Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 October 2010

David Cameron: Big society, not English government

There is a paradox at the heart of David Cameron’s keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday of this week. The prime minister made an impassioned defence of his belief in abolishing ‘big government’ in favour of empowering individual people and smaller groupings of people (‘society’) to take decisions about the most important aspects of their lives, and to take the initiative in creating social and economic capital: a better, more responsible and more prosperous society. Yet, at the same time, Cameron holds on to a vision of the Government – the one he heads up as prime minister – as one for the whole of the United Kingdom, i.e. as one that is and must remain a bigger centre of power and political authority than, say, the smaller government provided by devolved nations within a federal state.

Indeed, Cameron set out this anti-devolution position in no uncertain terms:

“We will always pursue British interests. And there are some red lines we must never cross. The sight of that man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, the biggest mass murderer in British history, set free to get a hero’s welcome in Tripoli. No. It was wrong, it undermined our standing in the world. Nothing like that must ever happen again.

“When I walked into Downing Street as Prime Minister, I was deeply conscious that I was taking over the heaviest of responsibilities, not least for the future of our United Kingdom. . . . I want to make something . . . clear. When I say I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I really mean it. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – we are weaker apart, we are stronger together, and together is the way we must remain.”

The paragraph about the release of the Lockerbie bomber is on one level pure posturing. If something like that happened again, there’s no way Cameron, even as the prime minister of the UK, could do anything about it, unless he’s planning on undoing not only Scottish devolution but hundreds of years of Scottish judicial independence. No, as the context makes clear, the reference to the Al-Megrahi case is really intended as an illustration of what could happen if devolution were extended to England: Cameron does have the power to prevent something like that, by ensuring that the governance of England, and the final say in judicial matters of this gravity in England and Wales, remain firmly in the hands of the British government, so as not to damage Britain’s ‘standing in the world’. So when Cameron says ‘Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, he really means England to remain an integral part of his British remit.

In other words, empowering ‘people’, and transferring to them many of the responsibilities previously carried out for them by ‘government’, does not equate to giving the people, even less the ‘English people’, the choice as to how they wish to be governed at a national level. ‘England’ hardly enters Cameron’s vocabulary, being mentioned only twice throughout the 6,866 word-long speech, which at least is twice more than Ed Miliband referred to England in his keynote address last week. Cameron’s second use of the ‘E’ word comes immediately after the passage I’ve just quoted: “But there is of course another side to life as Prime Minister. Like for instance, being made to watch the England football team lose, 4-1 to Germany, in the company of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel”. So, having just rubbished any English pretensions to question the legitimacy of Cameron’s prime-ministerial authority over England, he then has to try and prove that he really is an Englishman at heart by referring to the World Cup episode – as if to say: ‘well, England, you can’t have your own government and prime minister, you’ll just have to put up with being only a football nation, and even that you’re not much good at!’

That much may or may not be true, but there’s no reason why, later on in his speech, Cameron couldn’t have mentioned, when discussing the bid for the 2018 World Cup, that it involves bringing it to England, as opposed to the Olympics, which he says will be “great for Britain” – and, indeed, in which ‘the country’ will be represented by Team Great Britain. In fact, questions such as who or what represents ‘the country’; how government stands in relation to the country; and, indeed, which country is represented by the word ‘country’ are central to an understanding of Cameron’s speech. The answer, it would appear, is ‘people’, meaning individuals, groups of people and ‘the people’ collectively, and on two occasions – toward the beginning and end of the speech, and hence framing it – the ‘British people’.

‘People’, ‘country’ and ‘government’ are the most common significant words in Cameron’s speech, running through it like a thread or rhythmical refrain, as this helpful word cloud provided by the BBC illustrates:

The relationship between these key concepts reveals how Cameron tries to square the circle between scrapping big government and insisting on the prerogatives of United Kingdom government. At the centre of Cameron’s vision, as I have said, are ‘people’ (59 mentions): people are at the centre of ‘government’ (36 instances); they are the central reference of government. Government is for people: it exists in order to enable people to take responsibility for the important things in their lives and the lives of those around them; and insofar as people gradually take on these responsibilities, they are in effect taking over the tasks they have previously relied on big government to carry out on their behalf – providing schools, running the health service, setting priorities for policing, carrying out town planning, providing social care, etc. Hence, the people not only take over the government but in effect become the government: “We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer of power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society. That is the power shift this country needs today and we can deliver it in government”.

‘People’ is inherently a collective term in Cameron’s conception: it does not just mean ‘individual persons’, as in the selfish individualism associated with previous toxic brands of Conservatism; it means people coming and working together to fulfil vital and valuable social objectives (forming the big society), whether this is creating wealth-generating businesses, looking after their families or providing a public service for their local communities. So the process of people taking on the work of government does not involve splitting up the ‘country’ (36 mentions) into fragmented, small units, and ultimately leaving individuals entirely on their own; on the contrary, the dynamic of the big society Cameron would like to set in motion is one whereby people go out into the world and work ‘together’ (22 appearances) in their mutual interest, and, in that process, mere ‘people’ become not just their own government but a country – a collectivity that is bigger and greater than individuals alone:

“We can build a country defined not by the selfishness of the Labour years but by the values of mutual responsibility that this party holds dear. A country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say: I am not alone. I will play my part. I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”

“This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it. So mine is not just a vision of a more powerful country. It is a vision of a more powerful people. The knowledge in the heart of everyone – everyone – that . . . they are not small people but big citizens. People that believe in themselves. A Britain that believes in itself. Not a promise of a perfect country. Just an achievable future of a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone. At this time of great national challenge, two parties have come together to help make it happen. Yes, this is a new kind of government, but no, not just because it’s a coalition. It is a new kind of government because it is realistic about what it can achieve on its own, but massively ambitious about what we can all achieve together. A government that believes in people, that trusts people, that knows its ultimate role is not to take from people but to give, to give power, to give control, to give everyone the chance to make the most of their own life and make better the lives of others.”

So, in a sense, the people, the government and the country are to become one and the same, defined by working together to make everyone’s conditions of life better. The government – specifically, the coalition government that Cameron leads – is on this view no more than the ultimate extension and expression of this principle of people coming together to form a self-governing country, responsible for and towards its own future. Hence, the government is no longer big government but becomes essentially an enabler of the big society, and co-terminous with that big society, which is, as it were, government by the people for the country. And that country is Britain or the United Kingdom precisely because the United Kingdom – comprising four separate peoples or nations that are “stronger together”, in Cameron’s words – exists by virtue of the very same dynamic as the big society and big-society government as set out in Cameron’s speech: coming together to work in the mutual, national interest. ‘People’, the ‘country’ and ‘government’ are all about uniting to create a better future for all – and the United Kingdom state isn’t big government but is the ultimate symbol of that unity:

“That’s what happened at the last election and that is the change we can lead. From state power to people power. From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose. From big government to the big society.” [My emphasis]

There’s no room in this vision for anything we might like to call ‘England’, which is why it doesn’t feature in the word cloud: for Cameron, the people is the government is the country is the United Kingdom. All of these terms refer to each other, and represent each other, in a charmed closed circle that won’t be broken by the intrusion of a harsh reality such as that of England. But the reality of the big society is that it does represent and relate almost exclusively to England alone: all those radical reforms of the NHS, schools, policing, town planning, etc. will take effect in England only. It’s not just ‘people’ who will have to decide whether to respond to Cameron’s challenge to govern their own lives and build a better country; it’s the English people who will have to decide whether they can accept the real consequences for the quality of life and social fabric of their country, England, of Cameron’s vision of Britain.

David Cameron invites the English people to rise above their personal and collective self-interest, putting the big society and a united Britain ahead of selfish individualism and ‘narrow’ nationalism. However, as the bitter reality of cuts to English public services follows on from Cameron’s seductive rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the English people will really feel their legitimate interests, and their democratic rights to choose their priorities for government and public services, are being served by a government which, in Cameron’s concluding words, is set up to “work, together, in the national [British] interest”.

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