The problem of the past thirty years
The best account of British politics since 1979 I have read is Simon Jenkins’s Thatcher and Sons. In it, he says that Thatcher had two important legacies (two “revolutions”) and that both of them were carried on by her successors as Prime Minster: Major, Blair and Brown. From p5:
The first revolution set out to liberate the “supply side” of the British economy and give new spirit and confidence to private enterprise. Taxes were cut, labour markets freed through employment law reform and competition enforced, notably in financial services. The private sector was also invited to reinvigorate the public sector, and the boundary between the two was blurred and, under Blair, transformed beyond recognition…
The second revolution arose from the management of the first but led in a quite different direction. It was a revolution not of will but of power. Thatcher centralised government, enforced Treasry discipline and regulated both public and private sectors to an unprecedented degree. Where state ownership retreated, state control advanced in the form of an unprecendented volume of new legislation from both Westminster and Bruseels. The British state did not roll back its power in the late twentieth century. Today its size and cost is as great as it was in 1979 and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens is probably greater.
This second revolution is very significant. Although Thatcher prided herself on being a Hayek-esque radical, that was only partially true. She was, as Jenkins argues, a control-freak by instinct. There was lots of centralising of power under Thatcher. I’ll give two examples from Jenkins, from health and education.
Thatcher’s first Health Secretary, Patrick Jenkin, decentralised health management and wanted local authorities to, in his words, “respond to local needs rather than be a conveyer for detailed orders and advice from the centre”. (Quoted from Thatcher and Sons, p111) Jenkins then picks up the story (p111-2):
Within two years, Jenkin’s NHS was accused of being out of control and in need of centralisation. Jenkin was replaced by Norman Fowler, who declared that the NHS was not over-bureaucratised but ‘under-managed’. [The head of Sainsbury’s, Roy Griffiths, was then asked to come up with a solution to this problem].
(Griffiths) recruited 200 chief executives to take over Fowler’s regional and district health authorities, whose lay members were relegated to consultative status. These managers were required to report direct to an NHS board in London, from which emanated Whitehall’s first battery of ‘performance indicators’ in 1983…
There now began a process of institutional centralisation that took over twenty years and matched nothing outside the Soviet bloc…NHS managers were told to log waiting lists, appointments, referrals, lengths of stay, operations, incidents, peri-natal deaths, anything to which a number could be attached. The craving for statistics became obsessional, as did that for photo opportunities.
This centralisation did not just include health service reform. In education, under Kenneth Baker, there was also a massive increase in Whitehall control. The national curriculum was introduced, meaning that 90% of teaching hours were directed from central government, and, as in the NHS, schools were made to log everything that could be logged: hence the introduction of school league tables in 1992. Also, the Treasury took control of teachers’ pay which would “turn them, like NHS staff, into de facto civil servants”. (Jenkins p120)
New Labour was also inherently centralising. With its sofa governments, endless target-setting and 3000 laws, it carried on both of Mrs T’s revolutions. As Larry Elliott summarises in another excellent analysis of New Labour in government, they showed a great desire to interfere with individual liberty (DNA databases, CCTV cameras etc etc) but would shun from regulating either the banks or the market.
Jenkins’s solution to the problem
The solution that Jenkins proposed was one of decentralisation and the effective establishment of local government (ie something a bit more substantial than Prescott’s “regional assemblies”). In his own words (pp328-9):
My third revolution would formally, fiercely and emphatically take powers from the centre and restore them to British counties and cities and subordinate communities in precisely the way that other European states have done with success and to general public satisfaction. The powers would be those that have been usurped over the past half century…Whitehall can withdraw its assumed control over education, planning and economic development merely by saying so and dismantling the regional offices through which these are ruled. The policy initiatives, ring-fenced budgets and “policy silos” can be abolished and replaced with the clean-cur block grants as before. Exactly this process was enacted in Sweden in the 1990s.
Local government would revert to local democracy, as expressed through local elections, from the great corporations of Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds to the smallest village parish…Primary care and hospital trusts should revert to the local government administration that existed before the Second World War…
Essentially, small is good. Especially on the Continent, where smaller units such as Iceland and Luxembourg are the most efficient providers of public service.
Part of this revolution would involve allowing local authorities more power to raise taxes: in Britain, only 4% of public sector revenue is raised from local taxes, compared to 50% for Sweden, 18% for Germany and 13% for France (Thatcher and Sons p331).
The big society
I have now written over 800 words and not even mentioned the “big society”. Thanks for your patience. What I wanted to show with the extensive quotations from the Jenkins book is that Cameron is offering a solution to what is an actual, existing problem. We may not like the Big Society as an idea, but we must accept that government, as it stands, is too centralised. Cameron obviously feels this too. From the speech he made a couple of weeks ago officially launching this whole business:
For years there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster.
But this just doesn’t work.
I’m guessing most of you already know what the Big Society is meant to be, but let’s just quote Cameron’s speech again and get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Essentially, it is the decentralisation of power from Whitehall that would allow:
New powers for local communities to take over the running of parks, libraries and post offices.
More powers to plan the look, size, shape and feel of housing developments.
Powers to generate their own energy and have beat meetings to hold police to account.
He even mentions schemes like volunteers taking over schools, local transport and pubs.
So if a pub or a post office that was serving a useful function to the community was in danger of going out of business because it wasn’t making enough money (in other words, market forces were at play), Dave wants the local community to be able to use government money to buy said pub and run it in the interests of the community.
It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a Tory Prime Minister. It sounds like something you might advocate in the pub after a few drinks with a few other friends who were interested in politics. Andy Burnham could have mentioned this idea, called it “aspirational socialism”, and people would have nodded sagely and/or raised their eyebrows. Because this all sounds vaguely socialistic; this idea of people working not for profit, but for the common good. It’s not the first time Cameron has used leftist language either; in February he asserted the right of public sector workers to form “co-operatives”, that wonderful left-wing buzzword.
This appropriation of leftist language does two things. First, it makes me feel uneasy. Call me cynical, but when a Tory Prime Minster starts talking the talk of the left, you know there’s something fishy going on. Second, it makes me want to not completely reject the proposal out of hand, because to do so makes you sound like a clunking statist.
It’s a pity it won’t work, though.
My initial reaction is that there are three main problems with this idea of the Big Society:
In Thatcher and Sons, Jenkins seems almost to have pre-empted Cameron’s announcement of “The Big Society”:
People will volunteer to be consulted ad hoc. They will rise and fight a threatened housing estate, wind farm or hunting ban. They will do “just in time” politics. But regular participation is beyond their comfort zone. (p309)
He seems to attribute this remark to what he calls Bernard Crick’s “fear of politics” (of which more below).
There are two main strands, I think, to the participation argument.
The first is that, as Bob Crow said on QT a few weeks ago, we already have “the Big Society”: (tens of) thousands of volunteers at sports clubs, charity shops, amateur dramatics, community events etc etc etc etc etc. Paul Sagar has come to a similar conclusion, saying the Big Society actually exists within local government at the moment.
The second, contrasting argument is: is there enough demand to be part of the Big Society? The Tories invited everyone to “join the government of Britain” in their manifesto; what remains to be seen is how many say yes. There has been a lukewarm response to Michael Gove’s “free schools” plan, and a recent Demos poll said that only 15% of people probably would get involved in Big Society-style volunteering projects.
One would prefer to be less cynical. However, earlier this week a woman suffering from cerebral palsy seems to have starved to death after her mother (also her carer) died, with no neighbours checking if they were OK for weeks. It’ll take a heck of a shift to transform Britain from apathetic neighbours into a nation of community leaders.
Try and make sense out of the following two sentences:
a) Dave wants charities to play its part in the Big Society by organising local youth clubs, running services such as rehabilitating offenders etc.
b) Lots of these charities are going to be hit by cuts of 30% as councils look to reduce services.
These sentences aren’t compatable, are they? Which means that the Big Society is not, and cannot, be a “cover for cuts”, as one popular lefty narrative has it. In a way, it would be nice if it was: I’d rather services were provided by voluntary groups than not at all. Instead, all this seems to reinforce the fact that Cameron doesn’t know his Maynard Keynes from his Milton Keynes. You don’t have to be a great economist (or a town in southern England) to know that the drastic cuts will affect ALL sectors of the economy: private, public and voluntary.
In the speech, Cameron said that projects would be funded with a “big society bank”, with money coming from unclaimed savings in Building Society accounts. This sounds like the governmental equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa, trying to find some spare change for a packet of quavers. Although it was claimed this could raise £400m, in actual fact the figure could be more like £60m, nowhere near enough money. So where’s it’s coming from? Nobody knows…
The main advantage of the proposals by Simon Jenkins is that responsibility for local services can be placed at the door of local officials. If these officials are incompetent, they can be removed at elections. It’s called democracy. Kinda works.
However, how are the unelected voluntary or community organisations going to be accountable to the wider public for the services they provide? Will the government really give millions of pounds to unaccountable, unelected organisers with no strings attached? Actually, in the case of NHS reforms, yes they are. Dave was asked about this in his “meet the proles” event in Birmingham. Here’s what the Guardian’s live blog said:
1.49pm: Back on Cameron’s “big society”. A man who works in the voluntary sector asks how providers will be held to account under his vision of delivery by non-state providers. Cameron explains that he thinks local organisations are often best-placed to deliver. The user of the service will hold them to account – whether that is the government that has agreed the grant for local provision or the person receiving the service. Councils will play a role, too. He thinks that is enough. He admits his “big society” will be a bit messy sometimes, but he’s convinced it will be better than believing that the state always knows best or is always best-placed to deliver.
So…the state doesn’t know best, but will still hold the service providers to account. Good thinking there, Dave.
It’s now we come to Bernard Crick’s “fear of politics” that I flagged up earlier. Simon Jenkins again, p309:
I do not believe that Britons are inherently less democratic than others…[but people usually serve communities on] health authorities, police authorities, development agencies and training councils. These people serve on one condition, that they need not submit themselves to election. The condition reflects what Bernard Crick has called Britain’s “fear of politics”, an aversion to democratic responsibility. Some might call it a hangover of monarchical deference.
It’s an aversion we will have to be, er, averse to for proper, accountable local provision of services.
We have almost come to the end. If you’re still here, thanks for reading the previous 2200 words. If you’ve scrolled down most of this post because you can’t be bothered reading it and stopped here because you’ve seen “Conclusion”: a) I don’t blame you, it’s rather long b) it is worth scrolling back up and reading what I’ve read, honest.
Centralisation is a problem, but the Big Society is not the answer. It’s quite worrying that details are so sketchy, for a plan that Cameron says he has talked about, and been passionate about, since before being Tory leader. Cameron has been leader of the Tory party for five years, and for the last couple of years he has been almost certain to be the next Prime Minister. The Big Society was the centrepiece of May’s election campaign. So why are the details of this plan, like the costing, not finalised yet? It feels like the coalition is making up policies on the back of an envelope (NHS reforms, Welfare Reform, Big Society) and not fully understanding the consequences of what they are saying. Or if they do understand the consequences, not being honest in spelling out what these consequences will be.
This is already too long, so the blog in a sentence: Big Society flawed for three reasons, put it right or get out of sight.