The Politics of Expertise: How NGOs Shaped Modern Britain

Posted on Wednesday 17th April 2013

Matthew Hilton and Nicholas Crowson, working with Birmingham city councillor James McKay and Jean-François Mouhot, a researcher at Georgetown University, have published The Politics of Expertise with Oxford University Press. It offers a new interpretation of politics in contemporary Britain, through an examination of non-governmental organisations.

Abstract

Over the twentieth century, increasingly affluent and educated citizens have turned away from the traditional forms of mass politics: joining political parties, membership of trade unions, even voting in elections themselves. But these trends should not be seen as decline – rather, they show how the political system has changed. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, Shelter, and Oxfam have marketed themselves to citizens as an alternative way of pursuing politics.

Using specific case studies of three sectors—homelessness, environment, and international aid and development—The Politics of Expertise demonstrates how politics and political activism have changed over the last half century. NGOs have contributed enormously to a professionalisation and a privatization of politics, emerging as a new form of expert knowledge and political participation. They have been led by a new breed of non-party politician, working in collaboration and in competition with government. Skilful navigators of the modern technocratic state, they have brought expertise to expertise and, in so doing, have changed the nature of grassroots activism. As affluent citizens have felt marginalised by the increasingly complex nature of many policy solutions, they have made the rational calculation to support NGOs, the professionalism and resources of which make them better able to tackle complex problems.

In this sense, politics itself has been privatized. Yet support, rather than participation, is the more appropriate way to describe the relationship of the public to NGOs. As voter turnout has declined, membership and trust in NGOs has increased. But NGOs are very different types of organisations from the classic democratic institutions of political parties and the labour movement. They maintain different and varied relationships with the publics they seek to represent. Attracting mass support has provided them with the resources and the legitimacy to speak to power on a bewildering range of issues, yet perhaps the ultimate victors in this new form of politics are the NGOs themselves.

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