Villains and technocrats: Why are our leaders so out of touch?

As the perfect storm of cuts sweeping the UK this April starts building to full Night on Bald Mountain momentum, Iain Duncan Smith has been unable to resist casting himself as the cartoon villain. He told BBC Radio 4 (apparently sans maniacal laughter and bony hand-rubbing) that he could live on £53 per week – the amount some UK citizens will be receiving under the new benefits scheme.

This is no small claim, given that the named sum is 2% of Duncan Smith’s current income. A petition calling on IDS to just try it – for a year – has garnered 185 000 signatures in the first 24 hours, suggesting a degree of popular skepticism. This is the last in a line of recent gaffes among the political elite prompting the question: how did our leaders get so out of touch with the daily reality of the people they represent?

Yesterday in the Guardian Aditya Chakrabortty lamented that the House of Commons is disproportionately stocked with cynical career politicians and ex-public schoolboys whose main credential is looking convincing in a suit. The statistics he quotes are powerful:

In 1979, 40% of Labour MPs came from a manual occupation; according to analysis by the Smith Institute that is now down to 9%. Just 4% of all representatives in the Commons can claim a background in a manual occupation, which is roughly the same proportion as went to Eton. Over one in four of all Tory MPs were previously employed in finance…

And his conclusion disturbing:

Westminster has become the equivalent of a gap year for middle-aged overachievers, a place to earn a few CV points before catapulting themselves into the private-sector plutocracy.

But it seems to me that this situation can’t be understood apart from the broader trend of the “professionalisation” (urgh) of pretty much everything. It’s the same reason we now need a bachelor’s degree for jobs that once required a technical or practical course of training, and two or three degrees to get in the door in certain professions – even while the job pool shrinks around our over-qualified ankles. I don’t see why our leaders would work to counteract this tendency. For one thing, as long as we’re taking ourselves out of the ailing job market and back to school, chasing that one last bit of paper that we hope will finally grant us a stake in this economy, we’re too busy to agitate for real change. For another, it normalises this culture of pinning all our hopes on what we call “specialisation,” which in effect means keeping our heads down and leaving important matters in the hands of technocrats and well-connected fools.

This reminded me of a talk of Chomsky’s that I watched the other day, about the ways the system we currently identify as democracy actually favours this situation as the norm, and not as an exception. I’ll post a splice of the most relevant section below. I would transcribe it, but I have to get back to my thesis now. I’m sure this is the degree – my third and a half, if we’re counting – that’s going to finally professionalise me. Right?


2 responses to “Villains and technocrats: Why are our leaders so out of touch?

  1. Iain Duncan Smith – what a douche canoe. At least he’s getting called out on what he said in hilariously appropriate scale.
    Interestingly, politicians in Australia are being equally twattish but in opposite ways. While conservative Duncan Smith says 53 pounds a week is not poor, Labor Party pollie Joel Fitzgibbon is saying families earning $250,000 a year are still struggling. I think it’s a sign of both Australians’ general whinginess in the face of prosperity – but also the same old thing of thinking govt support should go disproportionately to the rich (like them).
    I’m sure Duncan Smith is also an expert at this kind of cognitive dissonance. He’d be able to say before lunch that he’d live fine on 53 pounds, and then be equally capable after dinner of whingeing that his own earnings need to be just that bit bigger before he’s really comfortable.

  2. It really is frightening that our leaders could have become so out of touch – a weekly travel card in London is £30 per week – I found IDS’s comment stunning. I suspected the Tories of being heartless. IDS made me think their attitude may be more based in naivety. And that’s appalling that ¼ have come from finance!

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