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.

2 October 2009

Gordon Brown’s anglophobia is an expression of moral repugnance

“Britain – the four home nations – each is unique, each with its own great contribution and we will never allow separatists or narrow nationalists in Scotland or in Wales to sever the common bonds that bring our country together as one. And let me say to the people of Northern Ireland we will give you every support to complete the last and yet unfinished stage of the peace process which Tony Blair to his great credit started and which I want to see complete – the devolution of policing and justice to the people of Northern Ireland, which we want to see happen in the next few months.

“I want a Britain that is even more open to new ideas, even more creative, even more dynamic and leading the world and let me talk today about how we will do more to support the great British institutions that best define this country.”

Gordon Brown, Labour Party conference, 29 September 2009.

Gordon Brown hates England. Or should that be ‘England’, expressing the peculiar aversion our PM has towards the very idea of England – to the extent that he wishes it into non-existence? I defy anybody reading the above passage from Brown’s keynote speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week not to acknowledge that it reveals an insulting contempt towards England at the very least. The PM refers to the “four home nations” and then mentions three of them by name, although the references towards Scotland and Wales are not especially affirming. But what about England? What indeed – our PM won’t commit the indecency of mentioning the unmentionable!

The Prime Minister is not so shy about referring to Britain; no, he loves ‘Britain’. I counted 61 instances of either ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton(s)’ in his speech compared with none – no, not a single one – to England. This is despite the fact that, as we know, most of the policy announcements in the speech related to England only, or to England and Wales with respect to crime and policing.

Brown’s presentation of English policies as if they were British exemplified all the familiar dishonest and self-serving motivations:

  • ‘Create the impression your policy “innovations” affect the whole of Britain to avoid comparisons with Scotland and / or Wales where these policies are more comprehensive and have been effective for some time already’: announcement of a ‘National Care Service’ [for England only] that will provide free personal care for the elderly, but only for “those with the highest needs” – as opposed to the universal free social care provided for Gordon Brown’s constituents. The same applies to Andy Burnham’s pusillanimous announcement of free parking for hospital inpatients and their families “over the next three years, as we can afford it” – as opposed to the free parking for both inpatients and outpatients that already applies in Scotland and Wales. Burnham also conveniently forgot to mention that his announcement related to England only.
  • ‘Avoid awkward questions about why a Scottish-elected prime minister is putting forward legislation that does not affect his constituents’: “I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing [in England and Wales only] will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.  Action squads will crackdown in problem estates”. Whatever your views on how best to deal with anti-social behaviour, the truth of the matter is that this is a Scottish PM sending in the cops to crackdown on the English (and Welsh) populace.
  • ‘Avoid proper scrutiny of the nature and effect of taxation and spending commitments across the different countries of the UK’: “I am proud to announce today that by reforming tax relief [affecting people throughout the UK] we will by the end of the next Parliament be able to give the parents of a quarter of a million two year olds [in England only] free childcare for the first time”. The same goes for more or less any spending commitment: once you mention that a pledge relates to England only, awkward questions could be raised about why England appears to be being given preferential treatment by benefiting from increases in general taxation. Another example: “So we will raise tax at the very top [for all UK citizens], cut costs, have realistic public sector pay settlements [for all UK public-sector workers], make savings we know we can and in 2011 raise National Insurance [across the UK] by half a percent and that will ensure that each and every year we protect and improve Britain’s [i.e. England’s] frontline services”.

    Of course, it would be farcical to argue that only English public services will benefit from increases in UK taxation, as any rise in English expenditure gets passed on with interest to the devolved administrations via the Barnett Formula. However, in terms of policy presentation, it is just plain awkward if you have to explicitly acknowledge that commitments to maintain or increase spending on the NHS, education, policing and other ‘frontline services’ relate to England only: it looks as if England is being favoured, even if it isn’t. And if you then have to explain that rises in English expenditure will trigger even greater proportionate rises in the other nations – or, conversely, that if English spending falls, spending in the other countries will fall to an even greater degree – then you can get yourself into real deep waters with voters in England or the devolved nations respectively. Better to just pretend there is one undivided pot of taxation and spending – which there isn’t.

    This is of course going to be a, if not the, major battle ground at the general election; so you can expect all the parties to attempt to gloss over these inconvenient ‘complications’, and the media to ignore them as comprehensively as they did in the coverage of Brown’s speech – none of the commentary I’ve come across, including an extended analysis on the BBC News website, pointing out that much of it related to England only.

All of these reasons for making England out to be Britain were present in spades in Brown’s speech. But the aspect of it I’m interested in highlighting here is the moral character of Brown’s repugnance towards England. The speech sets up an implicit opposition between the ‘British values’ of fairness, responsibility and hard work, on the one hand, and what Brown perceives as the ‘English’ social and individual characteristics of unfairness, irresponsibility and work-shyness / the benefits culture. This view of England forms a subtext to Brown’s paean of praise to the above-mentioned ‘British values’, which are constantly reiterated throughout the speech:

“Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day”

“It’s the Britain that works best not by reckless risk-taking but by effort, by merit and by hard work. It’s the Britain that works not just by self-interest but by self-discipline, self-improvement and self-reliance. It’s the Britain where we don’t just care for ourselves, we also care for each other. And these are the values of fairness and responsibility that we teach our children, celebrate in our families, observe in our faiths, and honour in our communities. Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; these are the values of the mainstream majority; the anchor of Britain’s families, the best instincts of the British people, the soul of our party and the mission of our government.”

In Brown’s vision, these Scottish-Presbyterian ‘British’ / (new) Labour values must be exercised in reforming and responding to the effectively English crisis of moral values that has led to the economic and social mess we are in. This perspective is evident even in relation to the reserved policy area of macro-economics, in that the near collapse of the UK’s banking sector is linked by Brown to the dominance of an essentially ‘English’ philosophical commitment to self-regulating free markets, and to socially irresponsible behaviour and greed on the part of English bankers.

“What let the world down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions but a bankrupt ideology. What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct. What failed was the right wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market and says that free markets should not just be free but values free. One day last October the executive of a major bank told us that his bank needed only overnight finance but no long term support from the government. The next day I found that this bank was going under with debts that were among the biggest of any bank, anywhere, at any time in history. Bankers had lost sight of basic British values, acting responsibly and acting fairly.  The values that we, the hard working majority, live by every day.”

Of course, it’s quite preposterous that Brown should now disown the market economics and belief in self-correcting markets that have characterised Labour’s economic policy in government and informed Brown’s own actions as Chancellor. But what I’m interested in here is the ‘national’ subtext: although the above passage does not explicitly say so (but then, Brown never explicitly refers to England if he can help it), the right-wing, Conservative market fundamentalism he describes is associated with English ideology and the English City of London, which would be a familiar association for someone like Brown who cut his political teeth in the battle against the ‘English’ Thatcherism of the 1980s, which was so deeply unpopular in Scotland. Never mind that the bank Brown alludes here to is almost certainly the Royal Bank of Scotland.

For Brown, what is needed to ‘fight’ against this unfair [English] Conservatism and the reckless irresponsibility of unchecked markets is a good dose of ‘British’ morals, and the British values of fairness, responsibility and honest hard work:

“Markets need what they cannot generate themselves; they need what the British people alone can bring to them, I say to you today; markets need morals.
So we will pass a new law to intervene on bankers’ bonuses whenever they put the economy at risk. And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post. . . . I tell you this about our aims for the rescue of the banks: the British people will not pay for the banks.  No, the banks will pay back the British people.”

It is this same set of moral / British values that is brought to bear in Brown’s social policies affecting England (plus occasionally Wales) only. The implication is that it’s English moral irresponsibility, lack of fairness and idleness that has brought its society to the pass where it needs a stern application of correct British values to set things right. Take the example of the proposed measures to ‘help’ young unmarried mothers:

“It cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own. From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents [in England only] who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.”

The opening words here, “it cannot be right”, are ambiguous: they imply that it’s morally wrong for 16- and 17-year-old [English] girls to get themselves pregnant, alongside the explicit meaning, which is that it’s ‘unfair’ and ‘irresponsible’ for [English] councils to give such girls a council flat without any other support. There we go again: reckless English teenagers causing social problems and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer through their immoral behaviour; and English councils compounding the problem by throwing money at them without really dealing with the underlying social and behavioural issues. So Brown’s solution: if English girls in such a situation, who are not cared for by their own irresponsible, dysfunctional families, want the support of the British taxpayer, then they’ll be effectively placed in a form of incarceration where they can jolly well learn how to behave and look after their babies ‘properly’.

The same attitude informs Brown’s announcements on things like tackling the effects of [English] binge drinking, [English and Welsh] anti-social behaviour, and dysfunctional [English] families:

  • “We thought that extended hours would make our city centres easier to police and in many areas it has. But it’s not working in some places and so we will give local authorities [in England] the power to ban 24 hour drinking throughout a community in the interests of local people”: clearly, we English drunkards can’t be trusted with ’24-hour drinking’, in contrast to the Scots with their Presbyterian, responsible behaviour around drink.
  • “There is also a way of intervening earlier to stop anti-social behaviour, slash welfare dependency and cut crime. Family intervention projects are a tough love, no nonsense approach with help for those who want to change and proper penalties for those who don’t or won’t. . . . Starting now and right across the next Parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families [in England only] will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them”: the British state is now going to take it upon itself to single out the most unfairly behaving, irresponsible and work-shy English families, and will make sure they learn how to stick to the British rules or else get the British stick!

Well, clearly, action is needed to deal with social problems such as these. The point I’m making is that Brown’s prescriptions are pervaded by a deep moral repugnance towards what are in effect characteristics of English society and culture. And that repugnance is not merely incidental, in the sense that they just happen to be English social problems because it’s only English society that the government that Brown heads up can act upon through legislation and policy. On the contrary, Brown has a personal, moral dislike and prejudice towards the English seen in the contrasting figures of the anti-social, indeed ‘anti-societal’, underclass, on the one hand, and the selfish, arrogant upper classes and mega-rich capitalists represented by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the out-of-control bankers, who seek only to protect their own wealth and privileges.

To these images of Englishness, Brown opposes British values personified in what he repeatedly terms the ‘mainstream majority’ of hard-working, responsible working-class and middle-class communities, families and individuals. Brown articulates his and Labour’s ‘mission’ as being that of raising the [English] underclass and humbling the [English] upper classes, so that the whole of society meets in that mainstream middle ground and middle class of fairness, responsibility, the work ethic and meritocracy. Or bourgeois mediocrity and social conformity.

But one thing for sure is that Brown’s mission to reform ‘the country’ involves taking the England out of England, and transforming it into a ‘Britain’ made in Brown’s Scottish-Presbyterian image. And that’s why Brown can never say England: not just out of political expediency but because ‘England’ is the name for a moral decadence that he sees it as his duty to change – in the name of ‘British values’.

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