Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 May 2010

Lib-Con Coalition: A New Dispensation

In the language of theology, in case you’re not up to speed, the word ‘dispensation’ is used to refer to the ordering of divine grace or revelation, which allows us to know about God and enter into a relationship with him (or her, if you want to be inclusive). The Christian era is said to constitute a new dispensation, in which (hu)mankind enters into a more intimate relationship with God, sharing his (her) life, work and even the exercise of some of his (her) powers through the Holy Spirit.

This New-Testament era is contrasted with that of the Old Testament, in which revelation was very much more taken on trust: handed down by the powers that be through a series of law books and narratives testifying to the workings of an invisible and ultimately unknowable divine being. The New-Testament dispensation was, however, not a complete break from the old: the Almighty is still the Almighty and remains an absolute ruler, even if, in Christ, he has shown himself capable of partaking of our frailties.

The coalition government has something of the character of a ‘new dispensation’; and its ‘programme for government’, published on Thursday of this week, signals an attempt to seal a new covenant with the British public: to ‘seal the deal’ of a new politics and new policy programme that, while they do not quite fulfil the expectations of the old politics and the promises of the manifestoes that only two weeks earlier counted as holy writ, proclaim a new relationship between the politicians, and between politicians and the people.

The concept that occupies the place of God and Christ in this new dispensation is that of ‘the nation’. It is in the name and for the sake of the nation that the new coalition justifies its formation: “there was the option of a coalition in the national interest – and we seized it. When we set off on this journey, we were two parties with some policies in common and a shared desire to work in the national interest”. Rather like God, the nation thus invoked is an absolute quality, connoting a unity that is far above the fractured world of the broken society or party faction. Governing ‘in the national interest’ confers moral authority on our rulers whose absolute power, like that of God, is thus seen as being wielded for the benefit of all, not for the benefit of any one interest group such as a political party.

And like God condescending to humanity in Christ, our new leaders also declare themselves willing to share their power not only amongst themselves but with ‘the nation’ at large: “We have a shared ambition to clean up Westminster and a determination to oversee a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation”. Verily, the kings shall rule in wisdom and in justice, dispensing power for the nation and to the nation; and the nation shall share in their kingdom.

But it’s when you try to name the nation in whose name our new leaders claim to rule that you land up in trouble. In the above quote, the nation in question can only be England, because the UK government has responsibility for councils and communities in England only. But the name of ‘England’ is hardly ever invoked in the 36-page document. Well, I suppose like the ineffable name of Yahweh (God), some words must never be uttered – we cannot give the impression that ‘the nation’ we govern, and in whose name we govern, is England! Heaven forefend!

However, to be fair, the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ are in fact used eight times in the document, compared with 51 instances of ‘nation(s)’, ‘national’ or ‘nationalised’. Three of the references to ‘England’ are to the Bank of England, but three do actually occur in the context of devolved policy areas:

“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.”

“We will create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.”

“We will develop a 24/7 urgent care service in every area of England, including GP out-of-hours services, and ensure every patient can access a local GP.”

One wonders why they felt the need to spell out the fact that these commitments relate only to England, not to ‘the nation’, given that all of the dozens of other England-only policies throughout the statement are covered by the block disclaimer on the very last page, which contains another of the references to England. Perhaps it’s because these are such big and specific promises that to omit ‘England’ could be seriously misleading to non-English readers and politically damaging to the coalition, who would be appearing to promise what it could in no manner deliver.

Or perhaps it’s simply that the document was cobbled together in haste as an assembly of the parties’ respective manifesto pledges that were acceptable to both coalition partners, given that the wording on the elected mayors and 24/7 urgent-care service is lifted straight from the Conservatives’ manifesto. Similarly, the block disclaimer at the end is lifted directly from the Lib Dem manifesto, with only a few essential alterations:

“The Government fully supports the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Executive [sic] and the Welsh Assembly Government make their own policy on their devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

Whereas the similar back-page disclaimer in the Lib Dem manifesto states:

“Liberal Democrats have championed the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only. That means that policies in those nations are increasingly different from those in England – reflecting different choices, priorities and circumstances. Our Scottish and Welsh Parties make their own policy on those issues. This document sets out our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster.”

So the coalition seems to have opted for the tried and trusted Lib Dem solution to the problem of how to present England-specific policies (cover them en bloc by a note at the end of the document), rather than the Tory approach, which is more to ignore the English Question altogether unless you have to say ‘England’ on trades-description grounds. But if this were the BBC or any other ‘national’ media organisation, they’d be risking severe censure by Ofcom or the BBC Trust for neglecting to spell out, policy area by policy area, which UK nations the coalition’s proposals relate to, and expecting people to go back over the whole document they’ve just read and try to work it out for themselves, even supposing they get as far as the small print about devolution at the end.

But the coalition doesn’t want readers of the statement to question the integrity of the concept of ‘the nation’ on which they build their whole claim to moral and political legitimacy. If people realised that sometimes ‘nation’ or ‘national’ means the UK, sometimes England and Wales, and sometimes just England, they might start to question which nation(s) the government sees itself as called to serve, and which nation(s) it derives its democratic mandate from – if indeed the coalition is truly governing in the interest of any actual nation, and not in the interest of its own parties and ideologies.

Above all, the coalition is keen to avoid creating the impression that it’s an English government deriving its mandate almost entirely from English voters, which is the truth of the matter: the two parties won 63.8% of the votes and 63.9% of seats in England – quite a remarkable degree of proportionality in aggregate, although to be properly proportional, the Lib Dems should have gained more seats and the Tories fewer. This compares with 35.6% of votes and 20.3% of seats in Scotland, and 46.2% of votes and 27.5% of seats in Wales – results which show how the Conservatives’ opposition to PR is based purely on their disproportionate gain of seats in England, whereas they would actually benefit from PR outside of England. This gives the lie to the coalition’s claim to be a government for ‘the nation’ as a whole, i.e. the UK.

So desperate is the coalition to erase the thought that the justifying absolute concept of ‘the nation’ is a fabrication and often means just ‘England’, that the document resorts several times to the rhetorical technique of multiplying references to ‘national’ in contexts where it actually means ‘English’ in order to hypnotically induce people into thinking it is referring to the UK as a whole. For example:

  1. “We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.

    “We will publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities.” [The IPC covers England only in most matters, and Wales in some; so the ‘national planning framework’ here relates mainly to England. Economic development and the environment are also devolved areas.]

  2. “We will maintain free entry to national museums and galleries, and give national museums greater freedoms.” [This means national museums and galleries in England, not national-Scottish or national-Welsh ones, as culture is a devolved area.]
  3. “Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.

“We will implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible. This process will involve:

  • “the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament;”. [Ditto on planning above – any new nuclear power stations will be built in England and Wales only, not Scotland, which has a separate planning system and whose government opposes new nuclear power stations.]

Of course, there are some policy areas where the coalition statement does use ‘national’ legitimately to refer to reserved, UK-wide matters, such as ‘national security’ (12 instances) and macro-economics. In the latter department, of course, the new dispensation represented by the coalition is more of a ‘dis-spending’. What the Lord giveth, he taketh away, another example of which being:

“We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”

versus

“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities”.

Nowhere is this dual character of the new dispensation – government dispensing power to the nation while retaining ultimate power in the name of the nation, including the power to give away and take back power – better revealed than in the coalition’s plans for “political reform”. There are many proposals here that represent a serious attempt to make Parliament more democratically accountable and less corrupt. But this ultimately represents Parliament and the political class attempting to grab back the initiative on reform, to make itself ultimately responsible for reforming itself and ‘British’ politics as a whole, rather than allowing the reform process to be driven by the people and to be open to a wider range of alternatives. Hence, the coalition, and by extension Parliament, decrees that we will be offered only the option of the Alternative Vote system by way of electoral reform; Parliament will decide on the nature of the new mainly or wholly elected House of Lords; and Parliament will decide how it is to reform its own procedures and allowances.

The coalition, and particularly the dominant Conservative part of it, has clearly made a calculation that if Parliament can demonstrate that it has cleaned up its act, and has made limited moves in the direction of really radical reform of its functions and election, then maybe the public will forgive it and allow it to continue exercising its time-honoured sovereign rule. Perhaps the coalition hopes, in short, that the new dispensation it is offering will lead the public in turn to make a dispensation of Parliament and MPs from the ultimate consequences of their sins.

And if there’s one area above all where the new dispensation is uncannily reminiscent of the old, it is, as I observed earlier, its determination to dispense with any recognition of England as a nation in its own right – and with the right to self-determination, as opposed to Westminster rule. No, England must be governed as ‘the nation’, not govern itself as the English nation. Gone is the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge to: “Address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole.” Gone, in fact, is the whole constitutional convention idea: far too radical, allowing “citizens” and “the people” to have a say in a new written constitution, federal Britain and potentially English government! No, better to let Parliament decide on these things.

What we are left with, in the coalition’s new dispensation, is a ‘new politics’ that has not in fact changed radically from the old. To return to my theological analogy, it remains more Old Testament than New: God is still in his heaven, and Parliament still rules in the name of the nation. But maybe the people have lost faith with the old ways, and are no longer content with the laws and narratives of the Elected of God. Maybe they aspire instead to the freedom and dignity of the children of God, or of freeborn Englishmen and -women.

New wine is for new wineskins, as the biblical saying goes, not for old.

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13 May 2010

Who and what is the Lib-Con coalition for?

I’ve been carrying out a bit of a semantic analysis of the statement the Lib Dems and Conservatives released yesterday about their coalition agreement. What that means is that I’ve analysed the number of times key words occurred in the document. I define a ‘key word’ as a significant noun, verb, adverb or adjective (if you remember your grammar) that is used five or more times in the document, rather than basic link words such as prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns that are used very frequently.

I made an exception for the pronoun ‘we’, however, which appears no fewer than 49 times! The document is big on words expressing collective action and agreement: ‘we’ is the second-most repeated key word in the statement after ‘agree’ / ‘agreement’, which features a total of 63 times, in a total document of around 2,940 words. In third place, comes another collective term, ‘parties / party’ and ‘partners’ (35 instances).

What this illustrates is that the statement is continually reiterating the fact that it is based on agreement and consensus between two parties. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say that it bends over backwards to emphasise the fact that it is a full (11 times) agreement between two equal partners by mentioning ‘Liberal Democrat’ on no fewer than 13 occasions, compared with a modest seven references to ‘Conservative’.

However, when you read between the lines and examine the specific policy issues raised in the document, a very different picture emerges. On my analysis, a total of 20 key words occur in the context of policies set out from essentially a Conservative perspective in the document. Most of these refer to the economy and finance, and some of them in reality relate to areas of genuine agreement between the parties, such as their compromise on taxation policy (variations on the word ‘tax’ occur 12 times). However, I’ve ascribed all the key terms in this area to the Conservatives on the basis that they’re in the ascendancy on the economy in the coalition, and the sheer number and frequency of economic terms in the statement is expressive of the Tories’ priorities.

To be specific, the leading economic terms in the document are:

  1. ‘work’ (16 appearances)
  2. ‘reduce’ / ‘reduction’ (as in ‘deficit reduction’) (13 times)
  3. ‘tax’ (12)
  4. ‘allow’ / ‘allowance’ (ten)
  5. ‘bank’ / ‘banking’ (ten).

Other frequently occurring economic terms include ‘budget’, ‘financial’, ‘funding’, ‘jobs / Jobseekers’ and ‘spending’. The only non-economic terms to come anywhere near to competing with these, with respect to Conservative policy positions, are those relating to ‘Europe’, including ‘euro’, ‘EU’ and ‘non-EU’ (15 mentions) – strongly underscoring the fact that the Tories won the arguments over Europe in the coalition negotiations; e.g. ‘referendums’ (seven instances) on any future transfer of powers, no preparations to adopt the euro within the life of the parliament, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive, etc.

‘Referendum’ is what I would term an instance of a word evoking the ‘people’ or popular democracy / sovereignty, the only other word of this type being ‘public’ (five references). There are, however, further words of this sort in the document, which I’ve categorised as those expressing policies presented from a Lib Dem perspective. But the total number of such Lib Dem key words amounts to only eight, and they also occur less frequently than the Conservatives’ favourite expressions. The leading ones (apart from ‘Liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ themselves) are:

  1. ‘reform’ / ‘reforming’ (nine)
  2. ‘school(s)’ (eight)
  3. ‘vote(s)’ / ‘voter(s)’ (seven)
  4. ‘energy’ (as in energy policy) (seven).

Disappointingly, ‘elect’ (as in ‘election’ and ‘electoral reform’) occurs only five times; and neither ‘proportional’ (as in ‘proportional representation’) nor ‘Alternative’ (‘Alternative Vote’) appears more than four times. Indeed, as a reflection of the extent to which the Lib Dems have lost the philosophical arguments behind the formation of the coalition, the word ‘fair’, which was the central idea in the Lib Dems’ manifesto, occurs only twice.

Having said that, the concept of ‘responsibility’, which is a key term in David Cameron’s philosophical outlook and informs the thinking behind the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ idea in their manifesto, makes only one appearance throughout the entire document – to say nothing of ‘Big Society’ itself, which indeed is not mentioned at all. Does this mean that the thing that both parties had to sacrifice in order reach a deal was their whole social vision, as such? And are we no longer being invited to “participate in the government of Britain”, as the Conservatives’ manifesto put it?

Given the almost total absence of words reflecting popular, participative democracy (including ‘democrat’ / ‘democracy’ itself, which occurs only in the context of ‘Liberal Democrat’), it seems as though that invitation, having been turned down by the electorate, has now been withdrawn. Indeed, the coalition statement is full of terms relating to the nitty-gritty work of government, which, it seems, is to be regarded as very much the province of the ‘government’ (17 appearances) and ‘Parliament’ (13) alone. ‘Programmes’ (nine mentions), ‘power(s)’ (eight), ‘system(s)’ (eight) and ‘law’ / ‘legislation’ (seven) are other favourite phrases.

Another major set of key words connote ‘positive action’ and engagement, including ‘propose’ / ‘proposal’ (17), ‘commission’ / ‘commit’ / ‘committee’ (15), ‘increase’ (13) and ‘provide’ / ‘provision’ (11). The government has its ‘plan’ (seven mentions) and is getting on with it: it is the role of the government and politicians to govern, and that of the public to be governed, evidently. No change (one appearance, as in ‘Climate Change’) there, then, despite the fact that both parties campaigned on the basis that they would bring real change. Back to business as usual.

Except, what is the purpose of all this business of government; and who is this preoccupation with business – the economy – actually for? The coalition statement fails to articulate any social vision (i.e. what kind of society ‘we’ wish to create alongside a revived economy); nor does it express any clear concept of the country it is supposedly there to serve. Indeed, amazingly, the word ‘country’ appears only once in the statement (“our country’s security”) despite the fact that when the coalition was being negotiated and drawn up, the politicians involved endlessly referred to ‘the country’ and the ‘national interest’; and despite the predilection of our leaders for saying ‘this country’ in order to avoid being specific about which country (England, Britain, the UK) they’re talking about.

In fact, in the coalition policy statement, the politicians avoid being specific about the country they’re supposed to be governing by making virtually no reference to any of the countries involved, including – again, amazingly – ‘Britain’ (only six mentions), the ‘United Kingdom’ (two) and the ‘UK’ (two). Now that is real change compared to the Brito-mania of Cameron’s predecessor! But don’t get too excited, because ‘England’ enjoys only two name checks, both in the context of the Tories’ favourite topic, the economy (‘Bank of England’ x 2).

All of this could lead one to suppose that those who composed the statement are interested only in governing – almost, as it were, for its own sake – and not in the nation or nations they’ll be governing. ‘Nation’ / ‘national’ is referenced on ten occasions: three times in the context of the economy (‘National Insurance’ and ‘nationalised banks’); twice in connection with the stand-off towards the EU (‘nations of Europe’ and ‘national interests’); once in relation to civil liberties (‘National Identity Register’); and four times with reference to energy policy and infrastructure (‘national recharging network’ and ‘national planning’).

Nowhere, however, is ‘nation’ invoked in relation to any of the traditional nations of the UK as ‘communities’ (three mentions) with their own distinct identities, cultures and political life. Admittedly, ‘Scotland’ is implied, but not mentioned by name, in the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; and the extension of Welsh devolution is also covered in half a sentence. But the authors of the statement can’t even bring themselves to explicitly say ‘England’ when they refer enigmatically to their plan for a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question'” [their inverted commas, almost suggesting they don’t regard it as a real issue]. No reference to dealing with the ‘English Question’, then, which the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledged to tackle as part of a convention to draw up a written constitution for the UK. Indeed, no reference to such a convention at all!

One can only conclude that the coalition has no serious intention of addressing the West Lothian Question, let alone the English Question, preferring to knock them both into the five-year-long grass of their fixed-term deal. But over and above such England-centric considerations, what does the almost total absence of a national, even a British-national, dimension to the coalition’s Tory-blueprint for government actually signify? Am I right to detect the Lib Dem influence as being there, in the disregard of nationhood as an integral or even just an important component of politics, government and culture?

In fact, this disregard for nationhood, and specifically English nationhood, is something the Lib Dems and the Tories really do seem to have in common if their manifestoes are anything to go by, as they both advocated radical devolution of power within England rather than to England. As I argued previously, the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision even implied in extremis a radical dismantling of the English public sector itself in favour of disparate interest groups and communities. And this is one thing that the coalition policy announcement does reaffirm: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”

The ‘local government’ bit betrays the Lib Dems’ influence; if the Tories had it all their own way, this would have just read ‘local community groups’ or words to that effect. At least, there will be some sort of democratically accountable public sector within England, albeit not at the national level. Indeed, what is the ‘national level’ for the new coalition? It’s certainly not England (nor is it Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), for which they did not seek and so did not receive a mandate at the election, and which they’re washing their hands of by conveniently handing over responsibility for spending cuts (‘financial autonomy’) to local authorities. For the new government, the national level means the macro-economy, international affairs (Britain versus Europe), defence and security, including energy security and the nuclear options of both the Trident and power-generation flavours. Reserved matters, in short.

That’s it, really; and that’s all of any substance that the coalition statement talks about. And let’s face it, that’s all the government has a genuine mandate of any sort to deal with. I suppose there’ll be more details about policies for education and ‘health’ (three mentions) in due course, and no doubt, the references to ‘Britain’ will multiply at that point, even though it’s England only they’ll be talking about. But not even to have attempted to outline any sort of social vision for ‘the nation’ in this, the initial policy statement of a historic coalition government, is surely wholly inadequate and worthy of blame.

After all, who or what is government for? Certainly, on this analysis at least, not for the people of England.

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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