A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

State and Society

In Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology on January 6, 2011 at 12:50 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

“We are not here to manage capitalism but to change society and define its finer values.”

An interesting quote – left unattributed so you can vote in The Daily Soapbox’s latest poll. The answer will be revealed in my next article. Click here to vote.

The quote is about the role of government, and its objectives, and how it relates to society. I am going to leave capitalism to one side, however, and take the road less travelled-by, and consider government and society. The contrast between the two most recent governments of the UK – Blair and Brown’s ‘New’ Labour, and Cameron’s ‘One-Nation’ Conservatives – I think is clear and stark, and perhaps unexpected.

One would think that it would be the free-market, Thatcherite Conservatives who would have little input on society and simply toddle along ‘managing’ capitalism, and the socialist Labour party that would concern itself with ‘improving’ society. However, New Labour did not live up to its inheritance. During its years in office, the gap between rich and poor widened. Many commentators both inside and outside politics pointed to youth that were becoming increasingly disenfranchised from society, and a general move away from feeling part of a community. Charitable giving remained high, though slightly decreased as a proportion of disposable income. Experiments in ‘multiculturalism’ led, in many places, to different ethnic groups growing apart from each other, and ‘ghettoisation’. While it’s not a disastrous picture, we don’t come away being sure that New Labour set out to improve society.

While, ostensibly, this may have been their purpose, in reality, much of what happened under Blair was not about society but managing capitalism. New Labour continued policies of privatisation pursued by previous Conservative governments, and extended them to things even Thatcher didn’t dare privatise: notably, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (most of which was privatised as Qinetiq in 2001) and the Commonwealth Development Corporation (sold to Actis in 2004), alongside privatisations the Conservative party supported, such as privatising the railway system. The argument ran that the government’s services were better delivered if the market could deliver them, overseen by the government; essentially, it managed capitalism. The tax system remained pretty much the same, if anything, regulatory laws became more lax.

This contrasts with the society front, where those measures that were most likely to fracture bonds of trust between groups were pursued. CCTV was widely increased, as were speed cameras. ID cards were attempted, but failed. Extensive Health and Safety legislation, and strengthened CRB checks – which, in fairness, probably prevented some hideous events – made it incredibly difficult to run some  events. There were fewer school trips; it became increasingly difficult for charities to get involved in certain institutions, such as hospitals and schools. Equalities legislation was constantly challenged in the Lords, especially when it was realised that some clauses would require Christian churches to employ Muslims as pastoral workers. ‘Prevent’, the strategy designed to counter radical Islamism after 11th September, singled out the Islamic community for intervention, and made them feel more marginalised than before. Blair ‘didn’t do God’, and hid his tendency towards Catholicism. In short, society was not changed – or not for the better – and any values that may have defined it were suppressed.

Contrast Cameron’s Conservatives: as soon as he came into leadership, Dave undertook a policy review, which led to a statement of values. In fairness, even the global recession has not altered them; slogans like: ‘We’re all in this together’ or ‘There’s such as thing as society, it’s not the same thing as the state’ arise here, not in the crisis years. There is a strong grouping of thought within the party that Britain’s society is broken, and that it needs fixing. In the brief time since the Conservatives have been in government, they have been at pains – at least in presentation – to emphasise the ‘progressive’ elements of their policies, from the CSR to the tuition fee rise. They have promised policy on attempting to integrate criminals better into society, on encouraging charitable giving. They have abolished ID cards, stopped ‘Prevent’, and Cameron openly, though infrequently, discusses his religion. Iain Duncan Smith, who spends much time talking about his faith, is putting considerable policy resource towards making society and the market work for the long-term unemployed, and other marginalised groups, such as the disabled; an area where Britain is most obviously broken. By far the biggest idea in government at the moment is the Big Society – but not many details have been released on this, yet.

Undoubtedly managing the market system has to be an important task of government, it need not be the limit of government’s aspiration. It certainly isn’t for Plato, it certainly isn’t for Marx, both of whom believed that good government would lead their citizens to be more virtuous. Government can change society, and can define its values, though it has to persuade and not compel the governed. And finer values have often been defined in history from the political leaders – we need look no further than the US Constitution for a paradigm shift not only in American values, but in worldwide values.

One reason why New Labour was unsuccessful in changing society – for the most part – was a desire to skirt not only the finer values, but any values at all. Another reason was that it accepted Thatcher’s suggestion that ‘there is no such thing a society’; or at least, Thatcher’s state didn’t acknowledge society for the purposes of government. A further reason was that they did not perceive that society needed much changing; it just needed more public services and more guidance from government. New Labour managed capitalism, and didn’t have the ideological framework for anything grander; there was no vision, no values, that could provide the reason to change society, that provided the basis for a redefinition of values. Cameron’s Conservatives have this value-driven background. And they acknowledge that society exists, but that it is not the same as the state. And they see a problem with Broken Britain’s society. They have motive, method and ability. The whole Big Society agenda, and with it, Free Schools, more freedom for charities, the latest incarnation of national service, may come to nothing. Possible. But it’s at least grounded in a philosophy that does seek not merely to manage capitalism, but to change society and define its finer values. It’s risky – Labour are right – but it’s also exciting.

  1. […] answer to the question posed at the beginning of ‘State and Society‘ was, of course, Tony Benn. Thanks to all those who voted, and congratulations to those who […]

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