Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

11 August 2011

England’s riots: if you keep trashing England, eventually England will trash you back

It’s easy to pontificate about this week’s riots in England. Everyone’s got their pet theory about the causes and possible solutions, and about what to do with the rioters and looters themselves. Many of those expressing an opinion have little or no first-hand experience of the geographical areas of which they write or of the riots; although many writers have been directly affected by the mayhem. In my case, I do have a lot of direct knowledge of Tottenham – the part of London where it all ‘kicked off’ last Saturday. One of the iconic pictures of the riot, the blazing Carpet Right store that was razed to the ground, is very close to somewhere I have stayed and visited on many occasions. But I wasn’t there on Saturday night and am currently staying in a part of England – Cambridgeshire – that appears up to now to have been unaffected by the troubles.

One fact that is worth pointing out right from the start is that these are English riots, not ‘British’. Up to now, as far as I know, there have been no disturbances and looting in Scotland, Wales or – for once – Northern Ireland. It typically took the media quite a while to wake up to the fact that the riots were limited to England and so should be referred to as ‘England’s riots’, rather than ‘UK riots’. Yesterday, however, I noticed what appeared to be a distinct shift in editorial policy, and the major news broadcasters all seemed to be correctly describing the riots as ‘English’. Which is more than can be said for David Cameron who, in his speech in Downing Street yesterday, still seemed incapable of acknowledging the specifically English character of the riots. Cameron referred merely to “parts of Britain” that were “sick” and failed, yet again, to mention ‘England’ once.

It seems paradoxical that one should feel aggrieved that the specifically English nature of the riots is not being acknowledged by politicians insisting on terming them ‘British’, as the riots are not exactly something to be proud of as an Englishman. But the reason for being angry about this is the same as the reason for being annoyed when any English issue is not referred to as such: it’s because this is a means for politicians and media not to engage with the English dimension of the issue concerned, and hence to avoid taking or suggesting any position to the effect that, maybe, English problems need English solutions – politicians that are willing to provide national leadership for England and to be accountable to the English people in so doing.

In fact, to me, England’s riots seem to illustrate in dramatic fashion what can happen when an entire nation is suppressed and ignored: dropped from the discourse, consciousness and attention of those are supposed to be providing leadership for it and are supposedly elected to serve its people. For years and years, England has in effect been ‘trashed’ by the political, media and liberal classes: disregarded, despised, ignored and erased from politically correct conversation. When a nation becomes the object of the contempt of its own ruling class, and of its economically better-off classes, should we be surprised if those who bear the brunt of that contempt strike back?

Now, I’m not trying to justify the senseless violence and criminality of the riots, and still less suggest that they are the expression of legitimate political protest, which they clearly are not. But in a way, that is the whole point: the young people involved are deprived not only socio-economically (although not all of them, it seems, are under-privileged) but they are deprived of a political language and means of expression for their anger and hostility towards authority. So instead, the outlet for their aggression is trashing retail outlets: symbols of a political and economic system that has left them excluded, marginalised, and frequently unemployed and unemployable.

Again, it’s too easy to generalise and make excuses for the predominantly young people responsible for the violence. But equally, it’s easy to fall into the opposite error. The government and media are attempting to develop a narrative for the riots that makes out that they exhibit ‘pure criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’, as well as being the consequence of inadequate parenting, and a break-down in morality and personal ethics ‘in society’ – for which, read England. But this just reduces the whole issue to one of individual ‘responsibility’ – one of Cameron’s favourite words – and glosses over the collective, political, English dimension. Criminality and thuggery, clearly in evidence on England’s streets this week, doesn’t come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn’t just come from the moral break-down of individuals, families and communities. It also has political causes and, in a less obvious way, motivations; and it sure as heck is going to have political consequences.

What we’re going to see is the British political and media establishment rallying round and closing ranks, and propagating the view that there can be only British solutions to these English social problems. And those ‘British solutions’ are going to be ones that flow from the reserved powers and UK-level thinking of the British establishment, rather than expressing a direct engagement with and concern for English social problems as English. Hence, there will be a focus on policing, and law and order (UK Home Office), with draconian punishments for the wrongdoers (which to some extent they deserve) and more ‘robust’ policing methods, which, however, does nothing to address the underlying causes of the violence and is likely to make certain sections of the communities concerned (e.g. the black population) feel even more persecuted than they already do.

Then the discourse around moral responsibility and parenting, however relevant these issues are, is again at the general level at which ‘national’ (i.e. UK) leaders are supposed to provide a moral example – leaving aside the fact that politicians have, in very recent memory, failed to provide such a moral example to society by cheating on their expenses and effectively stealing goods to a much higher value than most of the looters. And all this pontificating about ‘responsibility’ by the British great and good is, to a large extent, an abnegation of their political responsibility to create conditions in society – i.e. England – in which young people feel they have a steak in a meaningful future and in economic activity, rather than having nothing to lose from stealing from those perceived to have benefited from an economy in which they are the losers, and smashing up their country.

And then the call for rioters to forfeit their benefits, which looks likely to be the first e-petition to reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to qualify for a debate in Parliament, again addresses the situation purely at the British level, in that benefits are a UK reserved matter. But how is leaving newly criminalised, unemployed youngsters without any support from society going to encourage them to seek a better path in life? Surely, this is just going to make them feel even more desperate and embittered, and make them lash out even more against a society that has spurned them.

And this is, for me, the crux of the matter. The young people who have been involved in the violence, and whose voices have occasionally been allowed to be heard in the media, have often shown complete contempt and disregard for the police, for the legal system, for any figure of authority, and for the victims of their crimes, particularly the businesses they have wrecked, which they dismiss as the property of ‘rich’ people that had it coming to them. Where does such contempt and hatred come from? In part, at least, they arise from the disregard and indifference of which these English youngsters have been the object throughout their whole lives on the part of a system that has treated them and their country – England – with wholesale contempt. The scorn and indignation that is now being directed towards England’s rioters – justifiably so, in many respects – is co-terminous with the general contempt that the British establishment has for England per se: it’s not just England’s rioters that are at fault, but a violent and ‘sick’ England, which the rioters are seen as symbolising. And the British establishment is set on re-imposing its sway over those unruly English.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want law and order to be re-established, and I want to be kept safe from gangs of out-of-control youngsters treating wanton destruction as a piece of adrenalin-filled fun rather like a cheap substitute for a trip to Alton Towers that they couldn’t afford. But I don’t think the way to deal with the problem in the long term is to continue to fail to develop social policies for England, and particularly English youngsters, that enable people to take pride in their country. At the most minimal level, these riots demonstrate that those involved do not have pride in their country; and their country, Mr Cameron, is England. The British establishment can’t go on pretending England doesn’t exist, and making social policy for England subordinate to UK-national and economic priorities, regardless of the social impact, without expecting a backlash.

Well, obviously, the UK government does have social policies for England (i.e. in areas such as education, health and communities where its responsibilities – that word again – are limited to England), even though it goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that those policies are in fact specific to England. But, as I’ve argued previously, those policies flow from an ideology that is economic in its underlying philosophy: essentially, the belief that if the state withdraws from activities that have hitherto been the domain of the public sector, and makes those areas of society the responsibility of the free market, then services will be more appropriate to the needs of individuals and communities, and will be delivered more cost-efficiently and will generate economic growth. Whatever you think of such social-market economics or neo-liberalism, it is an ideology and an economic theory, not proven, empirical ‘fact’ as such; and, for the present government, England is the playground in which these theories are being put to the test. Or should that be a battleground?

The trouble is, market economics have been tested out in England for the past 30 years, and while they’ve made many English people very wealthy, they’ve created a whole class of English people that have lost out: who, for whatever reasons, have not engaged or been able to engage in the market economy that so often prefers to import cheap labour rather than paying English people a living wage and giving them decent working conditions that allow them to gain self-respect from work rather than feeling exploited and looked down upon. And that’s to say nothing of all the army of young unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed from whom benefits such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance and subsidised higher education (both retained in the UK’s devolved nations), let alone welfare benefits and subsidised social services such as youth clubs and leisure facilities, are being withdrawn in the interests of the UK economy and at the behest of ‘the markets’ in which UK plc lives in fear of having its credit rating adjusted downwards, as a consequence, in part, of its massive bail-out of the irresponsible and excessively wealthy financial-services markets themselves.

Really, is it any wonder that these disaffected and disenfranchised youths lash out in an ignorance that is in no small measure testament to an English education system that has failed to endow them with a sense of pride in England even while it tries to inculcate in them a Britishness that means nothing to them in tangible economic terms? If your country means nothing to you – indeed, if you don’t even know anything of your country, its proud history, traditions and culture – then it means nothing to you to trash it. And it means nothing to those youngsters because it is nothing to the British establishment that sees England even less than it sees the faces of those behooded youngsters rampaging through England’s streets.

Those young people – England’s future – are destroying England because they lack a positive political means and language with which to protest against a system that has let them down. And no British solution, imposed top-down from a British establishment that refuses to engage with English society and to seek to be a genuine government for England – a servant of the English people – is going to address this problem, because it will simply perpetuate it. We need an English government that cares about the English people, especially its dysfunctional youngsters, and which can address the problems from the bottom up. Our British obsession with the markets has created a society where economic success or failure is king, and indeed where education is mostly about equipping people to be successful agents in the market place, rather than fully rounded individuals that will care for and contribute to the communities, people and nation around them, as well as generating wealth through work. And where the losers feel they have nothing left to lose in destroying what the winners have gained, they will surely do so.

Only an English civic society can remedy England’s social ills. But English civic society is the last thing the British government is interested in bringing about and fostering. Its vision is the Big Society in which – essentially – communities are left to fend for themselves in a market free-for-all. Well, the market isn’t working for our young people right now and they’re lashing out against it.

If England is denied a civic future in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel they can work together for a better nation, then England will become an even more un-civic, indeed un-civil and uncivilised, place than it has been this week.

10 June 2011

The head of the Anglican Communion criticises the government’s English policies without saying ‘England’

“A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?”

These are the words with which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, concluded his article in the New Statesman yesterday criticising key coalition government policies on social services and welfare as being without a proper mandate.

My answer to this question would be, ‘how about an English democracy?’

The Archbishop rightly and powerfully articulates some of the central problems about the government’s social agenda with respect to the lack of any real democratic debate, scrutiny and consensus they may have received. Elsewhere in the article, Dr Williams writes: “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”.

It is indeed true that the government’s policies in areas such as education, health, localism and the Big Society were not set out clearly and in detail in either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos at the last election, nor were they explained or debated openly and vigorously throughout the election campaign. And there was one very good reason for that: these policies are English policies.

At the election, none of the three major parties openly acknowledged and explained that their policies for education, health, communities and social services – all of which are devolved matters – related to England alone; indeed, their manifestos contained barely any mention of England (as I analysed at the time here, here and here). And as we know, almost the very raison d’être of the British government and establishment is to suppress the existence of any sort of English-national polity in which policies and laws intended for England are openly and honestly discussed as relating to England.

Accordingly, there’s a very good reason, Dr Williams, why neither the government nor the opposition are adequately explaining the thinking and priorities behind their radical policies, nor explaining what their likely impact will be on the ‘nation’ as a whole. That’s because they can’t even acknowledge the very name of the nation for which those policies are intended. Indeed, the policies themselves – in their actual content – express the drive to abolish any form of English civic nationhood in that they pass on the responsibility for the civic life of, and public services for, the English nation to the private realm: to individuals, small groups, communities, and not-for-profit or for-profit organisations that are now meant to take responsibility for education, health care, local services and amenities, and social services without any overarching national plan and vision.

There’s no national plan or vision because the nation that is being privatised and, as it were, ‘de-nationised’ is completely invisible: England.

And yes, these policies have not been voted for. And that’s not just because they weren’t adequately explained at the election but, more fundamentally, because they were not presented either to or for the nation in which they were to be implemented: no English-national electorate was either addressed or invoked during the election; nor was any English nation acknowledged for which these policies might represent any sort of blueprint for the future. No one voted for these policies, and they weren’t adequately explained, because to do so implies the existence of some sort of national political life in which those policies are a part of the public debate, and a nation for which those policies are intended. But none of that applies to these policies, because they’re English, and England was absent from the election, and is absent from government and the political process in the present.

So the answer to the Archbishop’s question at the end of his article is that these policies will be subjected to the scrutiny they demand, and a more participative democracy holding politicians to account will be brought about, and a positive vision for society and the common good will be developed, only when the nation for which those policies are intended is brought into the process and a vigorous, healthy English polity comes into being.

Why, therefore, did the Archbishop himself not mention the name of the country – England – where these policies are being implemented? Why is even the spiritual head of the Church of England not standing up for ‘England’ as such even where he makes such an impassioned plea for the creation of a more genuinely participative, democratic life in which English policies can be subjected to the scrutiny of the nation as a whole?

England is the great lack and absence at or from the centre of it all. And while politicians, media and archbishops cannot bring themselves to say ‘England’, none of them by definition can ever articulate a shared vision for England.

18 January 2011

David Cameron on public services: Where’s England, you wally?

Reading or listening to the speeches of Britain’s great and good is a bit like a linguistic version of the Where’s Wally? books, with the word ‘England’ playing the role of Wally. Thank heavens for the word-finding function of web browsers, that’s all I can say, which can immediately pinpoint Wally’s presence or absence, as the case may be, sparing one the agony of scouring the speeches for their central protagonist, unless one masochistically wishes to read them for their own sake.

Such was the case with David Cameron’s speech yesterday on the Coalition’s plans for public services. All about England, of course, with the possible exception of occasional references to policing and prisons, which also relate to Wales – Wally’s junior partner, also hard to track down on such occasions! But where was Wally? Not there, it appeared, unless one is meant to read between the lines in a verbal equivalent of those horrendous graphic puzzles where, if you deliberately blur your focus, you’re supposed to make out the shape of a ghost or phantasm. Was the phantasm of England to be glimpsed in the ten references to ‘the [or our] country’ or the four mentions of ‘Britain’? Or was he perhaps to be apprehended in “that space in between” [and I quote] markets and the state that DC calls “society”?

No – I never could get the hang of those visual puzzles: obviously too literal-minded and verbal. And I’m afraid to have to report that Wally wasn’t there! Everything pointed towards him, and everything was about him, but if you wanted to actually see him in black and white, you’d have been disappointed, as was I (but not too much: my expectations were low to begin with). Well if there’s one thing England and its public services have in common, it’s the fact that they’ve been cut.

But does it actually matter whether Wally’s there or not? After all, if he doesn’t even feature in his eponymous book, perhaps it’s more the fault of the author, who should never have raised such false hopes in our hearts. Perhaps, if the world of Wally hadn’t been named after him in the first place, we wouldn’t feel cheated that he isn’t there but would instead have blithely admired the skill of the landscape artist and his vision of ‘the country’, which we’d have been happy to call ‘Britain’ or some such.

Come on then – let’s dim our focus. Perhaps there never was a character called Wally, after all. He’s disappeared, if he was ever there to begin with; and in his place is a profusion of people, enterprise and commerce called ‘society’. Let’s grow up and forget such childish things: we’d never have found him in all that crowd anyway!

28 December 2010

There can be no Big Society in a belittled England

As we know, David Cameron’s Big Society project relates almost exclusively to England, not to Britain as a whole, as the policy areas it affects are mostly devolved: education, health, communities and local government, and policing (that one involves Wales, too). I believe in fact that the Big Society represents a frontal assault on any notion of an English-national civic society and public interest. You might think the opposite is true, as the Big Society ostensibly seeks to engage citizens in community work and the delivery of social services. However, it does so at the cost of dismantling any national-English framework for services that have traditionally been regarded as at least mainly the domain of the public sector.

For example, there’s a danger that there’ll be no national or even regional strategy for the development and nature of the ‘national’ (i.e. public) health service as health-service provision in England increasingly takes on the character of a market, with public- and private-sector organisations competing to provide services most ‘cost-effectively’ on behalf of the local bodies responsible for commissioning and funding the services, such as GP practices. Or again, local authorities will be undermined in their role of co-ordinating education policy, administration and funding in their areas as more academies and ‘free’ schools spring up, and as council budgets are cut. And while one might welcome the diversity of approach and potential increase in choice the new schools could bring, it is also true that local-authority management brings economies of scale and a pooling of resources, and facilitates the co-ordination and implementation of local and national education strategies, which are theoretically accountable to voters at large.

The Big Society has the potential to bring many benefits, and there is much to be commended about localism in general. But localism without any national policy framework regarding the level, scope and objectives of public-service provision could result in a terrifying atomisation of English society, with British citizens resident in England having no confidence in the standards of public service they have a right to expect even in areas as fundamental as health care and policing, as all of these vital services will be subordinated to local administration, priorities and resourcing, and to ever greater involvement of ‘private’ providers, whether not-for-profit or profit-making.

While this is scary enough in terms of the practical consequences for ordinary citizens, what it involves is effectively the dismantling of a distinct English civic society and public sector: no English NHS, just locally administered and funded health care; no English education system, just a varied pattern of public, private and mixed funding and provision throughout England; weakened local councils, which could otherwise be accountable to English voters, because their responsibilities have been siphoned off to a Macedonian mish-mash of providers and community groups with no overall co-ordination of strategy or guarantees of service quality. Talk of Balkanisation! This could be a smashing up of England into a million splinters creating a postcode lottery even greater than the über-postcode lottery that occurs at England’s borders with Scotland and Wales!

Ultimately, the Big Society is predicated on an unwillingness and inability to imagine and create a positive, modern and participatory civic society in England: with national policy objectives and a national framework for delivering them, involving the establishment of strong English institutions and structures in areas such as education, health care and planning. The effect at local level will be that ordinary English people will end up having to pay more for services that ought to be publicly provided up to a certain minimum standard that English society as a whole could debate and decide about through an English parliament, such as social care for the elderly, university education, local library services, public transport, etc. The reason why these services ought to be provided and funded to a certain degree by the public sector is because they actually constitute and embody what it is to be a civilised nation where all citizens are provided for and looked after by their fellow citizens, either directly or through taxation-funded public services. We can debate about the extent to which those services should be publicly funded and provided, and the extent to which private money and private citizens should be involved in delivering them. But if there’s no nation-wide debate and consensus about even a minimum level of publicly funded civic society and institutions, we cease to be nation at all.

Indeed, one might say that the Big Society becomes thinkable as a model for English society, because England itself is no longer thought of as a nation, at least by those prosecuting the Big-Society blueprint. Is this absence of any (English)-national dimension to their model for English society a mere oversight: a mere reflection of the lack of an English-national dimension from the thinking of most of the British establishment? Or is it a reflection, also, of something more sinister: an actual contempt for the idea of England as such and the expression of a malignant design to effectively destroy the markers of English nationhood, such as I have defined them – a civilised, national framework for looking after, educating and providing basic services for all English British citizens?

In reality, it’s probably a bit of both: lazy thinking and contempt. But the question I would ask is how can a Big Society – one in which English citizens take more direct responsibility for looking after their own – be fostered when the local avenues through which it is to be enacted effectively remove any national institutional and policy framework that could symbolise the existence of an English common interest; and when the British government itself appears to have no commitment to institutions and ways of doing things that reflect a concern for the common good and for public assets that are for the benefit of all?

In short, how can the English be expected to demonstrate practical concern for one another when the British government is divesting itself of practical concern for England as a whole? And how can every English man and woman be expected to do their duty to one another when the British establishment has no sense of duty towards England?

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”.

20 July 2010

David Cameron: Big on society, little on England

There was more than a touch of déjà-vu about David Cameron’s re-launch of the Conservatives’ Big Society initiative yesterday. Here was a major policy speech relating almost exclusively to England in which the word ‘England’ was barely mentioned: once, in fact – and I’ll return to that in a moment. By contrast, Cameron spoke of the / our ‘country’ seven times and of ‘Britain’ twice, including in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his speech:

“It’s my hope – and my mission – that when people look back at this five, ten year-period from 2010, they’ll say: ‘In Britain they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society’. Whether it is in building affordable housing, tackling youth unemployment, inviting charities to deliver public services . . . the people in Britain worked out the answer to the big social problems”.

It was almost as if we were back to the good old bad old days of Gordon Brown: setting out the government’s England-only policies while studiously avoiding any reference to the ‘E’ word itself.

The difference between Cameron and Brown lies in the ‘content’ of the policy if not its British rhetorical dressing. Cameron’s statement, as summated in the above quote, is his programme for government in a nutshell: to rebalance the British economy and reduce the deficit (macro-economic policy: a reserved UK policy area) and to empower the “people in Britain” – specifically, the English people in Britain – to work out the solutions to their own social problems (social policy: an area of policy devolved to the respective governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but exercised on behalf of the people of England by the British government).

Hitherto exercised on behalf of the English people by the British government, that is: because the whole point of the Big Society is that, in theory at least, the formulation and implementation of social ‘policy’ as such, and the powers to deal with social problems, are going to be transferred to society itself down to the micro level (or the ‘nano level’, as Cameron called it): socially minded individuals, communities, local areas, and groups with a particular interest in specific aspects of civic society (such as parents running their own schools or communities getting involved in how they are policed).

The Big Society, in short, is what you get when the central British government sees its business exclusively as dealing with the macro dimension (UK macro-economics or the “national interest” – Cameron’s favourite phrase, which crops up in the second paragraph of his speech, when referring to deficit reduction) while disengaging altogether from the job of setting national policies in the social arena, which would in effect involve being a government for England. As a result, you have, on the one hand, the British macro layer of decision making in Whitehall and, on the other, the micro layer of the Big Society with absolutely no intermediate national-English layer of social or economic policy making, governance and democratic accountability.

In other words, ‘in Britain’, Government deals with what is its own ‘proper’ domain (macro-economics and other reserved policy areas) but does not ‘micro-manage’ the delivery of public services (to England), but instead devolves that responsibility to the micro level itself: the people who deliver those services. This is what is being offered to England by way of ‘equivalence’ to devolution for the other nations of the UK: ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ taken to a literal degree – disintermediated from the very democratically elected, national government and its institutions that are supposed to incarnate popular sovereignty, and instead being embodied in people themselves deciding to take direct action to deal with the social problems all around them. This is a ‘cultural revolution’ (or, as Cameron put it, “a huge culture change”) of almost Maoist scope: the people in a sense becoming the government and assuming its responsibilities, or – as the Conservative election manifesto referred to it – ‘joining the government of Britain’.

Except, as I say, what this actually means is becoming the government of England that the British government neither wishes nor is mandated to be. I am prepared to accept that Cameron, and many Conservative and even Lib Dem supporters of the coalition government, genuinely believe that the Big Society principles hold the key to resolving England’s social problems: that the era of ‘Big Government’ (or massive government engagement in social policy and public-service delivery) is over, and that society can find the answer to its problems only from within itself and from its own resources. Indeed, I agree with much of the localism behind the Big Society: that local issues are often best dealt with by the people directly affected by them; and that communities can really be revitalised if they can somehow come together to find a collective response to the social problems in their areas.

But if the Big Society is such a positive vision for transforming English society, why can politicians and the media not openly and honestly refer to it as an agenda for England? In virtually none of the media reports and discussions about Cameron’s Big Society launch I came across yesterday was the fact that it relates almost exclusively to England referred to. The honourable exception was the World At One news and current affairs programme on BBC Radio Four, where ‘England’ was mentioned twice, deep into the discussion, in such a way that you could be mistaken for thinking that only the particular aspect of the Big Society blueprint that was being referred to was limited to England rather than the whole thing.

I can’t remember now which aspect of the Big Society was being dealt with at that point. Perhaps it was the one reference to ‘England’ in Cameron’s speech: “we will create a Big Society Bank to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups through intermediaries. And I can announce today that it will be established using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England”.

What does the phrase “dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England” actually mean? Is this money in dormant English bank accounts, or is it the portion of the total money lying dormant in bank accounts across the UK that had already been allocated to public expenditure in England – meaning, presumably, that an even higher proportionate share of that fund had also been allocated via the Barnett Formula to the other countries of the UK. Let’s hope it doesn’t mean a combination of the two: English bank accounts from which only a portion has been allocated to England, while an unfair share is set to be distributed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Be that as it may, the very fact that the Big Society Bank is to be formed from a pot of money set aside for England gives away, almost as an indiscretion, the fact that the Big Society is strictly an English affair. But why can’t this fact be openly acknowledged and even celebrated?

Well, in a way, it would have been rather extraordinary and counter-cultural if Cameron’s speech had talked of creating the Big Society in England, and of English people being empowered to resolve English social problems – even if that’s what is in fact being talked about. This avoidance of explicit references to England when talking about England is indeed something we became all too familiar with in the bad old New Labour days, and is something that has also been discussed at considerable length in previous posts in this blog.

In essence, the word ‘England’ is avoided in all this discourse because ‘England’ is a void within it: there has been a total void or vacuum of social policy for England as such – as a nation – throughout New Labour’s tenure, and the Big Society is what is intended to fill it. But the Big Society in turn is not designed as an English policy as such because it is the very national, English dimension that the Big Society continues to avoid and circumvent. So whereas New Labour indeed micro-managed public-service delivery in England in a top-down manner, while denying any distinction between the British state and the English nation (calling them both ‘Britain’), Cameron’s Conservatives want public services in England (or, as they would put it, ‘Britain’) to micro-manage themselves without regard to any English-national policy dimension. Either way, there’s ‘British government’ on one side and ‘society in Britain [England]’ on the other, and they’re either conflated (New Labour) or divergent (Conservatives). But the one option that’s not envisaged is the intermediate one of an English government taking responsibility for English social policy in partnership with the English people to whom it is accountable.

The fact that the Big Society is essentially a by-product of the British government’s abnegation of its responsibility to co-ordinate social policy and public-service delivery in England – in part because it neither is nor wishes to be a government for England – was made glaringly obvious to me yesterday evening by a comment by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, on Radio Four’s Tonight programme. What he said was that by definition there was no national plan for rolling out the Big Society. Yes: because, by definition, that would have to be a national-English plan, and the Big Society is what social policy in England becomes when the UK government washes its hands of it.

It remains to be seen whether the people of England will respond to the challenge to develop into a Big Society that the British government has set it. And, of course, this challenge is more than merely moral and social, in that the government’s withdrawal from social provision in England is being carried out as much in pursuit of what it sees as its primary role (macro-economic management and deficit reduction) as it is the consequence of the government’s unwillingness and lack of authority to provide leadership and vision in English social policy.

There are hard times ahead for England. But the English are a tough, resilient and resourceful people. And maybe, in learning to take control over our own social problems and public services, the English will start to demand political self-determination, too, at a national level where government is truly accountable at all levels to the people it is supposed to serve.

If the British government won’t provide direction for English society, maybe the English people will have to truly take over their own government in ways that go far beyond what is envisaged in Cameron’s Big Society.

20 May 2010

Clegg ducks the English Question

Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832”. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.

The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:

  1. House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”

    Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.

    By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.

    This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.

  2. Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.

    “In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

    “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”

    The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.

    But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.

    And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?

    But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.

    Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.

    So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!

  3. Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”

    As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.

    The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.

    So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?

    Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!

19 May 2010

Geographical extent of Cameron’s Big Society

If you were hoping that in the era of ‘change’ ushered in by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, official statements would be more honest and transparent about the UK countries they refer to, think again. Below is a transposition of yesterday’s statement on the coalition’s plans to implement the Conservatives’ Big Society manifesto policy for England, with the countries the proposals relate to being indicated in the left-hand column:

Country / -ies Policy proposal
Aspirational: Britain; in reality, England, as communities, local government and families are devolved Our Conservative – Liberal Democrat Government has come together with a driving ambition: to put more power and opportunity into people’s hands.

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

The Union play: denying the Big Society relates only to devolved functions of government but is the expression of a social transformation for the whole of Britain Building this Big Society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.

This document outlines the already agreed policies that we believe will help make that possible. It is the first strand of a comprehensive Programme for Government to be published in the coming days, which will deliver the reform, renewal, fairness and change Britain needs.

England only 1. Give communities more powers

  • We will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live.
  • We will introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services.
The first part relates to England only; the second part implies that government will also provide funding and other support for the devolved administrations to promote neighbourhood groups.
  • We will train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas.
UK 2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities

  • We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action, including launching a national ‘Big Society Day’ and making regular community involvement a key element of civil service staff appraisals. ƒ
  • We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.
England only
  • We will introduce a National Citizen Service. The initial flagship project will provide a programme for 16 year olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities.
England only 3. Transfer power from central to local government

  • We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government, including a full review of local government finance.
  • We will give councils a general power of competence.
  • We will abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils.
UK 4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises

  • We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.
England only
  • We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.
UK
  • We will use funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.
UK 5. Publish government data

  • We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.
England and Wales
  • We will oblige the police to publish detailed local crime data statistics every month, so the public can get proper information about crime in their neighbourhoods and hold the police to account for their performance.

Opinions will vary on the Big Society proposals themselves. Some of them sound quite laudable. Few people could object, for instance, to the aims of encouraging volunteering, fostering community groups, and giving people more control over planning decisions and services in their local area. It would just be nice if the government could bring itself to mention that many of the key proposals here relate to England only, which would suggest that the government has aspirations and affection for England as such, and that it is concerned to improve the strength and mutuality of English communities.

It is hard to trust in the sincerity and benevolence of these proposals for England, and not to see in them merely a hidden agenda for spending cuts and privatisation, if the government is unwilling to acknowledge the name and identity of the country for which its plans are intended. Instead, the coalition government seems intent on devolving its responsibility for England away from any national tier of governance – whether at the British level or that of any prospective English government – down to the sub-national and even sub-local level: to the level, in fact, of Little England.

Cameron’s Big Society is therefore a vision of Little England, involving the dispersion of any aspirations the English as a whole might have towards self-government to the level of small-community empowerment and social enterprise. But can a Big Society England – an England where individuals are mindful of their social responsibilities, and communities become more caring and resourceful – really be fashioned in the absence of any big vision for England as a whole, and without English people feeling truly empowered to effect democratic change at the national level as well as the merely local?

For the Big Society vision to work in the benign way David Cameron appears to wish, it has to be a vision for which English people as a whole can take ownership and responsibility, to use Cameron’s favourite word. But if even David Cameron can’t articulate his vision for England in a holistic and transparent way, how can English people be expected to realise it?

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

14 April 2010

The Tories’ Big-Society Britain: England in all but name

Firstly, I have to say that the Conservatives’ election manifesto, ‘An Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’, albeit misnamed, is a much more impressive affair than Labour’s shamefully anglophobic re-hashing of existing policies devoid of vision or principle. If people of a ‘progressive’ disposition were to approach the two policy statements in a spirit of genuine open-mindedness, I think many would conclude that the Tory manifesto is a much more ‘liberal’ document (with a small ‘l’) than Labour’s, with its concern to redress some of the present government’s erosion of our civil liberties and its aspiration to reverse the unaccountable centralisation of government.

That said, the Tories’ manifesto shares much of Labour’s will to suppress any English-national dimension to politics and civic society. On a superficial reading, you’d think the content of the manifesto was as it says on the tin: about revitalising British government and society, and setting them in a new relationship to one another. The document is stuffed full of inspirational references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ (140 in total), and to the ‘nation’ – meaning ‘Britain’ or the UK: 83 instances of ‘nation’ or ‘national’. By contrast, there are only 17 references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: admittedly more than Labour’s 11 versus 188 mentions of ‘Scotland’ / ‘Scottish’ in the Scottish version of its manifesto. At least, the Tories aren’t so disingenuous and gerrymandering that they produce a separate set of Scottish policies to persuade voters in that country to elect Scottish Labour MPs to serve as lobby fodder for English bills.

But the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ big idea can be realised, if at all, in England alone. The section of the manifesto in which this concept is spelled out in detail – ‘Change society’ – deals almost entirely with devolved policy areas: those in which the British government’s competence is limited to England or, in the case of justice and policing, to England and Wales. So all the proposals to ‘devolve’ power down to communities, individuals, and public-private business partnerships in areas such as local planning, schools and the NHS effectively do not relate to Britain as a whole, but only to England.

The mere fact that the Tories are incapable of honestly acknowledging that their plan to repair ‘broken Britain’ is in fact a blueprint for England should not of itself deter English patriots from voting Conservative if they like the Tories’ ideas, which are indeed much more original and attractive than Labour’s sterile and statist approach in many respects. But if, on the other hand, you do want to see government of England by the English people, you won’t get it from the Conservatives’ programme of ‘people power’.

The Tories’ plan is in effect one of devolution for and within England, rather than devolution to England: devolution of power to English communities, and associations of socially responsible individuals and organisations, rather than devolution of political power to democratic, English-national government and civic institutions. If you’re a localist or libertarian, you may think this is no bad thing. But as well as expressing the Conservative ideological bias in favour of private individuals and associations, as opposed to big government, this is a way of circumventing questions about the governance of England and the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the very ‘Government of Britain’ in which the Tories seek to re-engage the English people above all.

In effect, a British-national-public sector versus local-community-private sector dichotomy replaces the British-national / regional dichotomy in New Labour’s thinking about ‘the country’; but both frameworks leave no room for any sort of English-national tier of government, democracy or identity. This is less sinister than New Labour’s New Britain, in that at least the existence of England is acknowledged even if England is not viewed as distinct from ‘Britain’ in any way. Indeed, the whole manifesto is predicated on a profound but unspoken identification between England and Britain, reflected in the very fact that what is in reality a social programme for England only is expressed as being for Britain.

In this context, it is not surprising that the manifesto fails to propose a satisfactory solution to the West Lothian Question while not even acknowledging the broader English Question: the question of how England should be governed, which is a non-starter for the Tories, because they just unquestioningly assume that England is (governed as) Britain. Nevertheless, at least they do raise the West Lothian Question – which is more than Labour does – because they accept that England exists; even if their answer to the question is no solution:

“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”

This policy does not amount to English Votes on English laws, or to a Grand Committee of English MPs with the exclusive right to debate and vote on England-only legislation. While being extremely vague, this statement appears to confirm expectations that the Tories will adopt ‘English pauses for English clauses’: English MPs only to make revisions to England-only laws at the committee stage of bills, while all UK MPs continue to be allowed to vote on those bills at their second and third reading.

This is a mere procedural tweak that leaves the WLQ in place, if anything in a more pernicious form: it relies on there being the same balance of power among English MPs as in the House as a whole – otherwise, amendments to bills made by English MPs can simply be rejected by the House as a whole, resulting in stalemate. And the measure can be reversed by any incoming Labour government. So apart from being practically ineffective, and liable to contribute to governmental paralysis and constitutional crisis, this measure is a million miles away from the establishment of any sort of English parliamentary forum in which the priorities and needs of the English nation as a whole can be deliberated and decided upon.

Ultimately, then, the Tories’ manifesto might well represent power to the people – but only if they’re content to continue not to be the English people.

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