Britain's Political Values Will Change, One Tweet at a Time

There’s a term in political theory called the Overton Window, used to describe whatever range of ideas are deemed acceptable at a given time. This window effectively forms the status quo; it allows some wiggle room, but any ideas too far removed from it become radical or even unthinkable. There’s nothing inherent about a country’s window. It can swing any number of ways based on history and public opinion, but it can also be carefully shifted by those in power. Government clearly isn’t just about making policies. It also gives the opportunity to set society’s ideas.

Since the late 1970s, Britain’s window has shuffled towards a neo-liberal mentality with use of market mechanisms in almost every sphere of life, financial deregulation and privatisation, to name a few. The more entrenched these ideas become, the harder it is to argue against them. Post-Thatcher, Labour moved from its origins to a more centrist stance. Social democratic policies that existed 50 years ago are now rubbished as either laughably unfeasible – ‘the loony left at it again!’ – or outright dangerous. Ed Miliband’s plans to reform non-dom laws and cap energy bills were hardly the foundations of a communist utopia, but that didn’t stop the campaign against ‘Red Ed’.

Now that the Conservatives have a majority government, there will be a big push to solidify this consensus – perhaps irreversibly. After presiding over five years of austerity and still getting back into office, Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to assert more than ever that there is no other way. The opposition, unable to provide a convincing alternative, has further vindicated a belief that even the mildest change is untenable.

the electorate has been convinced that there is no alternative

Public assets are now sold off in the name of competition, often leading to nothing but poorer service and higher bills for users. NHS services are contracted out to firms, shovelling public money into private pockets. Banks are bailed out of a financial crisis then allowed to continue as they were before. Those at the bottom are squeezed for everything they’re worth while the richest double their wealth, vast swathes of which goes untaxed.

So too, an ‘intrusive’ state is cut back to the point where it is unable to provide even a basic safety net for the vulnerable. The government’s plans to create even more stringent anti-union laws will continue to shake working people’s stability and erode fair pay. Social mobility plummets but the worst-off are vilified, their individual moral failings held to blame.

Short of making these things popular, the electorate has been convinced that there is no alternative.

It’s little wonder that apathy is so high. An ever larger number of people might be unhappy about the values in our current Overton Window, but they’ve been browbeaten into thinking there is nothing they can do about it. Dampen people’s hope and, while they might not love you, they will put up and shut up.

There is a growing appetite for values to be re-assessed

But there is nothing natural or inevitable about these things. This is one way of running a country, but history and geography would suggest that it’s not the only way. The post-war consensus may have come undone by the late 70s, but an equal number of years have now passed since Thatcher’s time. There is a growing appetite for the values she laid down to be re-assessed, and for alternate ideas to get a fair hearing again.

Many might be in favour of the current status quo, but the millions who aren’t shouldn’t feel demoralised into glum acceptance. Last week’s election result was a set-back, but it doesn’t mean that our current political consensus is here to stay – not when there are so many people for whom it simply isn’t working.

These people have it within themselves to organise, to campaign. Take, for instance, the crowds marching against the bedroom tax, or the activists staging sit-in protests at the headquarters of tax avoiding companies. The mere act of spreading awareness about the injustices listed above can have a colossal impact, whether by word-of-mouth or via social media (a tool that younger generations in particular are using to re-shape conversations about the issues facing them). So-called ‘consciousness raising’ has been at the heart of countless equality movements over the years. After all, it doesn’t take the financial backing of big business for people to paint a banner and take to the streets. If dismissed by the newspapers, 140 characters on Twitter is all it takes for new a narrative to be voiced.

A country seemingly run for the benefit of a tiny elite needn’t be accepted as an inevitability. It isn’t the way things have always been. Nor is the public powerless to stop it.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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