19 02 2012

Modernisation. New Labour loved the term and adopted its use to the forcing through of unpopular policy very successfully. David Cameron and his coalition colleagues were watching closely and learned well. As a tactic, ‘modernisation’ sounds far more palatable than ‘divide and rule’ and yet that is exactly what it is. However, where it should be easily countered it appears that time and again its opponents fail. Why?

It may be wise to start with an explanation; the way ‘modernisation’ is applied in today’s politics is not the way most people understand it. It is applied cynically as a way of painting the preferred option as the only way forward and painting any opposition as ‘dinosaurs’ – as individuals or groups who are opposed to change, who want to live in the past. If you are not for the politician’s version of modernisation, you are against it and are painted as opposing progress.

Cynical this may be but it has proved to be a highly successful tactic in that it pitches apparently reasonable against apparently unreasonable; it pitches those embracing change against those who appear to cling to the past.

Take the current debate around the reform of the NHS. David Cameron, Andrew Lansley and many of their coalition colleagues regularly refer to the need for reform, the need for modernisation. Their position is portrayed as intelligent, sensible and positive; after all, what intelligent person would oppose reform, modernisation of an institution everyone agrees needs reform.

It is simple divide and rule dressed in far nicer clothes. You are either for modernisation or you aren’t. You are with change and progress or you are a dinosaur, entrenched in the past.

Opponents fall for it time and time again. And time and time again fail to consider that most important component of good strategy – review what went before, learn from it, come back better prepared and stronger.

When politicians play the modernisation card it is no good to simply be against whatever it is they propose. In doing that you are playing to their tactics and not employing your own. By being opposed you take the unreasonable position they have selected for you, you make yourself the dinosaur, the opponent of change. You put yourself in a position where defeat is far more likely than victory. That is never a good strategy.

As David Cameron’s government seek to push ahead with their modernisation of the Health Service they will now apply another tactic much-loved by the moderniser; consultation. By consulting the moderniser further assumes the sought after stance of ‘reasonable.’ What the moderniser is very careful about is who they do and do not consult with, a wide consultation will take place but the consultees will be carefully selected and managed.

Meanwhile, those opposed to change continue to voice opposition. The moderniser repeats the (reasonable) need for change, now supported by ‘wide consultation’, often with ‘the experts’.

Tomorrow (Monday 20th February) David Cameron will do exactly this as he invites numerous health care experts to Downing Street to discuss the modernisation of the NHS. Afterwards he will push ahead with reforms and claim that the modernisation plans were widely consulted and that a range of experts support them.

It is classic modernisation.

Meanwhile organisations including the British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) have not been invited to tomorrow’s ‘consultation.’ Then again, they are all opposed to the Coalition’s Health Service reforms; why would they be invited? They serve no purpose to the moderniser other than to be an opposition which can be painted as dinosaurs.

It is a difficult situation, combating this divide and rule tactic. No matter how reasonable your opposition to the proposed modernisation, that very opposition further entrenches you as the opponent of change; it allows the moderniser to cast you in the role of unreasonable opponent of the future.

Stop. Think. Why does it?

The moderniser’s tactic only works because the opponent chooses to engage on the ‘battlefield’ of the moderniser’s choosing. What would the ‘granddaddy’ of strategy Sun Tzu make of that?

Bonkers – or its Chinese equivalent – would be his very sensible reaction. He would ask why these opponents don’t draw the moderniser onto the battlefield of their choosing.


Consider this; as long as all you do is oppose, there remains only the modernisers version of the future ‘on the table’ – in short, you play on their battlefield, you allow them to be for the future and to portray you as stuck in the past.

However if instead of opposing you offered your support for change but also offered one or more alternative views of what the future could look like you remove the moderniser’s strongest weapon, his reasonableness. You also remove your biggest weakness, your (apparent) unreasonable resistance to change.

As things stand the NHS reforms are the future if for no other reason than no comprehensive alternatives are on the table. We all know about the opposition to them, in voicing their disappointment at being excluded from tomorrow’s Downing Street consultation while reconfirming their opposition the BMA, the RCN and the RCGP do not advance their own position one jot. If, instead they put forward a viable alternative view of the future of health care in the UK they draw the fight to a different battlefield, one where the fight is no longer change versus status quo, the future against the past and instead becomes one of which version of the future we embrace – all sides become modernisers in the true sense of the word, not the cynical politically hijacked version.

We know what you are against. To have a chance of winning the fight we need to know what you are for.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal



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