Waking a few weeks ago on a dark grey morning to the prospect of having to complete an excruciatingly boring and unnecessary bureaucratic task, with impending cuts looming, I was not in a cheery mood. Bureaucracy is great for inducing a sense of futility and I tend to take refuge in political speculation. Shuggy must have been feeling the same when he struck a pessimistic note in a post on Gordon Brown:
Following Shuggy's link, I read Kaletsky's arguments about a change in the political consensus:
The first was Tom Hamilton's splendid dissection of Michael Gove's tortuous logic in his attempt to second guess Gordon Brown's motivation. The theme of Gove's contribution was about the need to "trust professionals" and, judging by the signals Brown gave in his education speech, this is something that he emphatically rejects - "It (the state) trusted professionals to deliver services and the public to accept them. People were treated more as passive subjects than as participants in change". This issue seems likely to become an election slogan differentiating the parties on the management of the public sector. It isn't as straightforward as it might seem.
Brown is offering us extensive state funding and micro management, even down to the level of cultural change (an aim that has historically eluded all governments; remember Thatcher's Victorian Values anyone?). The Conservatives say, 'trust the professionals', but they also propose privatisation and restricted spending.
Herein lies a dilemma. In my own work as an education professional, every nerve in my body is screaming "trust me - please don't make me fill in another bloody form". I also bristle against Brown's simplistic characterisation of the public sector and am currently in despair about the latest government imposed change in funding rules that is threatening a catastrophe in University Adult Education. However, I also know of other professionals who I wouldn't trust an inch. They are the ones who can be narrow and elitist. They condemn widening participation and community engagement, central to my work, as 'lowering standards'. Their mistrust of anyone other than the A level student from the 'good' school is palpable. They are declining in numbers, but I have no illusions that these are the professionals the Tories wish to trust.
However, I am not in the least convinced that cutting our funding and implementing "accountability frameworks and progress targets" are the way in which we will build open and egalitarian education systems. Cultural change may well be required, but this is more a change in the of culture of institutions. Rather than viewing ordinary people as somehow deficient, in need of 'aspiration raising', we should ask first whether the deficiency arises in our organisations, whether they are capable of meeting the aspirations that already exist.
So on the one hand, I would welcome smaller government in terms of the abandonment of micro management. On the other, I welcome larger government in terms of both funding and financial stability, as well as driving changes that would create inclusive Universities that are local assets rather than gated communities. When discussing the state, as well as other things, size does matter. We just need to be clear about whether we are talking about length or breadth.
This is where the second piece came in. Jonathan Freedland produced a thoughtful article resurrecting a libertarian and communitarian left, something long celebrated by the Anarchist writer and activist Colin Ward. He wrote,
The post-1945 rush to build a universal welfare state trampled on too many small, creative hives of ingenuity. Before the Fabian infatuation with the central state, Britain had been host to a whole ecology of mutual societies, cooperatives, Sunday schools and workers' associations. Most went the way of Peckham, crushed under the giant heel of the Whitehall state.
One response to this is to set about rolling back the state, so that we might once again reveal Burke's "little platoons" of social activism, denied sunlight so long. David Cameron's self-described "big idea" of social responsibility argues as much, shrinking the state and letting "society" take the strain. He could - though he won't - look for some succour for this approach from Britain's own anarchistic or left-libertarian tradition, which remains largely forgotten.
Freedland is quite right that Cameron will not be looking towards a libertarian left tradition. That is because there is a libertarian right tradition for him to draw on instead. This celebrates capitalism and market choice and, thus, a Tory approach is one that will usher in the private sector and internal markets in the name of liberty and the smaller state. In contrast, the left libertarian approach favours direct collective control and autonomy and is intrinsically non-capitalist.
The spirit of autonomous organisation is still there. In Adult Education, groups are abandoning the restrictive bureaucracy of state funding, including entire Workers' Educational Association branches, and setting up on their own. In some ways, this is a heartening fight back against a narrowly vocational concept of education. In others, it is a tragedy as it shows the failure of government to sustain a long tradition of voluntary self-education that it adopted in more optimistic times.
Freedland does not abandon the state. Instead, he hopes that such self-direction and autonomy can be brought under its aegis to provide the collective strength to secure localised provision. He optimistically argues for "a renewed notion of what the state is for - first to guarantee universal rights and then to nurture and encourage ... human-scale cooperation".
It is a nice vision, but I am not sure that it is one the government would be comfortable with. In abandoning micro management and passing control to local communities it loses the power to direct those services. The measure could prove popular by promoting the very things that governments do not want and would be reluctant to fund. Liberal learning springs lightly to mind at the moment.
Freedland's article goes to the heart of the debate about the size of the state. He views it as an essential and pervasive instrument for providing comprehensive collective security. However, he also wishes to see it loosen its control and foster a revived community activism and involvement. Whether this is a realistic expectation is doubtful. 'Power to the people!' often only means, 'Power to us!'.
The one thing that I am sure of is that the current balance between central government and local autonomy is wrong and that many of the regulatory mechanisms that are designed make for accountability are obstructive and burdensome. A lack of stability together with complex, and sometimes downright crazy, funding rules produce continual uncertainty and difficulty in long-term planning, which is quite simply a nightmare. Freedland concludes,
Ministers are right to look around for inspiration, but they shouldn't ignore our collective past: they might be surprised, and delighted, by what they find there.
They may well be surprised, but I am not sure how delighted they will be. I would be ecstatic if they were though.