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When ‘now’ books become ‘yesterday’s’ books

posted on 28 Nov 2017

When ‘now’ books become ‘yesterday’s’ books

At some point in most academic semesters I begin to trawl through the books on my office shelves to weed out the stuff I’m unlikely to ever read again and don’t want to keep – I can usually find someone in the university who can use them and I’d rather they were being read somewhere.

Inevitably I come across several books that were big news when they were first published and which I felt it was necessary to have in order to keep abreast of the debates around them but which time has not been kind to. Policies have moved on, debates have changed, even sometimes theories have been discreetly or conspicuously dropped. They were the ‘now’ books once but they’re distinctly ‘yesterday’s’ books today. So, to keep them or not?

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Part of me says that they represent an important historical policy trail – if I want to understand where things are today I need to know what went before. Take, for example Anthony Giddens' The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy which was a key book for anyone seeking to understand the philosophy that lay behind the politics of the Blair years. Giddens was, for a while, the favourite sociologist of the Blair inner circle and his arguments for the renewal of social democracy and what might be described as the left-leaning centre was for a time the text that set agendas. My copy of the book carries an endorsement from the other, more populist, advocate of a social democratic renewal – Will Hutton. His book The State We’re In was in many ways the definitive analysis of what Thatcherism had done to the social fabric and would be the agenda against which the Major years would be judged. Hutton’s plea for a more state interventionist programme – a government that would regulate and direct capitalism – was in policy terms a blueprint for the incoming Labour administration of 1997 ( almost a decade after Hutton’s original publication date).

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Concerns about globalisation, the rise of new technologies and the alienation of our children were beginning to surface in the first half of the new millennium as the gloss began to wear thin on the Blair years. Sue Palmer’s populist classic, Toxic Childhood, was published in 2006 and was entitled How The Modern World Is damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It. This sub-title neatly captures the moral panic that was underway relating to the emergence of technologies that, it was feared, would alter children’s behaviour patterns, erode friendship groups, trap children in their bedrooms and ultimately make them haplessly passive or else turn them into sociopaths. The book is written for a lay audience and its thesis split opinion down the middle. There were those who saw this as a timely warning to parents and others who saw it as merely an extension of the age-old fear that all parents have had that they are losing their children to a world they themselves don’t understand or value.

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What is undeniable is that Palmer struck a nerve and captured an audience. By 2009, as the country was riding the stormwave from the collapse of capitalism in 2007/8, Palmer’s rather apocalyptic visions received a boost from a more notable academic source when Professor Richard Leyard produced his  Children’s Society report A Good Childhood  which rehashed some of Palmer’s agenda and attempted to set out a programme of action to address the central question of how can we create a ‘happy childhood’.

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The Leyard agenda never really got off the ground as the Labour Party slipped out of power in 2010 making way for the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition. Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron (remember him?), set about trying to establish a recognisable ‘brand’ for his administration and started talking about a social renewal or social partnership that somehow embodied the notion that although we were in a titanic financial and social hole we were ‘all in it together’.

His chosen policy vehicle was the much derided ‘Big Society’ – an idea that had its roots initially in the work of the founder of the ResPublica thinktank, Phillip Blond. Blond was always something of an odd-ball in the Conservative family and came up with his own ’third way’ solution which he badged as ‘How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It’ which he called ‘Red Tory’.

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Although some of Blond’s thinking proved too far left for many dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives, Cameron did try running with some of the central themes – greater personal responsibility, not expecting the state to fill all the gaps, communities becoming self-reliant. These are all themes picked up in ‘The Big Society’ a publication produced by Jesse Norman, the Conservative M.P. for Hereford.

Although there were organisations in the voluntary sector so desperate to protect their funding that they tried to fall in behind the Big Society idea, most felt that it was a pretty shameless attempt to conjure up a fig leaf to cover the swinging public expenditure cuts that the Coalition decided to impose on communities and their services.

The idea of the Big society survived for two or three years before it was discreetly laid to rest – like John Major’s ‘Back To Basics’ initiative its impact seemed confined to the pages of cartoon history.

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Writing this piece has been therapeutic for me because I started off asking whether these publications are worth keeping as a historical trail, a record of how we got from there to here. I think I’ve answered my own question – they’re going nowhere because the one thing I need more than anything are reminders of the transitory nature of political ideas.

 

Terry Potter

November 2017