatization makes more and more public activity ‘commercially confidential’, grey literature has acquired a sort of respectability by default. Journals and conferences are devoted to it. What strikes the enquirer concerned with truth, however, is that organizations that are not primarily publishers lack a strong interest in the validity of what they nonetheless publish. Whereas a non-fiction or journal publisher, or a serious newspaper, has a reputation for truth to protect, many if not most other organizations are not necessarily concerned with this. As anyone who has tried to use grey literature soon discovers, data and judgments that have not been peer-reviewed or otherwise tested for accuracy and reliability cannot be relied on. But grey literature is increasingly cited in support of government policy.

(38) Michael Quinion, ‘Grey Literature’ in World Wide Words, at

The use of bad evidence is also less subject to informed criticism by the scientific community than would have been the case twenty-five years ago. The corruption of research in the natural sciences by corporate funding is a well-known problem, yet science research is more and more dependent on corporate money. (39) And by a different route, university-based social science in Britain has now also become increasingly oriented to market values and interests. Unlike US social science, British social science has always been predominantly state-funded. Under the liberal/social democratic policy regime the funding was distributed through research councils run by social scientists, with substantial independence from the government. Nor have British social scientists experienced the pressures to conform from right-wing vigilantes that have reinforced the prevailing political conformity of American social science. (40) British social scientists might be ‘pro-market’, but there was no obvious career incentive to be so.

(39) For a discussion of the capture of British university scientific research by corporations see George Monbiot, Captive State, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000 chapter 9.

(40) Examples have recurred throughout the history of American social science, and not just in the McCarthy era. Two recent cases seem to be the result of efforts by pro-Israeli organizations to get rid of professors seen as pro-Palestinian: Joseph Massad at Columbia University, and Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss professor denied a visa to teach at Notre Dame. The case of the anthropologist David Graeber, ‘let go’ from Yale in 2005 on political grounds, is more typical.

Under Thatcher, however, this began to change. General government funding of universities was put on a market-oriented footing. Every degree course now had to be justified by a ‘business plan’ showing how the cost of the staff needed to teach it would be met out of the student income it would earn, and the research funding that the staff could be expected to secure. Eventually, ‘under-studented’ departments were downsized or closed. 

Government support for research through the universities’ ‘core funding’ also declined (from 58.8 per cent of all research funding in 1984 to 35.1 per cent in 1997), and this support was now allocated on a selective basis. Under a periodic Research Assessment Exercise first introduced in 1986, departments with highly-ranked research output receive dramatically higher-than-average funding until the next ‘RAE’, while poorly-ranked departments receive dramatically less, or none at all. The share of research funding accounted for by work commissioned directly by either government departments or business rose from 15 per cent to 20.8 per cent of the total between 1984 and 1997, while the share coming from the government-funded research councils rose from 17.2 per cent to 24.1 per cent. (41) 

(41) Ted Tapper and Brian Salter, ‘The Politics of Governance in Higher Education: The Case of the Research Assessment Exercise’, OxCHEPS Occasional Paper No. 6, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, Oxford, May 2002, p. 29. The authors comment that ‘in the age of global capital … the market is becoming an increasingly significant player and the universities … will have to determine what structures of governance they need to control its input’ (p. 30). Their own view, however, is that all further developments in the research role of the universities will be determined by the government.

In the case of the Economic and Social Research Council, reorganized under Thatcher in 1985, the bulk of its research funding was much more focused than before on themes seen as relevant to the promotion of national economic competitiveness. (42) Individual researchers could still get smaller grants for critical work, but the attractions of landing serious money – grants of several million pounds over five years are not uncommon – for major centres and programmes of applied research were obvious, and a new generation of well-funded academics emerged, wielding considerable patronage among younger researchers willing to work within the neoliberal paradigm.

(42) In 2001-2002 the Council had seven priority themes for centres and programmes in receipt of major funding, accounting for 63 per cent of its funding for specific research projects. They were: economic performance and development; social stability and exclusion; work and organization; knowledge, communication and learning; governance and citizenship; environment and human behaviour (Economic and Social Research Council Annual Report 2001-2002).

The combined effect of all these changes has been to make research within that paradigm well rewarded, and therefore highly valued by university administrators, while effective public criticism of government policies is to say the least not warmly encouraged. As a result the topics chosen for study, and the questions asked, have undergone a significant shift. The quantity of research has risen but its analytic and critical quality has declined. This may be no truer of political science than of other social science disciplines, but it is especially obvious in the study of politics. Roelofs’ critique of American political science now largely fits its British counterpart. To take just one example:

'Political scientists … study parties and interest groups, yet the latters’ creation and funding are usually neglected. The interlocking directorates among interest groups, foundations, and corporations are generally ignored. Professional associations, conferences of state officials, think tanks, and integrative organizations such as the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies are rarely examined in political science research. Thus indexes in American government textbooks sometimes list Ford, Betty, and omit the Ford Foundation.' (43) 

(43) Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003, p. 32.

The same topics are also ignored, and the same questions are not asked, in Britain. Denham and Garnett, for example, the foremost academic experts on think tanks in Britain, make no effort to analyze the sources of their funding and the effect of this on what the tanks think about, and the conclusions they reach. There is a general de-politicisation of even political research. (44) Academic social scientists who offer informed public criticism of government policies have become an endangered species. It is more rewarding to engage in the kind of political punditry notably practised by Tony Giddens, the director of the London School of Economics (LSE) and high priest of the Third Way (‘somewhere between the Second Coming and the Fourth Dimension’); (45) or John Gray, an LSE professor of European political theory, once a Thatcherite and now a convert to oriental mysticism and animal liberation. (46)

(44) Some American graduate students were recently invited to consider this question. They were highly intrigued. This, they said, was the sort of thing you get excited about when you are not ‘doing political science’. In their own work they were using an ‘actor-oriented stakeholder analysis’, and were very much on their guard against ‘left conspiracy theories’. 

(45) Wheen, Mumbo-Jumbo, pp. 224-25.

(46) Before he was a Thatcherite Gray was a socialist, and between being a Thatcherite and an animal liberationist he was a traditional conservative. 

His home page announces that he is available for long-term consultancies. 

The fact that few social scientists are serious critics of public policy facilitates the de-politicisation of the electorate. Britain has not undergone – yet – an intellectual takeover of the kind successfully carried out by the far right in the US since the late 1960s, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, via the creation or capture of right-wing think tanks, magazines, newspapers, publishers, television channels, radio stations and even whole universities. (47) But three quarters of British national newspaper circulation has long been owned and controlled by right-wing press barons, often North American, and the popular titles are prone to extreme bias, if not outright lies. (48) And concessions by successive governments of both major parties to corporate media interests have steadily enlarged the scope for private broadcasters and forced public service broadcasters to compete for increasingly fragmented audience shares. (49) News and current affairs have been steadily cut back in favour of entertainment. The bizarrely misnamed ‘reality TV’ shows that dominated the schedules in the early 2000s were a sign of the times. The critical context for serious policy debate has been significantly eroded.

(47) For a brilliant summary of this see Lewis Lapham, ‘Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, A Brief History’, in Harper’s Magazine, September 2004, pp. 31-41. 

(48) The crude fabrications of the British tabloid press are periodically recorded by Roy Greenslade in the Guardian’s weekly Media supplement.

(49) See Leys, Market Driven Politics, chapter 5.

And then there is the general revival of irrational belief, entertainingly reviewed by Francis Wheen in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. The publicly-owned public-service television channel, Channel 4, for example, ran a programme on nutrition hosted by a ‘clinical nutritionist’, complete with white coat, and continued it even when her credentials were exposed as worthless (the Guardian’s ‘bad science’ watchdog was able to buy her professional certificate for $60 for his deceased cat). (50) And the government’s infatuation with business and businessmen meant that the clichŽ-ridden and unsubstantiated outpourings of business gurus would be taken seriously by the architects of public service ‘reforms’. All this is bad enough. But what about ‘alternative’ medicine, advocated by the heir to the throne and adopted. partly as a sop to populism, by some parts of the National Health Service? Wheen’s bracing comment that ‘“complementary” and “alternative” are essentially euphemisms for “dud”’ would no doubt be dismissed by New Labour’s boot boys as ‘elitist’. (51) 

(50) ‘You don’t need to be human; you don’t even have to be alive. No exam, no check-up on your qualifications and no assessment of your practice’ (Ben Goldacre, reporting how his dead cat Henrietta became a certified member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, in Guardian Life, 19 August 2004).

(51) Nick Cohen, Pretty Straight Guys, London: Faber and Faber, 2003, p. 28: ‘Sceptics were elitist because they refused to share the people’s authentic elation at the election of Tony Blair or grief at the death of Princess Di. Critics of business were elitist because they presumed to know better than hundreds of millions of consumers … The knowledgeable on any subject … were elitist because they knew more than the ignorant …’.

Blair’s deference towards mumbo-jumbo is usually attributed to the influence of his wife. Authors sympathetic to Cherie Blair, however, say that he shares her flakier interests. (52) If so, it helps to explain his refusal to condemn the teaching of creationism in a state secondary school in Gateshead that was captured by creationists. ‘A more diverse school system’, he said, ‘will deliver better results for our children’. (53) The Blairs’ spiritual tastes are perhaps more in tune with the zeitgeist than the scepticism of their critics, but it is not without consequences for public policy. Just as Thatcher had openly sympathized with the Ayatollah who called for Salman Rushdie to be murdered for writing The Satanic Verses, Blair’s home affairs minister refused to condemn the violence by Sikh fundamentalists in Birmingham in late 2004 that succeeded in closing a play they found offensive, saying that ‘both the theatre and the protesters had a right to free speech’. (54) On the contrary the government proposed to introduce legislation to make it a crime to ‘incite to religious hatred’. (No law was proposed to criminalize the suppression by pharmaceutical companies of evidence showing that a profitable drug was dangerous, or the invention of evidence to win parliamentary assent to start a war.)

(52) Francis Beckett and David Hencke, The Blairs and Their Court, London: Aurum Press, 2004, pp. 278-9.

(53) Parliamentary response to Jenny Tonge MP, quoted in Wheen, Mumbo-Jumbo, p. 114.

(54) Lee Glendinning, Guardian, 27 December 2004. The personal views of the minister in question, Fiona MacTaggart, are not known. Her comments sounded like a craven capitulation to violence – and the threats made to the playwright, herself a Sikh, and her family – in an effort to retain the Sikh vote.

The influence of all these factors means that there is remarkably little adverse comment on the steep decline that has occurred since 1980 in the quality of government policy documents, whose level of argumentation and use of evidence is all too often inversely related to the quality of their presentation (in the style of corporate reports, complete with executive summaries and flashy graphics). They are designed to look principled, purposeful and rational. In reality what they constantly reveal is the subordination of policy to what are seen as market imperatives, presented as some sort of balance between principle and pragmatism, tradition and innovation. Stefan Collini’s dissection of the Labour government’s 2003 white paper on The Future of Higher Education could be replicated for a distressingly high proportion of them. He begins with a quotation from the white paper’s introduction:

'We see a higher education sector which meets the needs of the economy in terms of trained people, research and technology transfer. At the same time it needs to enable all suitably qualified individuals to develop their potential both intellectually and personally, and to provide the necessary storehouse of expertise in science and technology, and the arts and humanities which defines our civilization and culture.

‘It is hardly surprising’, Collini comments, that universities in Britain are demoralized. Even those statements which are clearly intended to be upbeat affirmations of their importance have a way of making you feel slightly ill. It is not simply the fact that no single institution could successfully achieve all the aims crammed into this unlovely paragraph … It is also the thought of that room in Whitehall where these collages are assembled. As the findings from the latest survey of focus groups come in, an official cuts out all those things which earned a positive rating and glues them together in a straight line. When a respectable number have been accumulated in this way, s/he puts a dot at the end and calls it a sentence. 

'There are two sentences in that paragraph. The first, which is clear enough though not a thing of beauty, says that the main aim of universities is to turn out people and ideas capable of making money. The second, which is neither clear nor beautiful, says there are a lot of other points that it’s traditional to mention in this connection, and that they’re all good things too, in their way, and that the official with the glue-pot has been having a busy day, and that we’ve lost track of the subject of the verb in the last line, and that it may be time for another full stop.' (55)

(55) ‘HiEdBiz’, London Review of Books, 25(21), 6 November 2003.

The unresolved conflict – at the level of discourse, that is – between market and non-market objectives, the interpenetration of electoral aims and public interest concerns, the loss of respect for (or even serious interest in) research and evidence, the waning of analytic skills and the apotheosis of the entrepreneur – combine to produce defective reasoning and exaggerated promises. Careful argument and the adducing of evidence give way to ‘values’, ‘mission statements’ and ‘targets’. (56)

(56) The unfortunate British Prisons Service, hived off by the Conservatives as an ‘executive agency’, free – in theory – from day to day control by the Home Office, rejoiced in having ‘one Statement of Purpose, one Vision, five Values, six Goals, seven Strategic Priorities and eight Key Performance Indicators’ (Wheen, Mumbo-Jumbo, pp. 56-57).

In the USA, the imperial heartland, indifference to evidence has been given an explicit imperial rationale. In 2002 Ron Suskind was told by one of Bush’s ‘senior advisers’ that 

'guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people ‘who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore’, he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality … We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’. (57) 

(57) ‘Without a Doubt’, New York Times, 17 October 2004. Compare Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: ‘When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old… The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk’.

This kind of lumpen-Hegelian rhetoric is perhaps a step too far for most apparatchiks of a sub-imperial power like Britain. (58) But it is the principle on which a great deal of policy is based. 

(58) But Blair’s right hand man Peter Mandelson is quoted as saying: ‘our job is to create the truth’ (Oborne, The Rise of Political Lying, p. 3).