The real problem with the Big Society

 X-Factor Alex sex tape hell… Jade: I’m going home to die… Apprentice star: I’m a swinger… Jordan in meltdown… Judge and the rent boy… Kerry: I’ll die young… A representative assortment of front page headlines from The News of The World, Britain’s most popular Sunday newspaper.

Ever since he unveiled it – rather belatedly, 2 weeks before the election – David Cameron’s Big Society idée fixe hasn’t really taken off. And that’s something of an understatement. People just don’t seem interested. Our Prime Minister, who can’t stop talking about it, has been left shrugging his shoulders and scratching his head. But there’s an obvious explanation as to why The Big Society’s had such little impact, and it’s got nothing to do with The Big Society itself. Because the real problem’s Cameron and his party.

I was skimming through The New Statesman the other week. ‘Claptrap’ was its considered analysis of The Big Society. ‘Barmy’ is how you might imagine the characteristically abreast-of-the-briefing-note Ken Clarke describing his own party’s policy.

Others see The Big Society as not only a stupid idea, but also a sinister ploy to buff the turd of cuts. ‘Public services are going to the wall’, so the argument goes. ‘But hang about! Here’s a plan! Let’s all volunteer to do it for nothing and make up for the folly of the financers with our own hard graft! Now who’s with me?! . . . Hello darkness, my old friend!’

But here’s the thing: despite its irresistible attraction to scorn, The Big Society really shouldn’t be that controversial at all. The label might sound quite grand, but the message behind it’s actually pretty modest. And it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with deficit reduction. All that Steve Hilton’s puppet – that’s the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, by the way – is saying is that the principles of social responsibility, community action, and fairness are good things; that it’s right to look out for others, and to strive to be better parents, employers, employees, and citizens. Adam Smith called it ‘fellow feeling’, and said that helping people other than ourselves is the only way that we’ll ever be happy.

So what’s all the fuss about? The answer’s that The Big Society tells us something that we’d rather not hear: that we’re actually quite selfish and go about our lives doing pretty much exactly what we like, without much thought for anyone else. That The Big Society’s been so widely and vigorously panned only highlights how much our self-obsessed, greedy, hedonistic society’s crying out for Cameron’s communitarianism. The problem therefore isn’t the concept; it’s the Tory Party.

And where do I start? I could go on and on and on – as so many of Cameron’s critics lazily do – about our Prime Minister’s Bullingdon connection. How a bunch of haughty kids with rich parents get blind drunk, do exactly what they want, vandalise exactly what they want, then get daddy to write a cheque for the damage, and keep noblesse oblige for another day. Pity most of that familiar criticism’s motivated by an inverted snobbery that’s as obnoxious as Bullingdon on a big night out. I’m quite prepared to cut Cameron some slack for things that he did while at university over 20 years ago.

So I’ll start with something that’s going on here and now. Case study: Andy Coulson, former Editor of The News Of The World, Director of Conservative Party Communications, the centre point of Cameron’s inner circle. But how does this square with The Big Society? A guy who edited a rag that markets to man’s state-of-nature instincts; that dresses up soft porn and celeb goss as ‘courageous investigative journalism’, not gutless lowest-common-denominator conformity; that profits and relies on popular ignorance and apathy; that loads our unhealthy obsession with B- and C-celebrity; that revels in rumour about cabinet ministers and their mistresses; that rejoices in misery because misery sells; that coordinates Operation Celebrity Surveillance, stalking and phone tapping the rich and famous. But all this in its tireless pursuit of the public interest, you understand.

Coulson claims that he knew nothing of the practice of phone tapping that was so endemic at The News Of The World under his editorship. This despite former staff at the paper saying that Coulson ‘actively encouraged’ it.

Who to believe? Well, just think about it for a second: you’re a self-righteous, amoral bastard working at The News Of The World, when you walk into your boss’ office with the greatest scoop since Wayne Rooney was caught making The Big Society a reality on his marital bed in last week’s edition. ‘Andy! Andy! Wait ‘til you hear this!’, you exclaim like the blood-sucking, arse-liking reveller that you are, already thinking about the titty bar where you’ll splurge your ensuing Lurid Sex Scandal Bonus. ‘I’ve got this serious, shameful, shocking story about a politician who’s banging his secretary on his Commons bureau! What’s the world coming to!’

At this point, what does your editor say? Does he breathe a sigh of relief, hand over your Lurid Sex Scandal Bonus, and run with your front page splash? Or does he ask you some questions that as your editor he’s obliged to ask to authenticate your story and source? e.g. what’s your evidence?; how did you get it?; who’s your source? Questions that would’ve immediately uncovered the scoop behind all the other scoops: that stories were being obtained via unlawful means.

Let’s suspend rationality for a second and assume that Coulson was instead supremely incompetent at his job and knew absolutely nothing about the phone tapping. Even if that was true, shouldn’t everything else that The News Of The World stands for (see introductory quotes for depressing details) preclude Coulson from working for a government that claims to want to make Britain a better place? Isn’t it precisely what The News Of The World stands for that The Big Society condemns? Doesn’t Cameron undermine the message when that message’s managed by Coulson, Mr Social Irresponsibility par excellence?

And then there’s William Hague. Because the interesting thing about the Hague controversy isn’t the smoke around his sexuality, or even his ill-judged decision to share a hotel room with his 25 year-old boy friend. The real issue’s that Hague’s guilty of gross nepotism, hiring as a Special Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office some guy with a Desmond from Durham (a 2:2 means that you’re either an idiot or idle or both), and no experience or expertise in foreign affairs. Christopher Myres got a job that thousands of other people are more qualified for because – and only because – he’s best mates with the boss. Our Foreign Secretary’s disrespect for fairness isn’t exactly an inspiring example of social responsibility in action.

The Big Society? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. It’s just what the doctor ordered for our socially irresponsible society. It’s just a pity that the people prescribing the medicine are such hypocrites.

A guest post by the Currer Ball

Lib Dem conference 2010: an example of collective cognitive dissonance

The current Liberal Democrat party conference has witnessed an effort by the party leadership to assuage the fears of members that they have sold their principles for a place in government and the power such a position brings. Nick Clegg has tried to underline how, as part of a full coalition, the Lib Dems can act as a progressive bulwark against the Conservatives’ more extreme economic measures more effectively than if they were acting as part of the opposition. Party delegates are of course greatly concerned that the Lib Dems are being used as human body shields by the Conservatives, a means to underpin their ‘we’re all in this together’ discourse while attacking the living conditions of the working population and letting those who created the current economic condition off scot free (aside from small bank levies and the possibility of breaking up the banks).

Most party members will be aware that the Libs face electoral evisceration in next May’s local elections and the general election of 2015 if their spending cuts are as disastrous for low and medium wage earners as numerous economists expect. The party have gained much of their support from disaffected Labour voters in recent years in working class areas that are likely to switch straight back to Labour come the next election.

For these reasons Clegg and the rest of the leadership are walking a political tightrope, attempting to both appease the left of the party faithful, while not able to condemn the most egregious ideologically motivated policies of their coalition partners. However, this attempt to hold the centre-ground or pull the Conservatives in a more progressive direction is highly unlikely. This is in no small part due to the current Lib Dem leadership being drawn from the ‘Orange Book’ wing of the party. This group of Liberal Democrats (including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable) are ideologically committed to stressing market solutions to social issues such as healthcare and the environment.

A good example of Clegg’s own ideological proximity to the Conservatives was offered prior to his party’s conference, when he began softening the public up for attacks on the welfare state by attacking welfare ‘dependency’. This of course has been a line oft-repeated by neoliberal ideologues for the past three decades.

In his conference speech today Vince Cable attacked ‘corporate short-termism’ as well as blind acceptance of the logic of the ‘free market’. Cable is to claimed that the government’s political-economic agenda is not one of laissez-faire. Although Richard Lambert and Lord Jones (head and ex-head of the CBI respectively), have already responded angrily to leaks of Cable’s speech, David Cameron should unperturbed by Cable waxing lyrical about the evils of unfettered capitalism. Such talk merely acts as a release valve for all those disaffected Lib Dem voters and party members who believe the party sold them out by joining a coalition with the Tories. David Cameron and co can only gain if opposition to public spending cuts from within the coalition is limited to angry speeches at the Lib Dem party conference, of little interest to the wider public and likely to underpin support for the coalition amongst the grass-roots.

The Conservatives coalition with the Liberal Democrats aims to create a veneer of non-ideological rationality for the attacks on the weakest sections of society. This is of course for public consumption only and masks the very ideological reasons the government is dismantling the state and institutions which ordinary people rely on (and ironically enough, capitalism relies on in many ways). Although Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrat members of the coalition will claim otherwise, they have been co-opted into political coalition by the Conservatives in way which makes gaining support for their more reactionary policies amongst the general population far easier. Lib Dem grass-roots activists and the public watching at home should not allow themselves to be fooled by a leadership claiming they stand for anything but the policies they are instrumental in implementing.

A guest post by Pete O’Connor

Should the left be angry that new banking regulations were watered down?

Last week, the Basel Committee, made up of central bank governors from the world’s leading nations, announced new recommendations on banking supervision. The rules have been christened Basel III and will be adopted by national regulators in due course. Apparently, bankers are delighted about the rules, which could have been much tougher. They will also be phased in over several years, allowing the banks more breathing space than they were expecting. Stockmarkets around the world surged as a result.

Essentially, banks will be compelled to hold more capital to cover investment risks. More of their reserves will also have to be held in liquid assets such as gilts. In combination, the rules will make the global financial system more resilient, and it is less likely banks will require another bailout by taxpayers in the future.

But regulators could have gone further in the restrictions placed on bank manoeuvres, and by bringing in the rules sooner. The question is: should the left be angry that the banks have not been hit as hard as they could have been? The banks have caused a fiscal crisis in the UK more serious than any other in living memory. Surely the left should be campaigning for regulators to go much further in creating conditions for stability in the financial sector, so that our jobs and public services are never again placed at the mercy of the City.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. As a result of Basel III – even in its diluted form – the cost of banking will inevitably rise. Mortgages and loans will be more expensive, and savings products will be less generous. Generally speaking, banks will be less profitable. Shareholders’ dividends may not be quite as high and employees’ bonuses may be slightly more politically correct – but ordinary people will suffer too. This is the price of relative stability.

The problem for the left is that the Labour government’s vision for welfare was little more than an updated version of Margaret Thatcher’s property-owning democracy. New Labour’s approach to asset-based welfare, as interrogated by Matthew Watson, was built on allusions about the housing market boom, and the notion that we could all make a fortune from investing in the stockmarket one way or another. The birth of ISAs, for instance, was consistently championed by New Labour as the hallmark of progressive financial inclusion. As such welfare for the left became fundamentally wrapped up in the fortunes of the financial sector. If banking becomes more expensive, this agenda is severely undermined.

This is not to say that the left should bemoan the end of asset-based welfare. But what is the alternative? These questions have not been discussed at all during the Labour leadership election – candidates have generally supported tougher restrictions on banks, without considering what this actually means for financial inclusion.

It also worth mention the opinion of Allister Heath (editor of City AM) on Basel III. He argues, among other things, that the new rules remain tied to the ‘fantasy land of mainstream finance theory’ in at least one regard. In seeking to ensure bank assets are more liquid, Basel III encourages investment in gilts (i.e. government securities). The assumption that all government debt will retain value and saleability in the event of another crisis may be profoundly flawed. Basel III is therefore not a panacea for financial stability.

There is perhaps one aspect of Basel III that the left can rally against without reservation: the complete absence of democracy in the Committee’s proceedings. The Basel Committee is in fact an informal, advisory body with no legal status. Civil society actors have had no formal role in its discussions. Furthermore, even at the national level, there has been no public debate on the rules and their implications. Not to mention that the governor of the Bank of England is almost entirely shielded from public scrutiny, despite now enjoying immense influence over UK economic policy.

Craig Berry is a former policy advisor at the Treasury

LeftCentral’s review of the week

This week, Pope Benedict launched an invasion of Britain with an army of paedophiles, on a mission to slaughter all gay people and destroy every last condom he can find.  At least, that’s what you’d think from reading the ridiculous media coverage we’ve been subjected to.  A bunch of celebrities have been saying the visit shouldn’t even happen.  Last time I checked our country enshrined the values of free speech and respect for others – even if we disagree with his views or actions.  If the Pope was here inciting hatred or violence, Stephen Fry et al would have a point.  He’s not, so let him come and say what he has to say, and let his critics say what they have to say.

In more earthly affairs, Andy Burnham started complaining about the rules in the Labour leadership campaign.  He doesn’t seem to like the prominence of MPs (they have a third of the electoral college  votes), which apparently gives a boost to Westminster favourites over the people’s choice.  It’s a compelling argument, but is it borne out by the facts?  We’ll have to wait and see if any candidate gets the backing of party members but is denied victory by MPs – I doubt it will happen.  One Member One Vote is a fine principle, but on balance I think the electoral rules should continue to reflect the triple status of the leader – as leader of the party, the labour movement and the parliamentary group.

Turning our attention to the coalition, the defence select committee criticised the breakneck speed of the government’s defence review.  Hastiness is becoming the central charge against the coalition’s reforms.  The same has been said about changes in the NHS, education and the police.  Are they leaping before they look?  Almost certainly.  It could well be a deliberate attempt to minimise opposition – including from Lib Dems, who are bound to be reluctant about criticising within the first year of the coalition.

Something which hasn’t been so quick is the reform of banking regulations.  On Monday, bank shares surged after the Basel Committee released new rules for the sector.  Actually, the rules could have been tougher but will still mean significant changes to the way that banks do business.  Questions have been raised about what a new, safer banking system means for the less well-off in society.  New Labour pinned its hopes on asset-based welfare, with people able to make money from their savings (including the Child Trust Fund) and get themselves on the property ladder with a cheap mortgage.  What happens now that banks are going to be playing it safe and, therefore, less ready to spread the cash around?

Finally, the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the US secured one of its biggest victories to date when Christine O’Donnell won the Republican Senate primary in Delaware.  Some will see reason to rejoice in this, as evidence (like the Tories after 1997) of the Republicans making themselves thoroughly unelectable.  Indeed, Barack Obama will probably breathe a huge sigh of relief if Sarah Palin is his opponent at the 2012 election.  The downside, surely, is that in the long-term the progressive cause can only suffer by the presence of such an oppositional and irrational movement in public life – the bigger it gets, the less Obama will actually get done in office.

BBC Sport is going North – and London doesn’t like it

In Monday’s Evening Standard, Stephen Robinson – apparently a veteran BBC man – complained at great length about the Beeb’s decision to move its sport coverage from London to Manchester (well, Salford Quays to be more precise). Robinson has got this one very wrong. The real oddity is why the Beeb didn’t make this move a long time ago.

His thesis consisted of two very shaky arguments. First, that London is the centre of the sporting universe. He actually gave this quite startling example:

Take the Pakistan cricket story. It has involved the police in London, a newspaper based in London, the Pakistani High Commissioner in London. We live in a highly centralised country. How can the BBC Sports department, or Five Live, cover that story from Manchester?

Am I missing something? This was a crime committed in London. This is why the investigation was led by the Metropolitan police. BBC Sport would cover the story from Manchester just like the current London-based organisation covers stories from around the country, and indeed the world. He says, ludicrously, that BBC Sport must be based in London because that’s where the News of the World (the newspaper at the centre of the story) is based. Aside from the fact that our national broadcaster should not take its cue from the News of the World, has Robinson wondered how on earth the News of the World itself managed to give so much coverage to recent stories, for instance, around Wayne Rooney’s private life? Did they insist that Wayne and Colleen relocate to London for the duration of their sex scandal?

Robinson also cites the London Olympics. Well, the BBC has managed to cover every other Olympic Games of modern times without being based in the host city, so I’m sure it will cope this time. As a matter of fact, the UK’s (and indeed the world’s) most popular and lucrative sporting enterprise, the Premier League, is largely Northern-led. London and the South-East have five Premier League clubs, whereas the North-West has eight – including England’s most successful (Liverpool), biggest (Man United), and richest (Man City) clubs.

Robinson’s second main argument is that BBC staff don’t really want to go, and will probably waste a lot of license-payers money scurrying between Manchester and London. He may be correct – but Robinson presents this as something that will plague BBC Sport in perpetuity. In fact, it is purely transitional. Ultimately the BBC is trying to open itself up to a wider talent pool. It will be both necessary and desirable for our national broadcaster to start hiring a few Mancunians. Maybe even a few Scousers.

And on this, for the first time in my life, I agree with Hazel Blears.

Worrying signs in the Conservative international development policy

Survey evidence reveals that the British public’s support for international aid has fallen. According to the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, 63% of us want the aid budget cut, and 52% think aid is ineffective. We can surely put this down, at least to some extent, to the impact of recession and the menace of impending spending cuts. Yet the coalition government has vowed to protect the international development budget. The Conservatives made this pledge in their election campaign.

 This was part of their desire to no longer be seen as ‘the nasty party’. That is, cuddly conservatism. David Cameron’s cabinet are citizens of the world. So, does this mean that the government is going against the grain of public opinion? In a way, yes. The right-wing commentariat are certainly gunning for DFID. But the government is desperate to avoid any headlines about starving African babies, which could harm them in the long-term, even if cutting aid is popular in the short-term. The DFID budget is quite small, so it’s not like cutting it by 25% could make much difference anyway. Why take the political risk?

 However, there are worrying signs that the coalition government does have a more right-wing agenda on international development. First, leaked documents suggest up to 100 DFID programmes are for the scrapheap even though the overall aid budget is protected. DFID has scrapped its magazine ‘Developments’ which aimed to inform the British public about aid and development issues. And most importantly, leaked memos have informed us that the government plans to make some of the financial assistance DFID doles out pass through Foreign Office and National Security Council procedures to ensure aid contributes to UK security objectives.

 Even if the budget is protected, there are growing questions, therefore, about how it will be spent. This is not to say, of course, that New Labour’s policies were beyond reproach. Their aid policy was based to some extent on a vision of progressive global economic integration that has been blown to pieces by the global financial crisis. But to return now to a ‘UK-first’ aid policy would be a backward step.

Laura White is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield

This was the week that…

 
Andy Coulson must have realised, surely, his time at Downing Street is going to be limited.  I don’t know enough about libel law to start speculating on how much Coulson might have known about illegal phone-tapping activity at the News of the World, but it doesn’t really matter anyway.  Either he sanctioned the practice, or he was indifferent to the methods his own staff used to get the stories he printed.  I don’t think Cameron will sack him – when he does it will be the official end of his honeymoon period – but would be shocked if Coulson hasn’t found himself alternative employment within a year.

…the media decided to create a global controversy that damaged relations between Muslims and the West.  Yes, Pastor Terry Jones has his share of the blame too, but why do we even know about this idiot?  Insane people do insane stuff all the time.  This isn’t news.  Of course journalists will try to pretend that Barack Obama made this a global news story by commenting on it – the BBC’s Mark Mardell is particularly guilty of this.  Not true, Mark.  He had to comment because people like you made it a global news story, for no good reason.

…Vince Cable decided to pursue a senseless privatisation of Royal Mail.  The service has its problems, most prominently a pensions deficit and competition both from new providers and new providers of information.  Which of these challenges is privatisation supposed to address?  There’s no real analysis of what a postal service needs to be today.  The government wants someone to come in do the dirty work of raising prices and cutting pay that it’s not brave enough to do directly.  When I say ‘the government’, of course I mean the Conservative Party.  The Lib Dems opposed full privatisation in their manifesto (that’s a document which might come in handy from time to time in the next 5 years, I suspect). 

Robert Chote got himself appointed chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility.  Well, George Osborne couldn’t have given it to anyone else, could he?  After Osborne tried to mask an obvious political appointment (Sir Alan Budd) in the name of making economic forecasting independent, and his appointee decided to resign after bring seen to act in a political way, he had no choice.  Now he’s stuck with a man whose think-tank has spent recent months pointing out just how regressive the government’s plans are.  Serves him right.

…Green Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas argued MPs could job share, as a way of opening up politics to women.  Maybe it’s just her way of trying to double the number of Green MPs from one to two.  It’s an idea that comes from good intentions, but it’s very silly.  Think about it for five seconds and it is obviously unworkable.  Maybe someone could figure out the necessary contortions to make it feasible, but is this really the Greens’ priority?  The shame for Lucas is that this is one of the few times (maybe even the first) she has managed to make national headlines since her election.

Royal Mail privatisation: public sector pensions claim another victim

The coalition government announced today that Royal Mail is going to be privatised. The economic argument is of course no stronger than it has been every other time the sale of Royal Mail has been touted, but in an age of austerity, it is no surprise that the government wants to get this loss-making enterprise off the balance-sheet.

Royal Mail has of course been run like a business for a long time now – which is why we can even talk about its profitability. Most public services would make a loss in the private sector – that is why they are public services, to ensure public goods are delivered irrespective of market value. The fact that we pay for Royal Mail services doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a state-owned business; it could easily be viewed as a form of co-production.

The argument goes that the growth of email and social networking fatally undermines demand for Royal Mail. That is right, at least to some extent. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the private sector would be able to cope more effectively with falling demand. In fact it may demonstrate that Royal Mail’s failings are due to exogenous factors rather than public sector inefficiencies. If the private sector is to return the Royal Mail to profitability, it will surely do so by ceasing the most costly services – typically used by people who have least access to the internet anyway. It is not hard to imagine already-strained local authority and voluntary sector organisations stepping into the breach to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society in this regard (including older people in remote areas) receive some form of mail service even if they are ignored or priced out by a privatised Royal Mail.

So, the argument on profitability is not convincing, and privatisation could lead to worse outcomes for many people. What is really behind the government’s move? The devil lies in the detail: the Royal Mail’s enormous pension scheme deficit. Figures released this year suggest that it now stands at over £10bn. This means its liabilities to pay its members’ final salary-related pension benefits far outweigh the value of the assets in the organisation’s pension fund. This has been perhaps the main reason private sector firms have been loathe to gamble on Royal Mail. For all the talk of digitalised mail, Royal Mail – which provides a vital public service for many people – is in financial difficulty precisely because of the way its pension fund has been organised and managed. Independent pensions consultant John Ralfe told the Telegraph in 2009 that the Royal Mail pension fund had been over-exposed to equity losses.

The structural problem in the pension fund, of course, is that it is paying retired former employees for far longer than it expected to when they commenced employment with Royal Mail. We are all living longer and both public and private sector pension schemes – not to mention state pensions – face long-term funding crises. The government has promised to back Royal Mail’s historic pension liabilities but does not want to risk taking on a growing deficit in the future. The debate on whether public sector pensions are legitimate or affordable could rage on and on. It just seems very strange that a public service could be sliced up and sold off for this reason. It is hard to see that privatisation is an economic answer to the pension problem. It is, however, a political answer. It means that a private company could massively reduce the generosity of Royal Mail’s pensions at a greater distance from the public gaze than the government could. Is the loss of a public service really a price worth paying for this political pensions fix?

Craig Berry is a Senior Researcher at International Longevity Centre-UK and former Policy Advisor on state pensions at the Treasury. This article was originally published by ILC-UK.

The secret state: spending cuts and the end of compartmentalised Keynesianism

The coalition government will announce the findings of its Spending Review next month. In other words, the cuts are upon us. Several media outlets are running ‘cuts watch’ features, and there is an understandable frenzy underway among stakeholders of all shapes, sizes and political stripes about how cuts will impact on their particular interests. Every other day we have senior members of the government, and Nick Clegg, out and about making speeches and conducting interviews about how these cuts are necessary but fair.

Representatives of the commentariat have also been busy talking to ‘the general public’. While the government is asking us for ideas, journalists and pollsters have set themselves the task of proving how incredibly stupid and selfish we are. You see, a strange thing happens when we get asked about public spending. We say that government should cut waste – but nothing that I personally benefit from could possibly be classified as waste, we add. We say that government should cut benefits to scroungers – but the benefits that I personally receive are entirely legitimate, we argue. And we say that government should raise taxes on the rich – but I myself am far from wealthy, we explain.

I don’t want to sound flippant, nor to challenge the wisdom of the public at large. But it is clear to me that there is huge uncertainty among most people in Britain about what the state does and why it does it. I am about to embark on a gross simplification, but I would suggest that this is a product of the depoliticisation of public life. We don’t even think about the fact that free bus passes for the elderly or SureStart centres, for example, are items of public expenditure that cost taxpayers billions. We’ve lost a sense of the bigger picture and are concerned purely with our own back yards. The New Right and Thatcher told us to think like this. We were told it was natural to think like this.

And then New Labour came along and said it is even okay for socialists to think like this. They told us there was no point bothering with politics anymore, because globalisation had stolen all of our power anyway. But not to worry, globalisation is a merciful god; the promised land is a globalised space. The great paradox is that these governments who, influenced by neoliberal dogma, told us that the state is dead, actually expanded the reach and size of the public sector more than any government since Attlee’s.

It’s an open secret. Even if one did want to try and generate an understanding of what the state does, in order to think about cutting it back, just where would you start? The state has been sliced up into so many different agencies and layers of governance it’s hard to know what is public spending and what isn’t. It is compartmentalised Keynesianism: creating jobs for middle-managers otherwise redundant due to technological change. The market cannot and will not employ the growing middle-class. So the state must. This is roll-back, baby, neoliberal style.

Neoliberalism hit the rocks when the financial crisis came. It sank without trace when financial crisis led to the banking bailout and caused a fiscal crisis. The secret growth of the public sector can no longer continue unabated. But given that we’ve had two generations of collective denial about the functions of the state, developing consensus on what to do about it is going to be impossible.

The march right encircles the pond

Is there a size attributed to Government? Does it reach to the edges of a country’s territory or does it only define the ten letters that make up the word itself? In many cases the parameters of government become more important than a politician’s rhetoric or their mission statements that propel them to office or condemn them to the bleakness of opposition. In the centre of the debate is the question: Should governmental control supersede that of the region or individual? This of course is a blanket term; control is different depending on what aspect of government is being discussed. Many will concede that the military is within the central government’s remit as to protect the country as a whole, while many will debate and criticise the government’s role in initiating tax, health care or funding structures. Due to its overarching structure this is an issue that defines all forms of western democracy, including both Europe and the United States of America.

In Britain, after a New Labour government that developed a centralised, top-down government that sought to control all aspects of national government from the centre, we have moved in a different direction with a Lib-Con coalition government. Cameron has championed a more decentralised approach giving control to regional bodies for aspects as diverse as healthcare and the formation of free school to land rights and development. In a distinct move away from the government that lay before it, the new government sees a rampaging government as the first symptom of a failing system and something we can ill-afford.

In the US however, the discussion of governmental size has taken on a far more venomous tone. Faced with vast reforms in the healthcare, tax and benefits systems, and bank bail outs that totalled over $700 billion, many on the Right have marshalled their forces to condemn Barack Obama and the Democrats. Well known commentators and politicians, from Glenn Beck to Sarah Palin have chided the President for extending government into peoples’ homes, where apparently it is unwelcome. The ‘hostile’ encroachment of government has become the figurehead behind which, the Republicans are marching toward the November midterms.

Where has this forceful restriction come from? Much of it comes from the public’s inability to understand how important the government is in their day to day life. In his Guardian blog, Michael Tomasky hits the nail on the head:  “If they’re small business people, they depend on the freight rails and the roadways and the utilities and the regulation of interstate commerce and the laws that keep their crooked competitors from undercutting them and the courts’ abilities to enforce those laws.” Small business is the example bandied around by the Right when demonstrating the ‘devastating’ damage of the government. Was the US to implement a national minimum wage like we enjoy in the UK for example, we are told by many Republicans that it will be small businesses that will suffer. While this may be true, they ignore the aforementioned benefits that businesses enjoy, because, it doesn’t fit the carefully manufactured image of a big and cumbersome government.

But what has caused this? There are many reasons that are specific to each country. The US was founded on principles to protect individual freedoms from anything that encroaches on this, be it, a foreign invading body or their own government. It is from this that Sarah Palin states: “We must restore America and restore her honour.” It is a move backwards, towards the great American tradition of liberty, freedom and the self-motivating ‘American Dream’. In the UK, however, it can be seen to stem from a far more recent development. In part, it stems from a disillusionment with politicians and the governmental system that ignited with the MP expense scandal. The public trust, or lack thereof, has demonised the Labour image of a controlling, competent and trustworthy band of politician’s working on the public’s behalf, preferring a system that is tailored for their individual area. Working on the idea that they want to see every step being taken, much like a mischievous child being told to remain within the parent’s line of sight. You will never know what he gets up to.      

But if there is one aspect that connects both countries, it is the punishing economic climate. Uncertainty as we see now in the market place punishes liberal and progressive tax systems and financial policies that offer recovery for the country as a whole. People demand that their money is protected above all else, even sacrificing a faster recovery for the peace of mind. With very little money to share around, people will demand their share. It’s the scene from every disaster, survival or zombie film: The lowly band of survivors comes across a hoarder, barricaded in his house, boxes of cash n carry grade tinned soups or fruit pieces in syrup obscuring the windows. The hoarder in question is wary to share, measuring his survival in this time of chaos on all that he himself could obtain. Faced with this band of needy strangers the word that will cross is mind is that of strangers and he will evaluate the benefit of his sharing with that of his own survival. Faced with less money, unsettled employment and job insecurity, many people will prefer a closer relationship with that which is owed to them. It’s easier to share out funding, benefits and resources with those you know, with those whose kids got to the same school, with those you bump into at the chemist or supermarket, not the near-abstract idea of an entire nation.

From George Osborne’s public service cuts and the great ‘quango’ hunt to Nicolas Sarkozy’s move to uproot Roma camps in France, the question of how far money will stretch, and how much is spent outside the public’s view or situation, supersedes any other issue such as the uproar by many human rights organisations and the UN targeted at the French President’s policies.

For now a large government is the enemy and many in the US are preparing for the November midterms, with this target firmly in their sights. While the UK does not have the deeply historic conflict between national and individual freedoms to confuse and intensify matters, David Cameron and the Tory party will have you believe that it won’t be long until the much championed New Labour image of a central government will exist only in history text books alongside the Battle of Independence and the Boston Tea Party. We can only hope that like the Battle of Independence, a central government that operates for everyone’s benefit will inflect, affect and shape future political movements beyond this particular government.

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