Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

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19 November 2009

Labour’s vision is the Britain of the past, not the England of the present

I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.

And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.

Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.

And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.

Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.

But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:

In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.

Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.

But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.

9 June 2009

Labour election and government disaster – in England (and Cornwall)

It’s interesting how comment on Labour’s disastrous (for it) performance at the polls in the European elections has tended to focus on the story in Scotland and Wales: coming a poor second to the SNP and losing to the Tories for the first time since 1918 respectively. The truth of the matter is that Labour’s results in those countries were relatively good: 20.8% of the vote in Scotland and 20.3% in Wales. In reality, Labour’s abysmally low watermark of 15.7% across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) was due mainly to its rejection by voters in England, where Labour polled only 15.1% by my calculations (I had to calculate it myself, as the BBC website didn’t give any separate figures for England as a whole).

In some of the English Euro-regions, Labour’s performance amounted almost to a complete wipe-out. In my own region of the East of England (not much discussed in media analysis), the party finished in fourth place with only 10.5% of votes: down 5.8% on 2005. In the South West, Labour came fifth with a mere 7.7% (down 6.8%). I note that, in Cornwall, the UK’s governing party landed up in sixth place behind the Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow – congratulations to you guys! I note also that the Lib Dems, who performed relatively poorly in Scotland and Wales, gained a 14.1% share of the vote in England: just 1% behind Labour, compared with the 2% margin separating the parties across Great Britain as a whole. This lends some credence to the idea that the Liberal Democrats could overtake Labour as the second-largest party at a general election: in England, that is.

This makes the ‘performance’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party this evening in giving Gordon Brown their ringing endorsement all the more farcical and galling. Look at some of the ridiculously unconvincing expressions of support they came out with after their meeting tonight where they once again bottled it and failed to mount a campaign to get rid of Brown, despite the fact that it’s well known that many of them just wish he would disappear! The choicest passage in the BBC report is the following: “Loyalist Lord Foulkes said there had been ‘great support for Gordon’ and when Mr Clarke spoke ‘no-one even put their hands together'”. Hmm, no one applauded the accused men in the Stalinist show trials, either!

Do they never learn? Don’t they understand that no one believes such blandishments and these expressions of ‘strong support’ for the PM any more, if they ever did: that it’s all about a party the voters have rejected rallying round and yielding to a forcible manifestation of party discipline in a context in which, if MPs are not voted out in constituencies across England, they risk being booted out by the party apparatus under the pretext of expenses-related sanctions? But this unrepresentative body that has appointed itself as entitled to choose England’s and Britain’s political leader doesn’t care about what the voters in England actually think about them and what they want, which is Brown out and a proper, accountable government for England. But hey, guys, don’t you think there’s a lesson for you, there: the lesson from the European and local elections – that you’ve got to start paying attention to the concerns and wishes of the English people? And the same applies to the analysis of why the BNP won two seats and improved its share of the vote in England: this is down to traditional Labour supporters turning away from the party because it has not taken heed of their concerns about housing, jobs and immigration.

Earlier in the day, these issues, together with public services, were signalled by the Labour backbencher Jon Cruddas as areas where Labour was lacking in clear vision and distinct policies. In the BBC article referred to above, Cruddas is further reported as saying that Labour’s problem is not so much one of leadership as policies. I agree with him on one level: there is a vacuum in what Brown himself, after his cabinet reshuffle last Friday, described as the ‘domestic’ policy area – one of three main focuses of his remaining premiership, the others being the economy and so-called constitutional reform. But this vacuum is also a leadership issue: Brown cannot display, and has not displayed, leadership on domestic issues because so many of them relate to England only, not the ‘better Britain’ that Brown invoked last week as the goal he aimed to begin to achieve before the next election.

Why can’t Brown display leadership in domestic English matters? Because he knows, viscerally perhaps, that his leadership is simply not accepted by the English people; that he has no mandate in England: even less of a mandate than in Britain as a whole, that is; and because he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge the name and identity of the country – England – that is crying out for leadership, vision and strong policy direction from a prime minister or first minister that is actually answerable to it. As opposed to being answerable only to the morally bankrupt and politically moribund Parliamentary Labour Party.

So bully for Brown tonight. But it’s simply delaying the inevitable demise of the undemocratic Labour government. And continuing to deny the people of England the right to choose their own leader.

16 September 2008

GB’s Dilemma: A Lack Of Vision

No unkindness to the blind-in-one-eye PM intended: I’m using ‘vision’ in the metaphorical sense here. One of the main criticisms that is currently being directed to GB [Gordon Brown], including by his own party, is that he has failed to set out his ‘vision’ for ‘the country’. This is true. But why has he failed so abjectly?

One reason that is not often discussed in the so-called national media is that GB has a problem with respect to the identity of ‘the country’ for which he is supposed to have a vision. As UK PM, he is effectively the leader of two countries: ‘Britain’ in retained matters; and England in matters that have been devolved to the governmental bodies of Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, and where the UK government’s remit is now limited to England. These matters represent the majority of government business and also relate to fundamental traditional areas of Labour policy and social concern: education, health, social care, social services, planning, transport, etc.

Any Labour ‘vision’ for these things that is articulated purely as if it affected Britain as a whole is fundamentally flawed, indeed false: it involves hoodwinking the English public into thinking that Labour has a mandate to make and carry out policy in these areas because they are applied across the UK, which Labour was elected to govern; whereas, of course, the policies apply only to England, where Labour was not endorsed by the electorate in the 2005 elections, as more English people voted Tory than Labour.

There are additional, particular reasons why GB can articulate his ‘vision’ only in terms of ‘Britain’. Firstly, he actually appears to believe in Britain, i.e. that Britain exists as ‘the nation’ which he was elected to serve, and that people can / will buy in to a vision for that nation. Well, maybe he believed people would embrace this vision at the beginning of his premiership. But I doubt whether he believes that now after over a year of questioning of the legitimacy of a Scottish-elected PM making laws for a country to whose electorate he is not accountable; along with the perpetual chipping away at the Union’s credibility, aided and abetted by the adroit operator that is the Scottish First Minister.

Consequently, if it has become more and more difficult to set out any credible or acceptable vision for ‘Britain’ (when most of it relates to England only), this makes it more and more imperative to set out a credible vision specifically for England. That’s what Labour needs: the acknowledgement that most of what the UK government does directly affects England only, and a new vision addressing the English people as the English people, and setting out goals and priorities for England – and rectifying the inequalities of public expenditure and public-service provision between England and the other countries of the UK would be a good start.

But Labour, and GB in particular, can’t do this. GB can’t admit to being the de facto English First Minister precisely because of the issue of lack of democratic legitimacy: he’s not accountable, as a Scottish MP, to the people of England. And also, he doesn’t believe in England but only in Britain: not just because this justifies his political power, but – I believe – out of genuine adherence to an idea that Britain is the only true nation of this island; a credo which requires that England is not a distinct nation but only a part of the territory and nation of Britain. Maybe GB, like David Cameron, simply doesn’t want to be a PM for England only and is losing his enthusiasm for the job, which involves just that.

So the tragedy of GB’s premiership is not just that, having coveted the post for so long, he found that the trends in politics and economics undermined his credibility and support from the moment he took office; but that he found that the country he thought he was going to lead actually didn’t exist anymore – and the real country he was in charge of (England) rejected his attempts to subsume it into a Nation of Britain.

So, GB ‘really’ is blind in one eye: he has a vision only for Britain but fails to see England looming into view on his blind side. Or perhaps he does now; but he just can’t and won’t articulate what he sees.

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