I knew the government was in real trouble on Tuesday, when the Daily Telegraph's revered "Matt" drew a front page pocket cartoon of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet locked out of a privatised Hundred Acre Woods. As a rule of thumb, when the country's most loyally Conservative newspaper accuses a Conservative government of hurting Winnie the Pooh, things are going badly wrong.In this case it is the privatisation of woodland that is under discussion. Library cuts, a by-product of reductions in local government expenditure, are also getting a bad press with campaigns being set up, whilst today has been declared Save Our Libraries Day.
Clearly, the government is having problems selling their ideas and the difficulties are not merely presentational, they go to the heart of the project. Here is the Economist again.
...the public is mistrustful of any vision for Britain that blends altruism with the profit motive. And that is a big problem for the Big Society, which just does not add up if it does not include a dose of private enterprise.This gets to the nub of the matter whilst simultaneously missing the point. Public suspicions are not simply to do with the profit motive, despite the past evidence of the personal enrichment of executives as a consequence of previous privatisations, I think that they are rooted much more in the question of the ownership of common property.
I have blogged before about the closure of the much loved College of Adult Education in Manchester and pointed out that the sense of ownership felt by staff and students was a chimera, despite the College being publicly owned. This is the feeling that millions of library users are getting right now as they face the loss of their local libraries up and down the country. Just like the College, many libraries had been built up by voluntary action and donations, sometimes over a period of a hundred years or more, before being adopted by local authorities. This move into the public sector offered protection and further investment beyond the abilities of private citizens to provide and it was a success until the cuts came. When that happened, those years of investment counted for nothing. Something that had once belonged to the community was no longer theirs and could be disposed of at will.
If this shows the limits of public ownership, you can multiply the problem of alienation many times over for private ownership. A privatisation that hands public assets over to a restricted group of individuals or corporate entities is a process of enclosure, taking what had once been the collective property of a community and turning it into the disposable assets of those who are unconcerned with the common good, except where it enhances their private well-being. Municipalisation allowed the exercise of limited control through the ballot box, privatisation removes both ownership and control. Of course people are suspicious. They are right to be.
The Big Society is certainly shrinking the state, but it is not growing civil society. And trashing the infrastructure that supports a network of voluntary and independent action is hardly the way to promote it. Ironically, a real Big Society initiative would not be cheap, certainly not in the short-term. It would involve investment in local facilities, supporting voluntary sector organisations and funding professionals to deliver services. And at its centre has to be a concept of communal ownership that is inalienable, the re-establishment of the commons, implying too a partnership with the state in a long-term commitment. If this was the case we might see a warmer welcome for the idea. Today suspicions seem only too well founded.