Abstract

‘Statecraft’ theory, with its focus on politicians' strategic, electoral choices, has undergone a revival in recent years. This is a reply to those authors who have used ‘Statecraft’ in their analysis of the Conservative Party under David Cameron [notably Hayton (2014),Parliamentary Affairs 67, 1; Gamble (2014)Parliamentary Affairs]. Statecraft theory raises various questions and contains implications—ontological, epistemic and methodological—that need to be dealt with by its contemporary advocates. I conclude that while the contributions discussed here are a valuable reminder that strategic thinking is an important part of what any politician does, strict adherence to the Statecraft model is a straitjacket to our understanding of British politics.

1. The revival of Conservative Party Statecraft

In a seminal article, Jim Bulpitt wrote that the ‘main bias’ of the Conservative Party, at the time under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, was ‘Statecraft’. Crudely put, this was ‘the art of winning elections and achieving some necessary degree of governing competence in office’. In order to achieve this, the party leadership needed to be able to do several things: develop a winning electoral strategy; manage the party; demonstrate governing competence and develop a ‘political argument hegemony’—by which he meant something close to a dominant ideology. If successful, that cycle could start again with a new electoral strategy (1986, pp. 20–23).1 A strength of Bulpitt's article seemed to be in its power to cut through existing debates over the extent to which ‘Thatcherism’ was merely a pragmatic response to a changing political climate or an ideologically driven attack on the post-war consensus.2

Statecraft theory has undergone a revival in recent years.3 An important strand of this revival has been its application to the Conservative Party under David Cameron. For example, in an article in this journal, ‘Conservative Party Statecraft and the Politics of Coalition’, Richard Hayton explicitly draws on Bulpitt to argue that ‘we can credit David Cameron with finding a solution—at least temporarily—to the problem that has dogged all Conservative leaders since 1992, namely how to devise a form of neo-Thatcherite statecraft capable of sustaining the party in office’ (Hayton, 2014, pp. 7 and 19). Similarly Andrew Gamble cites Bulpitt in making a powerful case that ‘“austerity” can be understood as an aspect of statecraft’ (Gamble, 2014, p. 2 of 16). He argued that while a great deal of attention has been focused on whether political leaders’ responses to the economic crisis were fiscally correct, austerity has also been used by George Osborne, as Chancellor, to boost the Conservative's prospects of being considered economically credible, and therefore electable, compared to their rivals. The Statecraft approach has also been used elsewhere, notably in Heppell and Seawright's edited collection, which ‘emphasised the potential value of using the Bulpitt statecraft model to aid our understanding of the transition from opposition to coalition government for the Conservatives under David Cameron’ (Heppell and Seawright, 2012, p. 224). In this engagement, I re-examine some of the underlying assumptions that are part of Statecraft theory and question the use of applying that theory in any strict way to contemporary politics.

The application of Statecraft theory to Cameron's Conservative Party is initially attractive as a way of explaining the actions of the party's leadership. Indeed, Osborne's activities as Chancellor since the 2015 general election can certainly be viewed as examples of Gamble's ‘austerity as statecraft’. First, Osborne announced that he would legislate to ensure governments run a surplus in ‘normal’ times (BBC, 2015, 10 June). This set a challenge to Labour: the party would either have to publically make the case for running a deficit, which fitted with a common view that Labour overspending was responsible for the economic crisis (Gamble, 2014); or it would have to accept the Conservative logic and the fiscal limits that it implied, ceding the economic argument to the Tories. Second, during the 2015 budget Osborne announced significant cuts to welfare, particularly to tax credits, as part of a deficit reduction strategy (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2015). Again, Labour was forced to choose between the electorally unpopular position of defending welfare or accepting the Conservative position. The initial decision by Labour's acting leader, Harriet Harman, to accept the welfare cuts led to rebellion in her own party. In both cases, Osborne's strategy worked successfully, further tearing apart a Labour Party already divided over its response to the economic crisis (Gamble, 2014). Forcing Labour's leadership to make these choices serves a clear partisan purpose. Bulpitt's account of Statecraft is initially attractive because partisan strategic thinking is a significant part of what any successful leading politician does.

Despite the intuitive strength of the Statecraft approach, I argue that these various analyses provide an unnecessarily narrow account of British politics.4 This reply does not deny that ‘statecraft’ (in lowercase to denote strategic electoral thinking) is something that politicians carry out as part of their activities, but it takes issue with the overall theory of ‘Statecraft’ and its implications (capitalised to denote the theoretical approach associated with Bulpitt and his contemporary followers). The articles in this journal by Hayton and Gamble5 make a significant contribution to the understanding of British politics, but they are at their most illuminating when they distance themselves from Bulpitt's account of Statecraft. In this engagement, I argue that Statecraft contains ontological, epistemological and methodological problems, which need to be addressed before it can be successfully applied to Cameron's Conservatives, as Hayton, Gamble and others have sought to do. First, Statecraft provides an ontologically narrow account of the goal to which politics is directed. Second, it makes an epistemologically problematic claim over the ‘main bias’ of political actors. Third, Statecraft theory implies a questionable and limited set of means to reach that goal. Fourth, Statecraft focuses attention on an unhelpfully limited group of actors and excludes others from our understanding of politics. For Statecraft analysis to be a more useful tool, Hayton, Gamble and others should be more explicit on where they stand on these theoretical issues and their implications. Without this, strict adherence to the Statecraft model is a straitjacket to a better understanding of British politics.

2. The limits of statecraft approaches

Approaches that rely on Statecraft theory face various limitations that need to be addressed. A first issue with the rediscovery of Bulpitt's model involves its limited view of the goal of leading politicians: they are primarily concerned with winning elections and maintaining power as an end in itself. This is an ontologically narrow account of the nature of politics (Hay, 2002, ch. 2). Politics is clearly, in part, concerned with winning power, but many involved in it would argue that electoral success is a means to something else. (Indeed, there are plenty of examples of politicians who have ceded defeat once it became unclear what they were standing for–as the accounts of leading figures in the Labour Party in 1951, the Conservatives in 1997 and Labour in 2010 show.) For Bulpitt, however, there is little room for other explanations of politicians’ behaviour aside from electoral success.

For Statecraft theorists, ideology or values are reduced to a means of gaining power. Bulpitt is explicit about the ‘instrumental’ role of ideology (1989, p. 57). Yet this does not seem to ring true as an explanation for the role of ideology in politicians’ lives. There are certainly attempts to present political ideas as palatably as possible, and to make compromises with the electorate if certain ideas are unpopular. However, it does not simply seem to be the case that ideologies are no more than instruments to be picked up, tried and dropped at will, in a bid to win elections. Hayton accepts that Statecraft contains ‘an analytical bias against the role of political ideas’ and claims that Conservative Statecraft is influenced by the ideological context. However, although Hayton's piece contains an interesting discussion on ideology and the Coalition, the point about how ideas fit into the Statecraft framework is not developed in his article. In short, Statecraft's mono-causal account of why politicians act leaves little room for alternative explanations.

A methodological consequence of this account of politics is that Statecraft theory is often implicitly dropped or sidelined when it comes to discussing the ideological aspects of the Coalition, because a strict application of the theory limits discussion. Hayton, for example, begins his article by asking a question over ‘the extent to which the Conservative Party is by inclination an ideological one, or [whether it is] driven by a fundamental concern with statecraft’ (Hayton, 2014, p. 6). His article often discusses political ideas in a way that implies ideology is not instrumental and strategic, but something that provides frameworks within which politicians operate. However, this point is not expanded upon in his article, and it would be difficult to incorporate it within Bulpitt's view that elite politics is largely about the rational choices actors make to win elections and maintain power. (By contrast, Hayton's earlier work on Conservatism takes a more explicitly sceptical view of Statecraft theory—see Hayton, 2012, pp. 10–11). Statecraft approaches simply assume an answer to Hayton's question, rather than provide a way of reflecting on the relative power of ideology and a desire for electoral victory in politicians’ minds. Indeed, Statecraft does not provide any answer to questions about the role of ideology or electoral success in party politics; it merely states that the former is subservient to the latter. To a strict Statecraft theorist, ideology is an irrational and inconvenient motivation—like falling in love, it blinkers actions and hinders clear-sighted analysis.

Second, Bulpitt's assertion that the ‘main bias’ of politicians is winning elections is epistemologically and methodologically problematic. How can we know the ‘main bias’ of leading politicians? Given the epistemic problems of knowing the cause of any individual agent's actions, there is no appropriate methodology to apply Statecraft theory. It is possible to carry out elite interviews, trawl biographies and diaries and consult various archives, but politicians rarely chose to describe their actions in terms of Statecraft, preferring to provide other grander justifications for their actions—the ‘national interest’ perhaps or other ideological defences (a point Bulpitt noted, 1983, p. 57). Although we cannot know the often latent motivations of leading politicians, it is striking that Statecraft theorists tend to provide an account of the motivation for the actions of a politician at odds with accounts politicians give themselves. This also puts the analyst in the awkward position of having to defend the Statecraft hypothesis in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The difficulty of knowing politicians' ‘main bias’ is reflected in Gamble's article on ‘austerity as statecraft’. He offers three explanations for the austerity agenda—ideology, fear of the bond markets, and Statecraft—but leaves it to the reader to conclude which is most convincing (Gamble, 2014, pp. 9–12 of 16). Bulpitt would have us in no doubt, but he would also be unable to provide us with an answer to why or how we find out what really causes politicians to act. For committed Statecraft theorists, politicians make rational choices about winning power, no matter what they actually tell you themselves.

A third problem for those applying Bulpitt's Statecraft analysis to Cameron and the Coalition is over the means necessary to win elections. In his 1986 article, Bulpitt sets out four ‘major dimensions of statecraft’: electoral strategy, party management, governing competence and political argument hegemony. This is an approach used by contemporary Statecraft theorists, such as Buller and James (2012). Yet it is unclear why those factors help to achieve the goal of ‘winning elections and demonstrating governing competence’ rather than others. Other analyses of political leadership stress quite different criteria for electoral success, such as the personal characteristics of the leader (for example, Greenstein, 2009). Even if one accepts the goal of politics that Bulpitt sets out above, it is still an open question as to which elements are the most effective means to that end.

This approach to the ‘means’ of Statecraft can lead to a narrow methodology. Heppell and Seawright, for example, structure their edited collection on Cameron and the Conservatives around the four elements of Statecraft set out above. In taking these means as given, they are in danger of limiting their analysis of Cameron and closing down interesting questions about how the Conservatives gained power in 2010, rather than opening up debate about the variety of routes to electoral success and governing competence (2012, pp. 10–14). Indeed, it is striking that none of the contributors to the collection explicitly use a Statecraft analysis. (The term is not used in the collection, other than by the editors.) It is unclear what it is about the four dimensions of Statecraft that Bulpitt sets out that will make winning elections more likely. Avoiding Bulpitt's approach allows a broader discussion of the wide variety of strategic decisions that help to win elections and maintain power. Once again, Statecraft theory constrains, rather than frees, analysis of those factors that contribute to a winning electoral strategy.

A final problem with the rediscovery of Bulpitt's Statecraft model by contemporary writers concerns the range of relevant actors. For Bulpitt, the scope for the study of politics is so wide that it becomes a practical necessity to narrow it down to something more manageable for the political scientist. In the UK political system, Bulpitt argues that we should focus attention on the behaviour of ‘the Court’, understood as ‘the formal Chief Executive, plus his/her political friends and advisers’ (Bulpitt, 1995, p. 518). This is a view of ‘high’ or elite politics. For Bulpitt, only the ‘Court’ will have a suitably general perspective when it comes to developing policy (Bulpitt, 1996a, p. 1097). Yet, this approach seems unduly restrictive. A study of ‘the Court’ seems likely to provide only a partial picture of British politics. It excludes analyses that are potentially fruitful. The work of thinkers who have helped to shape the ‘climate of opinion’ is outside the scope of Statecraft theory. For Statecraft analysts, only the ‘high politics’ of a few actors matters.

The consequence of this view of politics is reflected in the articles under discussion, which use Bulpitt's narrow ‘agent designation’. Hayton's article focuses largely on Cameron (2014), while Gamble's article focuses on Osborne (2014). Statecraft theory excludes those thinkers that have directly or indirectly shaped their views. So in Gamble's article on austerity as a form of Statecraft, there is no room to discuss those thinkers who contributed to the intellectual climate where austerity was an appropriate response to economic crisis, such as the ‘neo-liberal’ thinker, Friedrich Hayek—despite Gamble's own expertise and interest in Hayek's thought (Gamble, 1996). A study of Hayek— in so far as he shaped the climate of opinion—is incompatible with a narrow interpretation of the Statecraft approach, which allows no room for ideas or for the study of political actors outside the political elite. To be manageable, Statecraft closes down the discussion of what is interesting and influential in politics, rather than opening it up. In short, Statecraft involves an exclusive and unnecessary focus on a narrow range of actors.

3. Conclusions: Statecraft as a straitjacket

Statecraft theory narrows debate: it makes questionable claims about political agents’ motivations, excludes alternative explanations and suggests a narrow set of means, pursued by a small group of actors. The articles by Hayton (2014) and Gamble (2014) in this journal make a significant contribution to the understanding of the Conservatives under David Cameron, and importantly draw attention to the strategic considerations that leading politicians make. However, they use Statecraft analysis without exploring its shortcomings, and as such leave aside significant questions about ontology, epistemology and methodology, which it would be helpful to address. Strict adherence to the Statecraft model is a straitjacket to a better understanding of British politics.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Paul Gunn for a detailed response, and for helpful comments at three meetings: ‘The effect of coalition on the 2015 general election’ conference at Newcastle University on 22 April 2015; the ‘Rethinking Conservatism and conservatism workshop’ at Durham University on 16 June 2015; and the panel on ‘The Political Responses and the Fall-Out of Austerity II’ at the Council for European Studies’ 22nd International Conference of Europeanists, ‘Contradictions: Envisioning European Futures’ held at Sciences Po, Paris, on 9 July 2015.

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1
Bulpitt developed his Statecraft theory throughout the 1980s and 1990s—see Bulpitt (1983, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1996a, 1996b). The summary above sets out the bare bones.
2
Peter Riddell (1983) sets out the ‘pragmatic’ case, while in different ways Andrew Gamble (1988) and Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall (1983) give important variations of the ‘ideological’ interpretation.
3
Bulpitt died in 1999, but contemporary ‘Bulpittians’ include James Buller, Jonathan Bradbury and Toby James (see Buller, 1999; Buller and James, 2012, 2014; Bradbury, 2006, 2010. James will also shortly publish a series of co-edited books on party leaders and Statecraft).
4
Existing critiques of Statecraft theory have been made by Zig Layton-Henry (1986, p. 6; 1992, ch. 8); RAW Rhodes (1988, p. 3) and Gerry Stoker (1995, p. 103). I only draw on and develop those critiques relevant to the contemporary application of Statecraft to the Conservative Party in this reply.
5
Alan Convery's insightful article in this publication (2014) also uses Bulpitt's framework, but focuses more on the territorial division between high politics of the Westminster elite and the low politics of local and devolved government (set out in Bulpitt, 1983), rather than on the high politics of the Coalition to which I am responding here.