Thursday, 21 October 2010

The crushing brutality of the new state

Crowds of people 'celebrate' the coming of the Big Society
 Yesterday afternoon George Osborne announced the biggest cuts in public spending in 80 years. In a systematically crude and overtly political move, Osborne sought to rewrite the chapter of history book which covered the banking crisis, which forced governments all around the world back into a classic Keynesian model of injecting capital into the economy, telling the British people upfront that they had to pay the price for a decade of free market gambling.

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who rely on government contracts face the misery of unemployment, knocking their self-confidence and forcing them into Iain Duncan-Smith's new, 'progressive' welfare system.

People already dependent on state handouts, who know what it's like to simply live hand-to-mouth, will face an even more crushing disadvantage as local authorities cut back the services which they rely upon to enjoy any sort of quality of life. Citizens of rural areas will quickly find their wings clipped and face disconnection and isolation on an enormous scale when their bus services are axed - because the Department for Transport will no longer support the subsidy for their local routes - making it far more difficult to find an already scarce job, or enrol on a college course. And, for those who can't afford £500 iPads or home PCs, small community libraries will wither when local authorities find there's actually quite a high market value in a solid Victorian building ripe for redevelopment.

But, hold on! Like an omnipresent supernatural force, the Big Society is here to step in and fill the gaps left by dedicated public sector workers! They who once ran high-quality local services will run your library for free and happily shuttle across the Shire counties in minibuses, ferrying pensioners, aspiring students and single mothers between centres of prosperity, because, after all, they've nothing better to do anymore. Who needs a salary?

Sarcasm aside, the broader political question obstinately remains. Does George Osborne really have the credibility to redefine fairness, a man who, as Johann Hari pointed out today, is the beneficiary of a £4m trust fund he did nothing whatsoever to earn? Does he really get what it means to live in a town dependent on the public sector for employment and endemic post-industrial health problems? The state as we know it, as a provider of public services and an enabler of prosperity, is being redefined so fundamentally and so rapidly, that the howls of protest over one cutback are being noisily drowned out when another is announced.

Worse still, when the government decides it's simply going to stop doing something, the persistent apathy which pervades our parliamentary system means that our democratic institutions won't be strong enough to resist, as Paul Richards' excellent book points out:

"On the housing estates and in the inner cities, democracy is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. If democracy fails, it won't be because of a coup d'etat. There'll be no revolutionary soviets or troops in the streets, no capture of the radio stations and martial law. It will die because we couldn't be bothered to save it".*

We might agree with some of the decisions being made by the coalition, particularly when they genuinely enhance individual liberty and protect the public services we value most, but struggle to understand or support public policy initiatives which the coalition idly leave to the Big Society - an initiative which the Tory party have struggled to comprehend, let alone the public at large.

It's Government, Jim, but not as we know it.

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