“Let us go out with confidence to meet the world to come, let us embrace this new age of ambition, and let us build the Britain of our dreams”.
How many of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] fellow-British citizens share his dreams for Britain? How many of them have any sort of dreams for Britain as such? I can’t think of anyone I know – and, as an English nationalist, I’m in a minority of one among my circle of friends – who goes around saying, ‘I wish that in Britain, there was more equality of access to educational opportunity’, or ‘if only in Britain we had a culture and politics that really encouraged creativity and ambition’. It’s not only that many people, if they have any dreams at all for their country, would refer to these as dreams for England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland; and don’t talk about Britain this and Britain that (unlike Mr Brown: 22 references to ‘Britain’ / ‘British’ in a speech of 3,065 words – actually, a comparatively low proportion for him). But it’s that people’s ‘dreams’ are more personal: related above all to what they would like to achieve for themselves and their families, and – as part of that – what they would like for the localities, communities, towns and cities, and ultimately the country and world in which they live. The importance within all of this that people ascribe to their ‘nation’ derives from so many ties of shared experience, identity, history and priorities, extending from the individual level where dreams take shape to those around us who have similar dreams, and our realisation that the fulfilment of those dreams, or indeed the wellbeing of the communities we cherish, is based on mutual dependency, collaboration and support.
GB would probably try to make out that his ‘dream for Britain’, presented at Labour’s spring conference on Saturday, does try to espouse this individual level of aspiration and ambition. Indeed, he sets out his whole vision as being based on releasing the potential of the individual:
“We are the first generation to be able to say that there need be no limit on how far your talent can take you, no cap on what you can do with your potential and no ceiling on how many of us can fulfill our dreams”.
Creating the ‘Britain of our dreams’ is about creating a Britain in which everyone can fulfil their dreams. Indeed, the essence of Brown’s vision for Britain is a meritocracy where upward social mobility is determined by individual talent, which the structures of British society enable to be fully released:
“The new way, in this new age of rising ambition, is to provide a platform, from which each individual can rise. And this, is a new common purpose that our generation can forge together, a new meritocracy, a new wave of upward social mobility, that instead of unlocking just some of the talent of some of the people, must in this generation unlock all of the talents, of all of the people”.
While this meritocracy is a benefit that society confers on people (advancement and recognition based on the use of one’s talents that society has helped you to develop), it is also an imperative: meritocracy that must unlock all of the talents of all of the people. This is where the interface between GB’s Christian family background and his social doctrine is most evident. In Christian teaching, the fulfilment of an individual’s talents is a moral duty: the expression of gifts received by the individual from God for the benefit of all. In GB’s vision, this personal duty to develop one’s potential becomes elevated to the central purpose of society as a whole, which also fulfils an economic imperative: enabling Britain to compete and prosper in a global economy that places a premium on talent, creativity and knowledge.
In short, GB’s model of a meritocratic society is a purely economic one, in which the opportunities that society gives the individual through education, healthcare and other forms of social provision are an investment on which it is as much a social as moral responsibility of the individual to generate a return – through work, and the benefits to society and the economy that derive from the active expression of individuals’ talents. This translates to GB’s political programme as follows:
“to forge this common purpose we must create:
– a new economic policy, that is designed to reward talent, creativity and skills
– a new social and welfare policy of rights and responsibilities that equips people to master change, instead of letting change master them
– a programme of new education reforms that for trusts, specialist and academy schools, focus on excellence for all
– a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves
– and new personalised public services, tailored to meet our needs and choices so that we can live the lives we all choose, with a pace of reform stepped up not slowed down”.
To unpack this somewhat, the reference to ‘a new social and welfare policy of rights and responsibilities’ means that welfare is linked to this idea of a social-moral obligation to work and thereby express one’s talents. As GB says later in the speech, “we will insist that all who can work, must work, in fairness to all of us who do. Between now and 2010, we will give people new hope by helping another 100,000 people move from welfare to work”. So is there now to be a general obligation for British citizens to work, for the good of society and the economy; even those citizens not seeking or needing welfare benefits? And we all know what ‘helping people to move from welfare to work’ involves in practice: forcing many sick and disabled people, and their carers, into often inappropriate or unrewarding employment; or insisting that new mothers should work and then be obliged to pay for childcare, often with no economic advantage to themselves and the loss of the ability to be full-time mothers during their children’s pre-school years.
Obviously, there are also cases of people who could easily work choosing not to do so and claiming benefits, and who could rediscover a purpose in life and gain renewed self-esteem from moving into employment. But the point is, in Brown’s vision, that a person’s value is defined primarily in terms of their economic value: their ability to contribute to society, and to enhance their own lives, through economic activity and development. As if there were little or no value in the lives of those (children or the sick) who are dependent on the care of others who, in turn, choose to dedicate themselves to those dependants and thereby limit their engagement in society viewed as a market economy.
Instead, in Brown’s vision, the onus to care for children and the sick is shifted away from those who love them to society, which invests in educational and healthcare services designed to maximise the ability of people to participate fully in the market economy and capitalise on the social-market opportunity that those services both represent in themselves (here and now) and in turn enable for the future. For instance, there are Brown’s education reforms that are about fostering an array of choices that represent opportunity for both the providers and ‘customers’, whose future opportunities will be shaped by the excellence of the education services they receive: “a programme of new education reforms that for trusts, specialist and academy schools, focus on excellence for all”. (So much for the old ideal of a rounded liberal education that included both academic and non-academic subjects, many of which were not simply focused on economically orientated performance and excellence at every turn.)
Or healthcare provision prioritising economically active individuals’ needs to design their personal healthcare plans around their busy lives (e.g. through multi-GP polyclinics where you could end up seeing any one of 20 or more doctors, depending on who happened to be on duty at the time) – rather than services focused on the needs of long-term sick and disabled people who typically benefit most from the more cost-intensive, continuous one-to-one relationship with a single GP: “new personalised public services, tailored to meet our needs and choices so that we can live the lives we all choose”. Lives we choose, or lives in which the only time we can squeeze in our medical appointments is the supposedly free time of the weekend or evenings – so pressured are the demands of economically competitive living?
And don’t be fooled by the pledge of “a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves”. This is not political power or people power, and the opportunity to throw out an unpopular and unrepresentative government, or even change the state itself to one that more closely reflects people’s national identities and priorities. No, this is economic opportunity only: the power of individuals to change their lives through the exercise of their talents; the power of the meritocracy, not democracy:
“That’s what Labour values in action look like: using the opportunity of power, to unleash the power of opportunity”.
“policies that year on year will meet the challenges of global change by ensuring opportunity and security not just for some, but for all who play by the rules. This is what I mean by fairness to hard-working families”.
So long as you ‘play by the rules’ of Brown’s Britain and fulfil your duty to society by working hard, then you’ll have economic opportunity and the protection of the state – but not if you want to opt out of the collective purpose to create a Britain of dreams, and seek freedom from the intrusive interference and demands of the British state.
Or if you wish to reject New Labour’s drive to build its New British Jerusalem in England’s once green and pleasant land. That is because most of these long-term policies for Britain are of course in fact solely for England (those in education, health and housing, for instance) and rest on the assumption that Labour will continue relentlessly to exercise power over England through the UK government for years and years to come: phrases such as “by 2010”, “year on year”, “over the next decade” and even “over the next 25 years” recur again and again throughout the speech.
So it looks as though, in England, we could be stuck with Brown’s Britain of dreams (or, as the Labour spring conference website has it, “New Labour your Britain”) for years, even decades, to come – whether we’ve voted for it or not; for we the English certainly haven’t voted for it, for England, since at least 1997, because there is no such thing as English votes by English people for English laws. So we can look forward to ever more competitive markets in education and health, giving us the ‘choice’ of public services to fit around our busy individualised, compartmentalised lives that we have ‘chosen’, and matching our aspirations for our children defined purely in terms of economic success and social advancement – as opposed to their happiness and contribution to enriching the quality of life of those around them. And we can look forward to three million new homes to cater to Britain’s massive immigration-fuelled population growth, concentrated almost exclusively in England, providing labour for Britain’s economic powerhouse – cluttering up our already overcrowded land, and replacing green field with unwanted eco-towns foisted upon disempowered, objecting local communities; the rest no doubt increasingly served by new nuclear power stations, also sited in England.
Let’s build Brown’s Britain of dreams, then: Britain’s economic meritocracy. In the absence of English democracy, it seems that is the only ‘choice’ that awaits us – even if it may in fact herald the England of our nightmares.