Depoliticisation: What is it and why does it matter?

Understanding the concept of depoliticisation – and of politicisation – is key to understanding the governing strategies of policymakers and how decisions are made

Matt WoodHow do governments shape public perceptions of politics in the institutional arrangements they create?  How do they seek to avoid blame for stagnant growth, failures to reduce public debt, or the financing of potentially unpopular socio-economic policies?

A new book, Anti-politics, Depoliticisation and Governance, that I have co-edited with Paul Fawcett, Matthew Flinders and Colin Hay, looks at this question from theoretical, methodological and empirical angles. The book uses the concept of depoliticisation as a way of understanding how the institutional structures governments create lead to public apathy (anti-politics) and potentially stall opposition to dominant socio-economic policies despite bubbling public discontent. This links to broader questions about our alleged transition towards a ‘post-democracy’, where power resides with corporations and public institutions and elections are hollowed out, with the whole idea of democracy losing its meaning.

Depoliticisation in its simplest form involves placing the political character of decision-making at one remove from the central state. This means decisions that are usually the responsibility of ministers are delegated to quasi-public bodies that either advise or implement those political decisions, or rules are created constraining ministerial discretion. Recent examples of such quasi-public bodies include the creation of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, the Olympic Delivery Authority and the National Infrastructure Commission. If such institutional arrangements go hand-in-hand with a decline in public opposition to the policies they recommend implementing (like austerity), then we are seeing depoliticisation in action.

While often created for functional reasons to bring in expertise from industry or academia, looking at these bodies through the lens of depoliticisation implies they are intended to manage the political implications of the decisions they are tasked with. This could be deciding which areas of the country to invest in, where to set a limit for the current account deficit, or how to successfully deliver international sporting events. All have their risks and pitfalls, and to see the creation of these bodies as depoliticising is to suggest they may potentially shift or dissolve political blame for their contentious nature away from government. This strategy feeds into much broader questions about the nature and form of democratic participation within western capitalist states. Does the seemingly benign, practical creation of arm’s length agencies mark a troubling shift away from accountability and responsibility, both of which are hallmarks of a democratic society? How are the depoliticising consequences of these strategies resisted (or ‘repoliticised’) in practice?

Our book delves into the various theoretical questions this concept brings up. For example, is depoliticisation achieved through state strategies that forestall public contention, or does it occur in the debate over self-evidently political events after the fact? In the wake of the Grenfell tower disaster in June this year, commentators lamented how some were seeking to depoliticise it by either claiming the initial public grief was an overreaction or that the event was down to human error rather than systemic failures in social housing infrastructure provision. It seems at the current time of writing, with criminal and public inquiries underway, that these attempts at depoliticisation were unsuccessful.

However, Theresa May’s government has had the ability to set the parameters of the public inquiry, and has largely ruled out systemic questions about social housing funding from being examined. The inquiry itself may be a mechanism for depoliticising the policy issue of inadequate funding for social housing. These questions are as complex as the real-world processes they seek to capture. The key issue here, however, is: how do questions of public importance come to be depoliticised? Should you look at state institutions and their outcomes, or public discourse and its impact on those institutions? Seeking to answer these questions helps us as scholars to pinpoint where the state seems to be shirking responsibility – before and after a crisis occurs – and to show where it can be held to account in the process.

Contributors to the book also debate how depoliticisation might be resisted, and the relationship between depoliticisation and politicisation – the re-centralisation of decision-making within the state. Governing strategies usually mix the two, as politicians often want to create radical change as much as forestall it. This may involve politicising one issue while depoliticising another. In the wake of the Brexit vote, for example, Theresa May’s government made a conscious decision to politicise the issues of citizenship and identity by creating a new ministerial department for Brexit and tasking it specifically with the aim of withdrawing from the European single market and ‘taking back control’ of Britain’s borders. Business, trade unions and the devolved governments, by contrast, had their priorities – economic growth, social rights and constitutional issues – relegated to arm’s length advisory boards (temporarily at least). Whether this is successful or not will be an intriguing question over the process of the Brexit negotiations.

In sum, depoliticisation can be a highly effective strategy for governments seeking to displace responsibility for contentious decisions, and make those decisions appear non-political by manipulating the public’s ‘normal’ discourse around what is and isn’t a matter of ‘politics’. Putting lawyers, economists, scientists and other ‘experts’ in charge of recommending and implementing policy decisions may make those decisions seem less ‘political’ in normal parlance (regardless of how ‘political’ the political economists who analyse them know they are). Alternatively, it may disperse political movements and make them focus on other arenas beside state elections and consultations.

However, these strategies of governing are fraught with difficulties and potential opposition, and may throw up unintended consequences. The questions for political economists interested in both specific policy fields and the broader macro trajectory of the global political economy are: 1) under what conditions do new institutional formats shift the political character of the decision they are tasked with? and 2) how do reactions to unexpected political crises and events lead to the creation of new institutions with paradigmatically different priorities? These are questions we explore in the book and are central to the study of anti-politics, depoliticisation, and governance.