Monday, November 05, 2007

Smaller government?

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:

I'm not sure about his diagnosis, but I fear Anatole Kaletsky's prognosis might have been nearer the mark when he said this week's Autumn statement signals the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's government.

Following Shuggy's link, I read Kaletsky's arguments about a change in the political consensus:

Political parties who want lower tax – and by implication smaller government – no longer seem out of tune with the times. And this ideological shift means the beginning of the end for Labour government.

I concur with Shuggy's reservations about the diagnosis. I was also struck by was the way the article was based on the lazy cliché about "small government" and its automatic link to lower personal taxation. I started this post to respond, but was unhappy with what I had written so I tucked it away in my drafts. Two pieces last week made me come back to it, as they beautifully illustrate current left dilemmas about the state.

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.


Anonymous said...

There's a lot in here that I may come back to. However, and I made this point to Paulie some time back, there is a bit of a problem with Jonathan Freedland's assertion that the Fabians were infatutaed with the central state. When they were actually Fabians (and not, eg, Stalinists - cf the later Sid 'n' Bea Webb) they were not so infatuated. I did my Ph D (while not collecting rent on Johnson Fold) on the Webbs, and they favoured a socialism in which the bulk of the means of production was to be owned by voluntary consumer co-operative societies and the rest by compulsory consumer co-opertaive societies. These compulsory ones were in 2 sets. Set 1 - the State. Set 2 - local authorities. The local authorities and the voluntary co-ops were to own the overwhleming bulk of the means of production. Sid Webb being Sid Webb even gave a speech in which all this was quantified into percentages, and the central state was to own a surprisingly small percentage. If I can remember I'll fish the thesis out of the lock up and find the figures. Note; this did not stop them being elitist, manipulative and whatever else you hold against them. (And after 5 years I held plenty against them.)

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued by the concept of let the professionals get on and do it.' I think this worked well when the professions were smaller - for example, the number of teachers with degrees in the 50s was quite small [not surprising, given the number of universities].
Expansion has brought dilution with it, and hence the need for regulation - irritating to the few who [think] they know what to do without being told.

Donald said...

In the subject of smaller government, you may be interested to know that I have received a letter from a Mister Denham of Southampton. For the uniniated, he is a gentleman Minister in the Cabinet of our esteemed government. When challenged by myself on the subject of why it was costing £250m to administer the Hefce scheme, he said that he did not recognise the figure and that it was actually £17m in central administration. That means that it costs the universities £233 million to second guess this scheme and to audit the figures. So it costs all this to feed central government, when that £233 million could be going into lifelong learning. Rmember thats 2.33 times the reduction in the lifelong learning budget.

Thats not all the money that is wasted within higher education that could be put to better use. Someone had better save use from the tyranny of big central government before it bankrupts us completely.