LONDON – Political analysts have spent long hours, and covered many columns, speculating on the precise position of Theresa May, the British prime minister.
Just where does she stand on the left-right spectrum of politics? Does she favor more state intervention or less? Is she a true Thatcherite free-marketeer or has she abandoned this strand of ideology in favor of more statism and anti-business government controls? Is she in short, as some have suggested, becoming a “Red Tory,” rather than a traditional hard-line advocate of a reduced state, lower public spending and market forces?
These are interesting questions that continue to excite political and academic circles. In past decades and past political struggles back in the 20th century they seemed the central issues. The manifestoes of all the political parties in the current general election have been eagerly scanned for clues. But in today’s context they overlook one massive and dominating new factor.
This is that technology has totally transformed the character and structure of the modern societies and electorates with which the politicians, and their advisers, are trying to relate.
The digital age, and the hyperconnectivity and total access to information it has brought about, has not only empowered people but changed voters’ attitudes to authority, officialdom and government. They are less concerned with yesterday’s ideological debates and less happy to be fed with detailed party lines and promises, or with handed-down dogma.
They want genuine news, but they feel equipped increasingly to form their own opinions, rather than accept those dictated to them from on high. The majority, especially the under-30s, probably don’t even read the party manifestoes.
Of course they have plenty of worries about the future, and look for any leadership wisdom and reasoned guidance that can make sense of today’s uncertainties, but the old polarities of political debate have become strangely irrelevant.
Marxist-type evaluation of political battles, positing capitalist elites and “the establishment” versus the workers and “the masses,” just no longer interact with day-to-day experience or concerns. This kind of ideological lineup is no longer what people want from their politicians. Their only appeal is to the minority extremists, far left and far right.
For everyone else the new reality, of which party hierarchies and managers do not seem to have yet taken full account, is that the very concept of the state as a sort of ruling elite, or of “the people” as the toiling masses, are beginning to melt away under the impact of digitization.
Elites have become fluid, changing and shifting in composition almost daily, while the masses have dissolved into a mosaic of throbbing networks, from which it is impossible to distill any single popular will or any sustained majority opinion. At the same time, the boundaries between the state and the market have become blurred, each needing the other to operate effectively.
For the first time in history people have acquired the means to reject being treated like a lump, a single entity crudely called “the public” or “the people’s will.” Instead they have the power to exercise their own endlessly varied and differentiated views and to organize their affairs on a far more localized and group basis, using all the opportunities that the internet and the huge array of social media facilities now offer.
They have the power to discuss and address their everyday concerns directly, such as health provision, schooling, job prospects, housing, transport, clean air, traffic and even family affairs, in a far more sensitive way and without any top-down instruction.
This has a good side and a dark side. The good side is that new forms of democratic expression and citizenship are fast emerging that no longer depend on central direction and traditional political engagement.
Opportunities for demagogues and dictators to manipulate and distort the popular will are vanishing , so its goodbye to those oppressive dictator figures of history — Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Hugo Chavez — while today’s despots who seek to rule through massive media manipulation are also increasingly challenged — viz the sinister Kim Jong Un and, even, sooner or later, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
But the dark side is that power also falls both into the hands of giant global communications monopolies, far bigger than any nation, or into evil and destructive hands that organize the cells and militias of terror — of an utterly callous kind that visited Manchester, England, murdering teenagers and children — only the other day.
The kind of leadership that will now appeal is the sort that avoids trying to micro-manage people, cuts out bribes and promises, and avoids dogmatic party lines or ideological dictates about left and right. Instead, voters look for a governing party that seems likely to provide a strong framework of stability, physical safety and economic security, and protects folk to a degree from the autocrats and automatons of the world cyber empire, as well as the hackers and pirates of the internet.
The only group remaining that argues obsessively about the political left and right are professional politicians themselves and their attendant bubble of media acolytes and insiders. In the upcoming United Kingdom election, May has pitched her message to a wider and far better informed audience that is viewing politics and parties in new ways.
Whether this brings her the parliamentary majority she seeks will shortly be revealed.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.