The Destruction of the Public Sphere

Ross McKibbin

That the next general election will be fought by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Leader of the Opposition David Cameron we do know; but how it will be fought we don’t, in part because the present prime minister will not disclose when he intends to go. Furthermore, both Cameron and Brown are in some senses, but for different reasons, unknown quantities. Cameron simply because he is unknown; Brown because he’s known only as a bruiser who tenaciously defends his own patch, not as a man who has to lead a government and a political party. Any prediction as to the character of a Cameron or Brown government must, therefore, be tentative. Such a prediction might be that Cameron would lead a moderately unenlightened businessman’s government; Brown a moderately enlightened businessman’s government. The difference between the two, while a bit more than wafer thin, will hardly register on any political scale.

In his campaign for the leadership Cameron was more anxious to give impressions than facts, and one impression he was anxious to give is that he is a man of the centre. Yet apart from his keeping clear of the law-and-order rhetoric which burdened his predecessors and his rival, David Davis, there is not much evidence of a new beginning. He has dropped virtually none of Michael Howard’s baggage: he simply proved more adept at reordering it than Davis. He has persisted in arguing that we can have both lower taxes and better public services: an argument the electorate regards sceptically and something that has eluded all British governments. He has repeated, and appears to believe, the self-serving conviction of British businessmen that they would be world-beaters were it not for over-regulation, red tape, high taxes and Brussels. Although he concedes there is ‘society’, a ‘we’ as well as a ‘me’, his is to be a highly privatised society increasingly shaped by ‘social entrepreneurs’, charities, do-gooders, people with axes to grind, and our old friend ‘faith groups’: in other words, a society based on the model of a market and restored social hierarchies. Cameron is as Eurosceptic as any of his predecessors; he even wishes – that touchstone of scepticism – to withdraw the Conservative MEPs from the Christian Democratic grouping in the European Parliament. And despite his keeping clear of law-and-order rhetoric, those who seek rational immigration policies or prisons that do more good than harm will almost certainly look to him in vain.

Gordon Brown, though alleged by the Conservatives to personify Old Labour, differs little in substance from Cameron. His, too, will be a businessman’s government – even if businessmen refuse to acknowledge it. His surprising decision to abandon the new corporate financial reporting rules shows how far he will go to assure businessmen that he is business friendly. And his fundamental order of priorities differs little from Cameron’s. He has always wanted to create an economic environment conducive to an American idea of business success: the aim of both major political parties in the last ten years. The way he has financed much of the country’s social infrastructure, via the PFI, could not be more business friendly. Bad for the country, but unquestionably good for business (and lawyers, and consultants). In two ways, however, he has acted differently from recent Tory chancellors. He has, first, expected something in return from businessmen – measurably increased productivity – which they have been unable to achieve: hence his constant fiddling with largely futile fiscal incentives. He has, second, permitted significant and long-overdue increases in public expenditure – now, alas, ending – whose effect has been wholly benign; and that has made it hard for the Conservatives to revert to the damaging policies of the 1980s and 1990s, as Cameron has tacitly accepted.

For the rest, Brown’s record is more difficult to read. For whatever reason – a desire not to forfeit his chance of the leadership or genuine belief – he has acquiesced in all Blair’s follies, not least Iraq. Whatever his private doubts, he has been in practice as servile as Blair’s other ministers and shares as much responsibility. We do not, however, know whether he would have initiated the folly. Like Blair, he is obsessed with America, but his obsession is different: it is America as an economic system that obsesses him. It is hard to see him crusading in Iraq, other than inadvertently. Although, like Blair, he believes the private sector is invariably more efficient than the public, his enthusiasm for the marketising of everything seems less complete. As a Scot he might simply be indifferent to the English educational system, but it is unlikely that a Brown government would have produced the recent white paper on education – though officially he supports it.

As to who will win the next election, the balance must favour Brown, but it is three years away and the longer Blair stays the more difficult it becomes for Brown. Furthermore, he has had a lucky ride as chancellor and that won’t last. For all his ‘prudence’ and obstinate Treasury-mindedness, he has not always been a particularly prudent minister. The prosperity over which he has presided, as has so often been the case since 1979, has been based largely on inflated house prices and mountains of private and national debt. What distinguishes him from the pre-1979 chancellors is that the balance of payments (hugely in deficit) has recently not acted as a serious constraint on consumption. But our rate of growth is now significantly below Treasury predictions; and given Germany’s extraordinary export performance – achieved despite having to prop up its old East Zone – compared with Britain’s, Brown might well come to regret the foolish triumphalism of the last few years, as will all those other purveyors of embarrassing wisdom (virtually every economic commentator) about how much the Germans have to learn from us. Moreover, Brown, though clearly respected by the electorate, is no charmer. On the contrary, his public manner is designed to intimidate, the opposite of Cameron’s.

Nonetheless, even if electoral circumstances are more favourable to him than they were to his predecessors, the next election will not be easy for Cameron. He is inexperienced – though he has done a surprisingly good job at not looking inexperienced – and it’s certain that Labour will give him a rough ride. He has had to overcome the fact that he is an Old Etonian, which is sort of a problem now – though he has also done that rather well. Above all, he is shackled to the Conservative Party. Unless there is a remarkable change in the pattern of voting – the complete collapse of tactical voting, for example – it will be exceptionally hard for the Conservatives to win under the present electoral system. At the last election, for instance, they polled only 3 per cent less of the vote than Labour but won 158 fewer seats. Sociological and demographic changes have also worked against them; though not irreversible they will be hard to reverse. And there is still a sense in which the Conservative Party is not of the real world. Its infantile reaction (fully shared by Cameron) to possible reductions in the British EU rebate – like its attitude to Europe generally – is not the behaviour of a party which wants to be taken seriously.

Is any of this important? Does it matter whether Brown is prime minister rather than Blair, or Cameron rather than Brown? Does it matter, indeed, whether there is a Conservative or a Labour government? At the moment, not much. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the country’s political elite is now largely divorced from the country; probably to a greater degree than at any time since the 19th century. This elite is drawn from an increasingly narrow social range: primarily from the law, the media, political and economic consultancy and ‘research’. In the present cabinet, for example, there is only one former trade unionist. Whatever their formal political allegiances, they are all the same kind of people who think the same way and know the same things. Their authority has been increased by the way the prime minister runs his government – in an informal, ad hoc and disorganised manner that marginalises the administrative Civil Service.

The members of his cabinet believe, and are constantly told, that political victory lies in the ‘centre’, which is where they must be. To argue this, however, is fundamentally to redefine the word ‘centre’: fifty years ago those in the ‘centre’ were likely to be Keynesians. The extent of this redefinition is made clear by Blair’s belief that unless the recent white paper on education becomes law Labour will cede the ‘centre’ to the Tories. This is an absurd belief but is presumably gospel in the prime minister’s camarilla. In a less mealy-mouthed age both the Labour and Conservative Parties would be thought on balance right wing, with the Labour Party more ambiguously right wing than the opposition. We have now a right-wing government and a right-wing opposition, while a centre-minded electorate has to choose which of the two is more palatable – that is, least right wing. Much of the electorate is now so divorced from the political elite that it does not even bother to make that choice: thus the exceptionally low turnouts of the last two elections. What we do not know is whether under Brown the Labour Party will be more like a party of what was once understood to be the centre, instead of being, as it is under Blair, centreish in little bits. To judge by his record so far, however, this seems improbable.

The second reason it will not make much difference is that the two major parties fundamentally share the same ideology. Despite assurances that the political elite is interested only in what works, this is the most intensely ideological period of government we have known in more than a hundred years. The model of market-managerialism has largely destroyed all alternatives, traditional and untraditional. Its most powerful weapon has been its vocabulary. We are familiar with the way this language has carried all before it. We must sit on the cusp, hope to be in a centre of excellence, dislike producer-dominated industries, wish for a multiplicity of providers, grovel to our line managers, even more to the senior management team, deliver outcomes downstream, provide choice. Our students are now clients, our patients and passengers customers. It is a language which was first devised in business schools, then broke into government and now infests all institutions. It has no real historical predecessor – there was no equivalent ‘Keynesian’ vocabulary in the 1940s and 1950s – and is peculiarly seductive. It purports to be neutral: thus all procedures must be ‘transparent’ and ‘robust’, everyone ‘accountable’. It is hard-nosed but successful because the private sector on which it is based is hard-nosed and successful. It is efficient; it abhors waste; it provides all the answers. It drove Thatcher’s enterprise culture. It lies behind Cameron’s social entrepreneurs.

It is more powerful than the kind of language Flaubert satirised in the Dictionnaire des idées reçues since, however ridiculous it might be, it determines the way our political (and economic) elites think of the world. A remarkable example of this comes in the government’s recent proposal to privatise or partly privatise the probation service. This is probably the most preposterous legislative proposal in living memory but is justified on the grounds that we need ‘a vibrant mixed economy’ of probation. As for the probation officers themselves, they are to be swept away and replaced by ‘offender managers’. The language might be laughable, but it is now the language shared by all those who command, Labour or Conservative, and is one way they wield power.

This ideology has also been destructive of the public sphere. It began under the Conservatives and, far from being reversed under Labour, has been advanced by them into territory the Conservatives did not enter. The contents of the latest white paper on education, the legislation that will save the ‘centre’ for Labour, are the most overt manifestation of how far Labour has gone. Virtually every premise on which this paper is based is false. You cannot combine a socially structured educational system with social justice, and that is so even if discrimination at admission is technically prohibited. Not everyone can get their first choice under such a system. It is not arithmetically possible. And schools can’t expand and contract as though they were supermarkets, unless they are what used to be called in Australia ‘portables’. Parents are not the best judges of their children’s education any more than they are the best judges of their children’s health – something most parents know perfectly well. The pressure for ‘parent power’ doesn’t come from them.

The expansion of ‘faith’ schools is indefensible. The secular tradition is central to the Labour Party, not because Labour was anti-religion – far from it – but because it recognised that specifically religious schools (even the old ‘aided’ elementary schools) were socially divisive. That a government which has faced the consequences of a sectarian educational system in Northern Ireland and is obsessed with Islamic extremism should be simultaneously promoting religious secondary schools in England is astonishing. Furthermore, it is clear that when they think of ‘faith’ schools the writers of the white paper don’t have in mind the Anglican ‘aided’ schools. These are to be private venture schools where faith is strongly held. And since they are to have considerable powers to alter the curriculum, be ready for rows over creationism. It is not true that schools are the main variables in the education of children. Children are influenced by their schools; but they are as strongly influenced by their families, their peer groups, their physical environment, their wealth or their poverty. ‘Failed’ schools are usually the result of ‘failed’ cultures: ‘failed’ cultures are not the result of ‘failed’ schools. A government which was really interested in educational reform would tackle seriously the relative poverty which underlies most forms of cultural ‘failure’. But the degree of comparative poverty has scarcely changed since Labour came to power in 1997.

Behind the white paper is a ferocious ideological utopianism impervious to social reality. The country’s health and educational systems have been subject to countless pieces of legislation since 1979. All of it, whether from the Conservatives or Labour, has tended in the same direction: the re-establishment of the NHS and schools on the basis of a competitive market. None of this legislation has ever satisfied its authors for long. Few ask why the educational and health systems seem now so subject to (failed) permanent revolution, given how stable their regimes were before the late 1970s. One answer is that ideological utopias can never be achieved precisely because they are utopian. The other is that the competitive market simply does not work in such systems. It usually works well where it works at all, but there are important areas of our lives where it does not work at all, and collective activities such as education and health are two of them. Much of the legislation in these areas has left its authors dissatisfied and thirsting for more not just because it has not worked but because it cannot work.

Above all, the white paper is an attack on the public sphere and on the idea of democratic citizenship. The proposal effectively to neuter the LEAs and to encourage the supposed independence of secondary schools, whatever form their independence takes, turns citizens into supplicants. Our relationship to the state, to the public sphere, is analogous to our relationship to such property as we have. In a sense we ‘own’ it. We might feel that the state has not given us what we are entitled to, but that is because we have a sense of entitlement. As citizens, we approach the state not as supplicants but as people who claim a right because we are citizens. We do not, however, approach schools run by faiths, or businessmen, or universities, or crackpots, as citizens. We approach them as people seeking favours. And that gives the ‘providers’ social authority incompatible with a democratic state.

This attack on the public sphere has a further consequence. It replaces strong intermediate authorities (the LEAs) with weak ones, just as the ‘agencies’ and the misnamed ‘citizens’ charters’ did under the Conservatives. It purports to give freedom to heads, parents, the community, but in fact increases the power, though not the ‘accountability’, of central government, which makes the legislation even more attractive to government. If this document in anything like its present form is passed with significant Labour support, the Labour Party – absolutely – loses its raison d’être. But even if a significant number of Labour MPs revolt, in all probability it will be carried in something like its present form because the Tories will support it. Cameron is an enthusiast. He agrees with Blair (and we must assume Brown), and his decision to support the white paper is a recognition that they all inhabit the same intellectual world.

The final reason to doubt that much will change under Brown is the institutional decay of the Labour Party and the cabinet. Most of Labour’s institutions, like the national executive or the annual conference, are mere shells. The cabinet meets only to be told what government policy is. We are now used to the notion that Iraq has been a disaster, that it was the result of a shocking error of judgment. We are also aware of the way Iraq, and indeed all Blair’s policies towards the United States since 9/11, have corrupted British politics, endangered the security of the country, been responsible for attacks on our liberties which only a few years ago would have been thought inconceivable, irreparably damaged the reputations of all those involved, and implicated Britain in American policies which in many cases appear criminal. In a few years’ time people will be amazed that neither the prime minister nor his cabinet has been in any way held to account for all this.

The reason for that has to do with the structure and recent history of the Labour Party. The party’s institutions have always been weak, and the ‘reforms’ of the last 20 years made them weaker. They don’t act as a makeweight to the Parliamentary leadership. The Parliamentary Party, also always weak, but now much less diverse than it used to be, is largely made up of men and women of a Blairite caste of mind. This narrowing of its base reflects the social narrowing of the country’s political elite and is a result of the same pressures. Thus the majority of the Parliamentary Party voted in support of the Iraq war – though 122 did not – as they have for ID cards, 90-day detention (291 against 49), and no doubt will in support of the new education bill. Patronage and the whips have much to do with this, but it is also central to New Labour’s strategy. New Labour (not unreasonably) took the view that the party’s old pluralism had degenerated into destructive factionalism in the 1970s and early 1980s, and concluded that in no circumstances should that be allowed to happen again. Labour MPs, therefore, have been socialised into a system which rates the possession of power, and hence loyalty to the leadership, above all else. Whatever the original intention of the strategy this means that the party leadership can do more or less what it likes; and has. And Brown almost as much as Blair is responsible for this.