Steve Richards: Everything has changed, but most politicians don't realise it

There is a deep divide with the past. The common theme is that concentrations of power – in banking, the media, the police or politics – must be held to account

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There are a growing number of public figures, or former public figures, who must be utterly bewildered as they try to make sense of what is happening to them. Their bewilderment is a consequence of tumultuous events that leave them stranded. The most senior politicians in the land, police officers and media executives felt they were doing what was required to thrive in modern Britain only to discover that they have been left behind, their outlook dangerously outdated, while they assumed that they were the clever, agile modernisers.

The bafflement extends to the top of the Government. When he first became leader of his party at the end of 2005, David Cameron took a refreshing approach to media relations, employing decent unblemished press officers and remaining reasonably relaxed about relations with Rupert Murdoch's empire. Indeed he told friends during the early phase of his leadership that he had to accept that Murdoch did not like metropolitan Tories, and the harsh reality was that he, Cameron, was a metropolitan Tory.

This hint of a fresh approach changed dramatically when Cameron appointed Andy Coulson. Suddenly he was meeting News International executives on a regular basis. Even when in No.10 and involved in highly sensitive decisions about the BSkyB deal, Cameron saw them on average at least twice a month. This change of direction serves as a wider illustration of the Cameron/Osborne leadership. The duo sensed that they needed to change, to make a leap from the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, but apart from the relatively easy area of social liberalism, could not bring themselves to do so.

Instead they have responded to the banking crisis, another epoch-changing event, with a narrow economic policy formulated with the active approval of the former Chancellors under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, defining figures in the 1980s and 90s. In doing so they were increasingly dependent on the support of News International's newspapers. Even the Daily Telegraph dared to question whether the Government was paying enough attention to policies for growth, but the Murdoch press were on the whole highly supportive of Osborne's Plan A.

Only a short time ago the strategy seemed to be doing the trick, transcending cataclysmic external events. Now, brilliant politicians brought up on the politics of the 1980s and 1990s are suddenly lost, their assumptions called into question by eruptions outside their limited control.

The sense of bewildered loss must be much more intense for the former head of the Metropolitan Police, Paul Stephenson, and his former Assistant Commissioner, John Yates. Evidently both thought they were smart in keeping lines open to the media in general and, most specifically, to News International. Like Cameron, they continued to wine and dine with News International executives although they were taking sensitive decisions about the company's future.

During Yates's previous "cash for honours" investigation the newspapers regularly obtained stories from police sources and he was hailed as a wise, courageous officer in the media for taking on the powerful – a dynamic that raises profound questions about where power really lies. The duo seemed, at the very least, to have enjoyed their easy rapport with journalists and presumably assumed they would flourish as a result of positive news coverage. Now, both are gone, no longer the media's heroes, but exposed because of their failure to investigate evidence in relation to a media organisation, and trapped by a naïve, insulated view of what matters most in modern Britain.

Others struggle or have struggled to catch up with the interconnected events. Gordon Brown never quite grasped that the banking collapse required a new approach to banking. Osborne struggles to do so now. As Chancellor, whenever Brown had to make a sensitive decision, he turned to bankers as a protective shield. Bankers were successful, respected figures in the Britain of the 1980s and 1990s. Brown was proud to be associated with them, hoping to reassure Murdoch that he was a Chancellor who could be trusted. He never quite broke free from the assumptions that had shaped him, even though, faster than any other western leader, he had grasped that the overwhelming financial crisis was the first to challenge the new global economy.

Ed Miliband has not enjoyed a fruitful couple of weeks by chance, nor has he thrived as a result of short-term tactical calculation. On the contrary, he has taken risks. But he has recognized the scale of the change and its connection with other recent events, ones that mark a deep divide with the past. The common theme is that concentrations of power, whether in banking, the media, the police or politics, must be held to account. In a speech yesterday Miliband spoke of "the irresponsibility of the powerful. People who believed they were untouchable".



The same argument has been applied by senior Liberal Democrats, a more genuine coming together with Miliband than the forced, hopeless, unconvincing unity of the AV referendum campaign. Before he was a minister, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, wrote a best selling book, The Storm, which argued that the economic meltdown was caused by a banking crisis of historic proportions. Fearing another, he seeks radical reform of the banks. Famously Cable also spoke of the need to take on the Murdoch empire when recorded – disgracefully – by a couple of subterfuge reporters. Instinctively anti-establishment, Nick Clegg has delivered one of the best speeches about this crisis, pointing out that at its core is the accountability of mighty institutions.

Politicians are always late in adapting to profound external change. In the 1970s successive governments persisted in pursuing evidently outdated and failing corporatist policies because they had been conditioned to believe that this was what they did. Once again, moving into a new epoch, leaders have tried to press the same old buttons and found they no longer work.

These are early days. Cameron/Osborne still have time to adapt, but Miliband and some Liberal Democrats have moved faster so far. The stakes could not be higher. Those that can break free from their past will be the dominant forces in British politics for the next decade at least.





s.richards@independent.co.uk

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