Snow, Society and Conservatism

January 9, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 7 Comments

383564341 7acb80c0fbI know there’s a recession, freezing temperatures, and we’re at the start of what looks to be an unpleasant election campaign, but there are still times when you can smile and think “y’know what, we’re a bloody brilliant little country, aren’t we?”

As much as the bad weather has caused everything from irritation to havoc, there’s still much to enjoy in reading about the ways people coped, and plenty to admire in the many acts of kindness and heroism.

People like the employees from a building company who downed tools to help a charity deliver meals to the vulnerable, or the residents of a West Sussex village whose community spirit & soup kitchen helped them survive a power failure. People like this Doncaster park ranger who battled through five hours of thick snow to rescue two trapped women, or the chap who drives his 20 year old tractor through Gloucestershire, clearing snow. People like Barry and Sid, who drove through 30 miles of snow saving trapped motorists, or folks in the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who helped dig out an ambulance which had got stuck. People like the public sector workers who went above and beyond the call of duty, the passing driver who saved an injured cyclist’s life or the two teenagers who risked their own lives trying to save men from drowning.

These stories are inspiring & heart-warming, but they are also so frequent as to seem mundane. These people are ordinary and they are everywhere.

I mention this because snow is, for some reason, a political issue. On his blog, Dan Hannan described how he’d been ‘public spirited’ enough to clear snow for his neighbours, and wondered:

If everyone were responsible for his own patch of pavement, the disruption caused by snow would be much diminished. Is our reliance on state intervention symptomatic of the sapping effects of big government?

Hannan’s argument here is that ‘big government’ discourages us from exhibiting the same public spirited behaviour as himself. Because there is a big, unweildy state delivering public services, we choose not to show kindness or consideration for others because we expect the government to do everything for us.

It’s a view which is also shared by the Leader of the Opposition. Here’s what David Cameron said when he gave his Hugo Young Lecture:

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement.

What Cameron is essentially arguing is that the state is a social evil, for it subverts all our better instincts. If this were true, then these examples of kindness and heroism would be outliers; unrepresentatuve of the country as a whole and made all the more extraordinary in light of the state’s discouragement of public-minded behaviour. According to this speech, to show human kindness, generosity and imagination is to go against the grain.

Am I the only one who thinks this an awfully pessimistic view of the country David Cameron wants to govern? There are many different arguments for slashing spending or reducing the size of the state, but to actually go to the country and say something which is just a more polite form of “we need a new government because Labour’s turned you into a bunch of bastards”, seems a little over the top.

This pessimism is something Alex Massie’s noted in the past. Cameron started out by promising to ‘let sunshine win the day’, but the closer he’s got to Downing Street, the more dystopic his depictions. As Massie puts it: “Frankly, if you were to take Tory rhetoric at face value the only sensible course, for those with the means to take it, would be emigration.”

This brings into question Cameron’s view of British life and the character or its people. Is he simply fulfilling the requirement of any opposition leader to note how terrible everything is, or does he really believe it? Were he ever in a position to answer that question honestly, it’d reveal much about his values, and about his perceptions of the people whose state he wants to govern.

Picture via Lawrence OP

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Local pride as patriotism

January 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Posted in British Politics | 5 Comments

Because it’s New Years Day and I missed The Sound of Music, I’m going to tell you a love story.

yorkshire-map

This is Yorkshire. I like Yorkshire and Yorkshire likes me. We’re made for each other.

There’s a lot about Yorkshire that I like. I like the barren beauty of the Pennines, the lush pastures of the Dales & the neon glint of Sheffield and (grudgingly) Leeds.

I like food. In fact, I like Yorkshire food. I like the breads and the cheeses and the meats, the ice cream, wine and cider. I like Yorkshire Pudding.

I like trivia. I like that Sheffield has more trees per person than any city in Europe, and can stretch from just 30m above sea level to more than 500m.

I like trams and trains and cycle paths. I like the Penistone line. I like that the Penistone line passes through a village which celebrates great and historic events by building an enormous pie.

I like the people. I like Compo, Clegg and Foggy. I like Alan Bennett. I like slagging off Michael Parkinson.

I like the pick ‘n mix possibilities of our cities, and the rustic monoculture of our countryside. I like that folks from Leeds don’t like people from Sheffield. I like that people from Barnsley don’t really like anyone. I like that none of ’em really mean it.

Lastly, I like the fact that if I’d been born anywhere else, I would be just as gushing about that.

Whilst reading Sunder Katwala’s excellent piece on patriotism and the search for some shared symbols which identify us as English, I was struck by the following thought: what if we’re looking at this whole thing from the wrong angle? Instead of trying to boil down this great vat of difference & eccentricity into a few platitudinous bromides, why can’t we anchor our patriotism in a deep sense of local pride?

From my own experience of teaching, exploiting the inherent attachment most kids have with their surroundings can be absolute dynamite, and watching the enthusiasm they put into something like fundraising for a local charity would quickly dispel any gloominess you might’ve had about a loss of citizenship and a ‘broken society’.

Sure, all this difference is difficult to write a song about, and even harder to accept if you’re looking to reattach patriotism to an antiquated vision of what it is to be English. But it does at least do away with the old conundrum of how you reconcile the more traditional ‘Englishness’ with our increasingly eclectic society.

I don’t know, it’s a thought which might need expanding upon a bit more. But for me, my sense of patriotism comes from a deep love for where I’m from, and the happy acknowledgement that there’ll be millions of people who feel the same way about wherever they live or come from.

In fact, I suspect even Lancastrians feel some affection for their own strange, backwards part of the world! And if you can find common ground between two old enemies, then you know there’s something to it

Alan Duncan’s new job

September 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Prison Reform | 4 Comments

As demotions go, it could’ve been worse. Whilst Alan Duncan won’t be a member of the cabinet if a Prime Minister Cameron names him Minister for Prisons, the role is still massively important if the Tories are serious about mending their ‘broken society’. With a population of over 80,000, prisons groaning under the weight of over-crowding, and a pathetic rehabilitation rate which means we waste much of the $4bn spent annually, Duncan would oversee an aspect of the criminal justice system in which Labour has been a determined, belligerent, costly failure.

Of course, quite whether he’s up up to the task is a topic for debate; reading some of the assessments from fellow Tories gives the sense that he’s an ineffective, gaffe-prone hack who shouldn’t be trusted to run any department. Granted, as a minister, Mr Duncan would have some supervision (likely Dominic Grieve), but his rather rapid fall from Shadow Secretary of State for Business to a lowly shadow minister doesn’t inspire confidence, and when we have a prison estate which – by the Tories’ own admission – is in a state of crisis, you really want someone competent at the helm.

In the past few years, the Tories have come to resemble Jekyl & Hyde on issues of crime & punishment. It seems all Mr Hyde Chris Grayling has learnt from Labour’s successive Home Secretaries is how well the odd grubby, attention-grabbing gimmick (the ’21st century clip ’round the ear’; getting the state to steal teenagers’ mobile phones) plays in the papers, and I would hope that a presumptive Secretary of State would use his time more productively than coming up with clunky analogies to hip American TV shows.

But what’s gone under-reported is that the Tories’ plans for prison reform aren’t too bad at all; they’re sane, rational and seem focused on achieving long-term goals rather than short-term opportunism. Clearly influenced by the work done by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, many of the proposals laid out in this document [PDF], if implemented well, could take the prison service in a better direction than the one it’s currently heading in.

The Tories claim that reducing the rate of recidivism will be one of the top priorities, and will create financial incentives for prisons which reduce reoffending, make more money available for rehabilitation programmes and make prison governors accountable for the actions of prisoners once they’ve been released. They accept that whilst new prisons will be necessary to end overcrowding, the warehousing of prisoners in ‘titan’ jails isn’t the way to go. Instead, they propose to build smaller, local prisons and sell off some of the crumbling old dead wood. On top of this, more freedom will be given to prison governors, more opportunities will be offered for third sector agencies to work with inmates, and for charities to help with education & drug rehabilitation. The Tories claim that their proposals would rejuvinate prisons as places of “education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration.”

Obviously, you can’t just take their word for it; even Tony Blair sounded strong on ‘the causes of crime’ when he was in opposition, and when Labour got into power the prison population soared. Much will depend on budgetary constraints caused by the deficit, whether they can resist the impulse to allow expansion of private sector prisons, and avoid the urge to respond to rising crime with more draconian sentencing. I also don’t think the goals for reducing the prison population are ambitious enough; under the Tories’ plans, the population would still rise to 94,000 by 2020, and whilst that may be an improvement on the projected 100,000 if things stay as they are, it still means locking up around 10,000 more people than we are right now. For me, more needs to be done to find tough alternatives to short (and mostly fruitless) custodial sentences.

That said, this is still much better than anything Labour’s offered recently. If they do what they promise – and if Mr Duncan can’t find new & innovative ways of screwing up – there’s always a chance that it might lead to better outcomes for some prisoners, and slightly safer communities for the rest of us.

Image: Strangeways Prison in Manchester, by Flickr user phil.d (Creative Commons)

The unthinking criticism of South Yorkshire Police

August 5, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment

Depending on your point of view, it’s either an innovative approach to building community relations or proof of the Islamisation of our police force. You might’ve heard about the revelation that two sergeants and a community support officer spent a day accompanying a group of Muslim women around Sheffield city centre. All the women, including the white police officers, were dressed in Islamic costumes, including the burkha, jilbab, hijab and niqab.

Naturally, a lot of folks have flapped their jowls in fury: the bile-soaked secularists who squat in blog comments sections; the various ‘jihad watch’ websores who warn of ‘dhimmisation’; and the more ‘wholesome’ Christian People’s Alliance, whose response makes you suspect they wouldn’t have had a problem if only they’d all dressed as 12th century monks .

Even the more respectable sections of the blogosphere threw up some thrupenny critiques, with both James Forsyth & Shiraz Maher jumping on this 24 word quote from one of the officers who participated:

I have gained an appreciation and understanding of what Muslim females experience when they walk out in public in clothing appropriate to their beliefs.

To which Maher responded: “There are a very large number of Muslims – male and female – who do not believe that the burkha has any place in Islam. Indeed, many also reject the notion of the headscarf itself as being anything Islamic.” Forsyth added: “This statement could be read as South Yorkshire police implying that Muslim women who do not wear these clothes are not behaving appropriately.”

I’ll concede that both Maher and Forsyth are superfically correct. The sergeant’s statement was poorly worded – the consequence, perhaps, of not having had extensive media training or the luxury of being able to write blogs for a living. However, I suspect they’re smart enough to spot a bodged choice of words when they see one, and their refusal to give her the benefit of the doubt & instead play on the story’s supposed sharia symbolism is an example of commentary at its most unthinkingly critical.

Both the sergeant quoted in the piece and the management of South Yorkshire Police know that only some Muslim women wear these forms of dress, but they also know that Muslims make up around 5% of Sheffield’s population and that a portion of that number will wear items such as the burkha. Being police officers, they might also have noticed that you very rarely see burkha-clad women wandering around Sheffield city centre; not because there aren’t any, but because too many seem to prefer to stay in their own small communities.

Now, if you aspire for your city centre to be a place where people from all walks of life can meet and mingle, you might just wonder whether anything can be done to encourage these women to shop in Fargate rather than Firth Park, and whilst I’d be quite happy for burkhas to disappear completely, what’s far more important is for Muslims to wear what they like free from fear & suspicion.

South Yorkshire Police’s experiment was imperfect and partial and can’t be regarded as either a success or failure unless seen in the context of the city’s broader commmunity relations strategy. But the opportunity to experience, however briefly, what it’s like for these women – to understand why they sometimes feel unsafe, to notice how the rest of the city interacts with them – is something you can’t put a price on.

Just by going out of their way to understand other lives, the officers involved in this experiment have gained an experience for themselves and their police force which can encourage the understanding & cooperation they need to actually fight crime. And by sniffing with unthinking derision, Maher, Forsyth and all their anti-caliphate comrades have just demonstrated how little they have to offer.

Vestas & beyond: missing our green energy opportunities

July 30, 2009 at 8:09 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change | 1 Comment

turbine

The other day, a friend asked me to tap a few words in support of the protests by workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory who’re trying to stop the loss of over 600 jobs and a potentially important resource for expanding renewable energy. Whilst that support is freely given and sincerely felt, the circumstances of the case have been so widelystated and well-documented elsewhere that I don’t want to spend too long restating the obvious.

It’s clear that Vestas has acted with contempt towards its workers: the practically non-existent dialogue, the transparent attempt to starve them out, the delivery of termination letters with the workers’ one hot meal, the shoddy paperwork filed to have them evicted, and the laughable charge from their legal team that there was a fear the protests could get ‘heated’ or violent.

Equally, whilst Ed Miliband has handled the matter better than one might’ve expected, the charge that his government has lacked leadership on this can’t be ignored. Whether the option is nationalisation or, more preferably, a kind of decentralised, locally-run operation, there is a case for the government to facilitate some kind of deal to save the factory.

But I’d now like to leave the particulars of Vestas’ closure to one side and try to consider the case from a national perspective.

The common purpose shown by the pro-labour left and the green movement (and obviously there are overlaps between the two), comes from two sources. First, concern for the livelihoods of workers at risk of unemployment and disgust at how they’ve been treated, but also from a wider feeling of anger & frustration at what many activists feel has been a lack of resolute commitment by the government to tackle climate change and remodel our system of energy production.

Those activists have a point. However, so does Miliband when he argues that government shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for the lack of progress on wind farms; many councils have been resistant or hostile to planting turbines in their back yards, and many community campaigns have succeeded in having plans to build one in their area aborted. If the green movement – and the general public – is serious about seeing wind power as part of our energy future, then solely lobbying central government isn’t the way to go.

So the fault is partly on this government, partly on us for resisting change, and partly on the failure of green activism to make a grassroots case for why action is necessary and what rewards can be reaped.

For me, this all rather underlines the urgent need to be more radical about clean energy, and for government to create the conditions which make it easier for us all to take ownership of spreading green technologies. If we could really push forward with the ‘smart grid‘, take greater steps to decentralise electricity production & distribution, and incentivise micro-generation , you might just see more switched-on (pardon the pun) energy consumers.

Let’s just take one example from abroad. Denmark is currently the biggest source of wind power in Europe, but to get to that position it encouraged the public to invest in it; offering tax incentives for people who either generated their own electricity or as part of a commune. Eventually wind turbine cooperatives became commonplace, with individuals being able to own a stake in the power being produced. In 2004, over 150,000 Danes either owned turbines or shares in a turbine cooperative.

Could this not work in Britain? If there were genuine economic incentives as well as environmental benefits for individuals & communities embracing wind power (and green energy more generally) would the resistance to them really be so great? The advantage of these reforms is that it could enable the general public to become more involved, but first the government needs to create the conditions & incentives for it to happen.

Again, aside from the specific cruelties of the Vestas case, it should seen as reflective of a sense of frustration about Britain’s environmental and energy future. To turn that into positive action, our best hope might be to (quite literally) put power in the hands of the people.

How important is ‘civility’?

July 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | Leave a comment

manners copy

In my school sociology class, we used to hear a lot about the ‘Golden Age ‘. We used to learn that for every age of innocence evoked by the media or our older relatives, there were still plenty of dangers, tragedies & traumas, and that we should treat with scepticism those claims that life was much safer, healthier & more civil than the times in which we live.

The ultimate lesson from all this – that our best days are not, in fact, behind us – was a formative influence on my political journey, and the rejection of the idea that society is in irrevocable decline has guided much of what I write here. Yet the sense of decay still lingers – in certain sections of the media, in the political rhetoric of the day & even in the minds of the general public – and I’ve been interested in where this ennui comes from, whether there’s any truth to it, and whether we can rediscover what many feel has been lost.

Last month, I discussed the Rowntree Foundation’s publication on ‘social evils‘, which reported that the public believed the modern age had made us more selfish & individualistic, less honest & compassionate. Then last week I looked at the Conservative crusade against the ‘broken society’, and pondered why that campaign had found resonance where John Major’s ‘back to basics’ had failed. Responding to that post, Joe Hallgarten linked to this report from the Young Foundation which explores whether a renaissance of civility could help us shrug off this societal gloom.

As with the report on social evils, defining what does and does not constitute ‘civility’ is difficult because we don’t all interpret each other’s behaviours in the same way. Likewise, there’s no research method available which could tell us whether we’re being more or less civil to each other; the only thing we can measure is whether people feel they experience civility, and even then you’re relying on the subjectivity of human experience. It’s simply impossible to measure this kind of thing objectively.

Still, the report’s authors do make a decent stab at pinning down what they mean, and it all seems perfectly, well, civil: giving up seats to elderly or pregnant women, smiling & greeting strangers, picking up litter, being a good neighbour, volunteering when you have the time & donating to charity when you have the money. I don’t think any of these behaviours has gone out of fashion, and they can all contribute positively to society.

But whilst the report tries to universalise the quest for civility as essentially classless – it chides everyone from ASBO teens & binge drinkers to bickering politicians & greedy bankers – the absence of a serious discussion of class or inequality does make you wonder whether the authors are merely tinkering with the artifice of British society. Even if we were to accept the premise that Britain is a less civil place and that there are things which individuals, social groups, companies & even governments can do to promote more civil social norms, the following question remains: can you really increase civility without first seeking to reduce inequality?

When you consider that people in deprived communities are more likely to be the victims of crime and less likely to have achieved well in school, their access to this more civilised future is bound to be retricted. This isn’t to say that working class folk are intrinsically less civilised than anyone else; merely to note that those incivilities which are most damaging, both to society & the taxpayer, can be located in these areas. There is a big difference between being a victim of a knifepoint mugging and being the victim of rudeness.

For all the suspicion I feel towards the concept of ‘golden ages’ or of our tendency to mythologise the past, there’s still something positive about people in civic society taking a look at the way they live & communicate with others, and wondering whether we could all be doing better. But the task of achieving a happier society won’t be achieved simply by promoting good manners, but by trying to nudge us towards a society enjoys greater equality of opportunity. For that reason, whilst this is a thoroughly interesting topic to read about & debate, it should remain just one part of a much broader conversation.

(Image via Wardomatic)

Vote Rantzen!

July 28, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Posted in British Politics | 6 Comments

Because the woman behind this

Is obviously far more principled than Margaret Moran.

Hague’s vision for British foreign policy

July 28, 2009 at 10:45 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, International | 6 Comments

On paper at least, William Hague seems like he could be a qualified & competent Foreign Secretary. Ideological differences aside, the former Tory leader is regarded as one of the smartest men in his party, is a keen debater and someone who apparently possesses a strong interest in, and grasp of, British history. These qualities (particularly the last) are all important in a top diplomat, and I think it’s safe to say they have not been present in every one of Labour’s foreign ministers.

Likewise, the vision Hague recently articulated for the future of British foreign policy is – again, on paper – a positive start, and one which does well to reflect both the global economic realities of the present and the breadth of challenges our government will face in the future. You should read Chekov’s excellent post for a summary of what was said, but the tone & themes of Hague’s speech seemed to suggest a return to a Realism or Liberal Realism which would be a welcome break from a Blair doctrine we cannot afford – either financially or diplomatically.

By embracing a more realist approach, Hague can reconcile the traditional Tory emphasis on the sovereignty of the nation state and aversion to grand global designs with a promotion of British values by means of diplomacy, trade and cultural dialogue. Using these means, the Tories would hope to restore those relationships which have corroded in recent years, whether with superpowers such as Russia or the smaller, fractious states in the Middle East where we used to have considerably more influence and respect than we currently possess. As Chekov notes, the worth of any new policy can only ever be judged by how it’s implemented but, if his vision is realised, we should at least avoid the kinds of interventionist escapades which have blighted the past decade.

But there are still some significant omissions from this speech, and problems with other statements the Tories have made in opposition. The first omission regards how his government will approach the arms trade, which has snared previous Conservative governments in scandal. As much as the Tories see free trade as a means to healthier diplomatic relations, the kinds of regimes our manufacturers sell arms to does reflect on our country’s reputation. For that reason, it’s to be hoped that – recession or no – David Cameron will make good on the commitment he made over three years ago to be tough on British manufacturers who provide arms for the world’s bloodiest conflicts.

Whilst Hague promised a comprehensive review of defence spending, he was frustratingly tight-lipped on what vision the Tories have for the future of the armed forces. Given the budget crisis and his more modest appraisal of Britain’s place in the international community, it would be nice to have received an indication that we should therefore be funding a different kind of military. In particular, beginning a shift away from funding a force built for conventional warfare, and towards combating unconventional, terrorist & economic threats (as suggested by this IPPR report) would be welcome. There is still, to my mind, no strategic loss if we failed to renew Trident.

The old issue of Europe still looms large over the party, and whilst the long-term consequences of Cameron’s decision to withdraw his MEPs from the centre-right EPP are still unknown, those voices (even within his own party) who warned that Cameron was making the biggest mistake of his leadership have so far not been proved wrong, judging by the ‘interesting’ company they now keep. Meanwhile, the Tories’ admirable (and slightly surprising) commitment to maintaining our foreign aid contributions has been spoiled by proposed reforms which appear to privilege Whitehall bureacracy over on-the-ground local planning, and feature a bizarre and slightly degrading internet democracy component

Another concern I have is the role a Prime Minister Cameron will play in setting Britain’s foreign policy. Over the past year or so, Cameron has shown a tendency to overreact to world events: his intervention in Georgia last year was anything but the kind of nuanced diplomacy promised in Hague’s speech, and his naive approach to the uprising in Iran would’ve been disastrous had he been Prime Minister – lending a scrap of legitimacy to Tehran’s paranoid ramblings about foreign agents trying to influence the country’s affairs. For a man who three years ago wanted to see a return to ‘humility & patience’ in Britain’s foreign policy, it’s yet to be seen whether Cameron possesses the temperament to see that through.

So whilst Hague’s words about the path the Tories will take on international relations will hardly fill even the Conservatives’ sharpest critics with dread, there are still many outstanding questions to be answered and many unknown tests that his government will have to face. They might not repeat the mistakes of the Blair era, but that’s not to say they won’t make a whole load of mistakes of their own.

The ‘Broken Society’ vs ‘Back to Basics’

July 21, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 3 Comments

I suspect I wouldn’t agree with CentreRight’s allonymous blogger Melanchthon on very much at all, but ever since ConHome gave him a platform for his unique brand of 16th century theology , he’s at least made for a consistently provocative read. Over the weekend, Melanchthon produced a right-wing critique of the Conservative Party’s ‘Broken Society’ rhetoric, arguing that the angle team Cameron has taken on social dysfunction is far too narrow and too focused on playing to the public’s perceived self-interest:

We often talk as if the problem about divorce, drunkenness, drug addiction, the incredible proportions of children from care going on to be criminals, and so on were problems because they cause harm to the rest of us. I understand the reason IDS and others frame the matter that way. They want to be seen to have escaped from moralising and to appeal to people’s self-interest because the moralising route seems to have failed.[…]

We must not think that the proper reason for addressing the needs of the Broken Society is only that, unaddressed, it might interfere, for a moment, with our decadent, empty and meaningless thrill-seeking. The wickedness of our Broken Society is only our own wickedness (yes, mine as well) drawn in vivid colours on a canvass large enough for all to see. It should not be that we address the needs of the Broken Society only because to do so suits our own selfish and nihilistic purposes. We must do so as part of trying to change ourselves. We must condemn the Broken Society because to do so is right and loving and good.

So by seeking to describe the ‘Broken Society’ only in terms of those ‘social evils’ which intrude upon the law-abiding majority, Melanchon essentially argues that Cameron has ripped the morality out of his crusade, creating a campaign which is more transactional than it is rooted in the values of religious conservatism. For him, the party isn’t calling for social change because it is moral and good; merely because it will save the state money & make us a little safer.

It’s a fascinating critique, and one which should remind those with a more liberal outloook of the subtle but important differences between this and the abortive ‘Back to Basics’ campaign that it superficially resembles. It is, in fact, a much cleverer creation, and one which has already resonated far more widely with the public than you saw in 1993.

Looking back, I think one of the problems with Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ speech was that it was too heavy on maudlin generalities to really capture the public’s imagination. The following passage, for example, is positively drenched in a sense of ennui, & nostalgia for some imagined golden age.

I think that many people, particularly those of you who are older, see things around you in the streets and on your television screens which are profoundly disturbing. We live in a world that sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort. Old certainties crumbling. Traditional values falling away. People are bewildered. Week after week, month after month, they see a tax on the very pillars of our society – the Church, the law, even the Monarchy, as if 41 years of dedicated service was not enough. And people ask, “Where’s it going? Why has it happened?”. And above all, “How can we stop it?”.

Now compare that with these remarks David Cameron made in a speech last year:

“Whether it is knife crime or any other symptom of our broken society, we will repair the damage by treating not just the symptoms but the causes too. I want the strength of our commitment to inspire faith; faith that our present social breakdown is not inevitable; that this is not a one-way street, faith to replace the disbelief we feel as it dawns on us that we are living in a country where being stabbed is no longer the dark make-believe of crime fiction but the dreadful reality of our children’s daily lives.

“And there is a thread that links it all together. The knife crime. The worklessness. The ill health. Above all, the wasted lives: “A sixteen year-old boy stabbed in north London; a sixty year-old man sitting around in Easterhouse who’s never had a job. A twenty-eight year-old woman stabbed in south London; a forty-eight year old woman dying from heart disease in Gallowgate.

“The thread that links it all together passes, yes, through family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, poverty, poor policing, inadequate housing, and failing schools but it is a thread that goes deeper, as we see a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality.

Where Major’s rhetoric was fogged-over by vague moralising about returning to the ‘neighbourliness, decency & courtesy’ of the past, Cameron is more precise, identifying the specific symptoms of the ‘Broken Society’ and arguing that only by reducing them can we have a happier, more equitable future. Significantly, all of the social evils he lists (however indirectly) either costs the state money or causes harm to law-abiding people, and he is not asking for anything more from the British people than those things most of us already do.

Just as Major & Cameron’s ideas are framed very differently, I suspect the consequences of the two speeches will also be very different. Thanks to the fuzziness with which ‘Back to Basics’ was sold, Major unwittingly committed the Conservatives to leading the country to a kind of moral reformation. Unfortunately for him, by doing so it became fair game to scrutinise the character of his cabinet, and when a number of those ministers failed to stand up to that scrutiny, it fatally undermined the project he was trying to sell.

I think Cameron is avoiding this trap because he’s already been a lot more clear about what his ‘Broken Society’ is. He’s not asking for piety or even for the vast majority of us to change our ways of living; he’s not going to chide us for discourtesy, committing infidelity or being neglectful neighbours, since his real broken society is in the actions of the teenage mother, the drug addict and the ASBO youth. To that end, some newspaper discovering that a member of his cabinet had once smoked a spliff or comitted an affair wouldn’t undermine the project, for their actions never fell under his description of the ‘Broken Society’ in the first place. Whether it was intended or not, that’s a very clever way of avoiding the ‘hypocrisy trap’.

By suggesting that the Conservatives’ rhetoric should be based on moralism rather than the public’s perceived self-interest, I think Melanchthon’s approach is much closer to the Major approach, and is therefore at risk of suffering the same fate. Whilst the partisan in me has no problem with the Tories overplaying their hand in this way, I suspect that genuine Conservatives won’t want Cameron to change his winning strategy one bit.

Gang culture, territory & fear

July 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime | 6 Comments

Nothing brings Britain’s social problems into focus like seeing them on your doorstep. What might seem abstract when described in Home Office documents or reported from unfamiliar places becomes a lot more intimate when it’s set somewhere you know: full of landmarks you’ve visited, people you might’ve met, folks who speak with the same accent or walk the same streets as you.

So when I read Mark Townsend’s report on the rise of gun & gang culture around the Burngreave & Pitsmoor areas of Sheffield, I was always going to react to it differently than if it’d been set in somewhere like Manchester, Liverpool or the North East. I can’t claim to know these neighbourhoods intimately, but my emotional attachment to the city means I probably can’t react as impartially or dispassionately as I would if it were set somewhere else.

But whilst responding emotionally to problems which need rational policy solutions isn’t always helpful, it’s also often unavoidable. Watching YouTube videos made by members of the various ‘postcode gangs’ can be a thoroughly depressing experience: seeing kids as young as 13 drinking beers, lighting up joints, posing with enough knives & firearms to overthrow the city council, and filming tributes to slain friends. To be honest, if I didn’t have an emotional reaction to this parade of low ambition & self-destruction, there’d be something wrong with me.

In fact, when we think about the dangers for kids in our inner cities, it wouldn’t hurt to see emotion as a useful tool for analysis. Whilst there are always structural explanations for poverty, unemployment, social exclusion & family breakdown, what leads these young people into situations where they put their lives or other people’s lives at risk is a toxic brew of bravado & fear. It’s the combination of these which leads kids to join a gang, get hold of a weapon, threaten someone with a knife or gun, and then eventually use one. As Townsend’s report indicates, the wars in Pitsmoor & Burngreave aren’t over control of drug turf like you might find in Manchester; they result from petty beefs which escalate into murders because they’ve never learnt how to control their emotions.

The controlling, constraining nature of fear alters kids’ behaviour in other ways, too. Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted a study to see what impact ‘territorality’ (basically a nicer way of saying ‘ghettoisation’) had on the lives of young people. They asked kids to draw maps of their neighbourhoods and label which places they felt were safe to go and which were not:

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As you can see from these pictures, pieces of land which may be no bigger than a single square mile can be written-off as ‘no go areas’, boxing these kids in to their gang-defined safety zones. As a result, they might not be able to access social services, leisure activities, schools, work or relationships with people from other areas. Their postcode becomes their world, and straying too far from it must feel like sailing off the edge of a flat earth.

So when we think about how we might reduce the harms of gang culture and the number of youngsters being stabbed or shot, of course we should consider those long-term structural aspects which social scientists have talked about for decades, but we should also think about practical ways of reducing the fear which causes many of these kids to join gangs, to rarely leave their small, ‘safe’ postcodes, to carry weapons and cause harm to others. This situation won’t get better with more crackdowns or ‘get tough’ pledges, but if you can make the streets seem a little less terrifying, you might just same some lives.

Small Town Napoleons: Barnsley & the BNP

June 10, 2009 at 9:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 4 Comments

When I was last in the Lakes, I stumbled-upon a shop which specialised in antique books. It was a place where you could spend hours devouring the breadth of history on display; thumbing through thin, musty-smelling pages & admiring the old-fashioned covers on the shelves.

One book which caught my eye was a volume of ‘stories from the empire’ – a collection of articles describing different writers’ journeys across land seized by the British. It’s not a book you’d get away with writing today: the attitudes displayed were (mostly) from a bygone era and the amazed, disapproving depictions of the local people stank of one of the worst aspects of colonialism. Indeed, rather than enlightening the reader about what life was like in the commonwealth’s farthest corners, the portrayals only served to reinforce a reader’s preconceptions.

The same discomfiting cringe I felt reading that book has re-emerged in recent days as people have scrambled to explain why voters across the Pennines elected two BNP candidates to the European Parliament. As the new boomtown for British nationalism – the party doubled its share of the vote since 2004 – journalists have started flocking to Barnsley to ask why this former Labour stronghold has become increasingly fertile ground for extremists.

After reading these articles, I sighed over how depressing & unwelcoming the town must seem to outsiders: how ill-informed the interviewees were, how casually they deployed xenophobia as a defence mechanism. I worried that the media coverage only told one side of the town’s story, and told it in a way which – like that book I left on the shelf – would only reinforce the presumptions about the people who live here.

First things first: yes, the BNP found over 3,000 new voters since 2004, but it’s also lost a lot of votes in just 12 months. In last year’s council elections only a third of Barnsley’s seats were up for grabs, but the BNP still gathered 1,800 more votes than it did for an election held across the town. No, this isn’t comparing like with like, but it does suggest that if you really wanted to investigate us during an upsurge of support for nationalism, you should’ve done it 12 months ago. There are different ways to gauge the strength of support a party has, but I think it’s useful to use the old measure of party membership. On that score, the infamous leaked BNP list might’ve boasted over a hundred Barnsley addresses, but for a population of around 220,000, I think I’m entitled to regard that number as feeble.

The racism suggested by the national media is also a lot more abstract than any of the articles have acknowledged. Even with a modest increase in the number of immigrants over the past decade, Barnsley remains one of the whitest towns in the north, and because there’s no semblance of a minority community, there’s no direct conflict with the white working class on grounds of religion, race or culture. Many of us are still healed by foreign doctors, taught by foreign teachers, served by foreign barmaids or learn alongside foreign children, and they can, by and large, live and learn and work free from harassment or intimidation.

I don’t believe I’m being naive in saying this; I’ve lived in Barnsley for long enough to know that there are some genuinely hateful racists in the town, and even if I hadn’t lived there, it wouldn’t have taken long for Google to prove it. What I do contend, however, is that racism isn’t necessarily the prime motivating factor behind a vote for the BNP.

The basis for this overhyped ‘conflict’ between the white working class and the rest is a fight over limited resources; a battle for a better standard of living which many feel is being lost – or stolen. The BNP has been very successful in explaining this as a legacy of lax immigration and ‘PC gone mad’, but the more unpalatable truth is that the town is still failing to give up the ghosts of its industrial past.

I’ve written before about how a culture of low expectations persists here, and it’s prevented the town from adequately retooling after the collapse of coal mining. These days, many of the children & grandchildren of ex-miners will simply train in some other unskilled manual occupation, but in the 21st century, they’re at the mercy of unforgiving markets like never before.

The kids who leave school with only the barest of GCSEs might think those qualifications don’t matter much, but by the time they’ve finished some apprenticeship in house building, plastering or plumbing, they’ll discover that on top of the low pay, they’re competing with foreign labour in a horrid economic climate where nothing is being built. It’s easy to blame some faceless Polish plasterer who you imagine is stealing your living; it’s far harder to get a grasp on how so many other factors have led them to that point: family background, low education, personal choice, a labour market that doesn’t have enough openings for skilled manual work, nor enough qualified applicants to fill them.

If I was to give a passing journalist one final piece of advice about examining the relationship between Barnsley and the BNP, it would be to look again at the lessons from the 2008 council elections. There, the BNP came third with over 10,000 votes, but still failed to win a single seat on the council. There are several reasons for this, but foremost among them was the strength of a coalition called the Barnsley Independent Group. This BIG is a collection of staunchly local politicians who’ve fought for small, important things like local amenities, public transport and paving over potholes. In about 5 years, they’ve not only managed to break Labour’s dominance of the council, but also managed to stop the nationalists from dumping their flabby hides in our town hall.

The lesson we should learn from the group’s rapid rise is this: nationalism is not the natural recourse for disaffected Labour voters, and when given a choice between localism and nationalism (a vote for something or a vote against something) more people will prefer fixing fences to flinging out foreigners.

I just wish that some of this had been a feature of the media’s post-election frenzy. Instead, they not only risked giving these snarling, small town Napoleons far more credit than they’re due, but they portrayed the town in such a way that folk ‘round these parts will struggle to recognise it.

Image #1 and #2 courtesy of Flickr users antspider and evissa (Creative Commons)

A Duel Will Settle This!: In defence of policy blogging

May 31, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging, British Politics | 3 Comments

(I have no idea why this post became as long as it did. Sorry)

Well, the weather may be glorious, but if there’s ever a chance to spurn the sun’s come-hither allure and hunch over a keyboard, clattering caffeinated musings about The Future Of The Left!, it seems I’ll always bite. The latest addition to a debate that has all the cool kids talking comes courtesy of Charlotte Gore, who has a few things to say about Liberal Conspiracy, Britain’s left-liberal blogging behemoth and an occasional host for my overwrought rambling. Now, as a libertarian, Ms Gore has more than one criticism to make of LC, but in this case she suggests that the site can’t grow any more influence whilst it remains a place for lots of policy discussion:

All that fretting and worrying about policy is such a complete waste of time. I’ve heard it over and over on Labour Home, I’ve heard it over and over on Labour List and it’s been done to death on Liberal Conspiracy. All of them looking for the new idea, the new brilliant policy that’s going to somehow going to reinvent the left, bringing together the benefits of redistribution and a monolithic public sector without economic stagnation, unemployment, crushing of innovation, a welfare subculture, Government enabled Monopoly corporations and all this without the authoritarianism and ‘unfortunate’ need to take as much wealth as possible from as many sources as possible to pay for all these adventures and ideas.

Charlotte concludes that instead of wringing our worried hands over policy, LC should take a leaf out of DailyKos’ book and start scouring the country for some charismatic charmer who’ll make our daft ideas sound sensible and lead us to that far-off promised land of equality, fairness and cheap beer.

The whole thing’s a quite provocative read and I must admit to sometimes doubting the utility of all these ‘where do we go from here’ thinkpieces which have sprouted up under Labour’s rotten corpse. That said, I think she’s taking the wrong lessons from the Daily Kos example.

It’s certainly true that the Netroots movement wasn’t particularly interested in policy. Sure, there were things the Democratic left was against (war, torture, the collected wrongdoings of George W. Bush) and things they were for (peace, healthcare, impeachment), but the Netroots never had a laundry list of specific policy demands and never had the ideological unity to even attempt a manifesto.

This isn’t to say that you couldn’t find any good policy analysis & debate; the past few years have also seen the rise in profile of such exceptional young commentators as Ezra Klein & Matthew Yglesias, and the lack of a comparable British version of what those two do is a problem. But by and large, the Netroots was for organising, proselytising and flaming the Republicans out of existence. Online organising was the means and electoral success was the end.

This was all incredibly successful for a while, particularly in the ’06 midterms: activists managed to kick Senator Lieberman out of the party, get James Webb elected in Virginia and score countless smaller victories in Congressional districts, state houses & city councils. Then there was the election of a certain shiny, smooth-talking speech-maker who, thanks to the donations, hard work & votes of millions, went to the White House & bought a comedy dog.

But it’s in the election of President Obama where the flaws & limits of the netroots are starting to show. As he undertakes the complicated task of governing, Obama has inevitably disappointed some of his supporters, and there have been plenty of quarrels over his cabinet picks, his fiercely-rebuffed attempts at bipartisanship, his economic policy, his approach to the Bush administration’s torture regime & his continuation of the war on drugs. In each of these areas there’s been disappointment for Obama’s liberal activists, but because the Netroots wasn’t established on the foundations of policy, the response to these disappointments has been as disparate & varied as they were unified & disciplined in opposition. Had there been a more widespread & lengthy discussion about what policies Democrats expected when in power, they might’ve been able to use their formidable organisation as leverage to pull the Obama administration closer to their idea of progressivism.

Right, let’s try to shift this back to the malaise of the British left. As a libertarian, Charlotte’s bound to interpret much of the policy discussion on Liberal Conspiracy as the equivalent of saying ‘oooh, what else can the state buy with other people’s money? What other excuses can we come up with for making folk more poor & less free?’ That’s a logical reaction from someone of her political leanings, and she certainly has a point that it’s all futile without (a) the ability to organise effectively, and (b) some skilled communicator who’ll have the nation taking out subscriptions to ‘Marxist Bollocks Monthly’.

But let’s say that in a decade’s time we have that organisation in place and we have an Obamaesque orator who could sell even the Poll Tax, and let’s say (s)he wins a 100+ majority in the House of Commons. Then what? Are we simply doomed to repeating the same policies of the past twelve years? Will we ever have the opportunity to try something new? Or will we have just helped to elect some Blair-lite blank canvas without ever subjecting their positions to the scrutiny & criticism they deserve? For those of us who don’t want to repeat the mistakes made during the Blair era, that’s pretty critical.

Beyond that, the downside of being silent about policy is that it would keep people with very different ideologies at arms-length from each other and turn the blogosphere into a partisan battleground rather than a talking shop. I doubt that a left-wing/liberal-left/progressive (delete as appropriate) commentator would have much agreement with Tories or libertarians on something like tax or welfare, but there are plenty of areas which don’t fall anywhere on the left-right spectrum. The questions of how you reform a broken criminal justice system, how you move the country away from drug prohibition or how you can move power away from Whitehall all fall on the liberal-authoritarian scale, and talking about them at somewhere like Liberal Conspiracy provides the opportunity to build consensus across political divides which might otherwise have proved insurmountable. Surely we can all benefit from that?

Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie, and if you can have the 3rd highest-ranked blog in the country by having a substantial number of posts on policy, then there must be some appetite for it. Policy is the substance of politics, but it’s also an area where people are more inclined and better-equipped to debate ideas in good faith. If the site can remain a facilitator for that in years to come, then online politics should be in pretty decent shape.

*Yeah, I nicked the post title from a Mates of State song. It’s a good job I don’t get paid for this blog; God knows how much I’d have to pay indie bands for stealing their words.

“Tough on crime” and other bad jokes

May 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Prison Reform, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I wasn’t planning on writing anything tonight, but I’d just like to highlight an excellent – if disturbing – piece of journalism which aired on BBC’s Look North earlier this evening.

Towards the end of last year, it became apparent that the National Probation Service – the folks whose job it is to ensure that people who commit crimes don’t reoffend – would have to join just about every other branch of the public sector in having their budgets slashed. The cuts, estimated to be as much as £30 million, would have to be made in each area the country and the probation union NAPO warned that this would reduce the service’s already limited capacity to reform offenders, placing the public at greater risk of crime.

Anyway, Look North filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained the Ministry of Justice’s risk assessment document, which looked into the potential impact of any cuts. The document apparently gives ratings from one (negligible) to twenty-five (critical); in West Yorkshire, where £7m is expected to be cut, the impact was rated at twenty four. In other words, the public will be put at greater risk and criminals won’t have the same guidance to help them mend their ways.

Has there ever been a worse time to make cuts in the probation service? A time of deep recession, a time when prisons are so over-crowded that inmates are being released early or not sent to jail at all and a time when the reoffending rate already stands at 62%. Is this really the time to cut the budget of a service which is sometimes the only thing which stands in the way of offenders taking the easy route back to a life of crime?

As one anonymous probation officer told Look North: “We all came into this role to protect the public. We all feel strongly about the value the probation service has had for 100 years. We’re in the scenario now where our very existence seems to be getting stamped out by a government who seem more inclined to run the service like a McDonalds franchise.”

Quite. Of all the strategies this government’s followed in recent years, the notion that it can run the criminal justice system on the cheap has been the most baffling and will, over the long term, prove disastrous. The only irony is that they’ll only notice it when they’re languishing in opposition.

Grasping the nettle of social care

May 28, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | 1 Comment

About 15 years ago, my mother decided that her parents had grown too frail to live on their own: her dad was so crippled by arthritis that he was barely able to leave his armchair, and her mother’s eyesight had all but vanished. The most basic things – cooking, washing, cleaning – were a daily struggle, and though there was some nominal, infrequent care provided by the local authority, it wasn’t enough to assuage mum’s fears that her parents were too vulnerable.

Fuelled by a sense of love, duty & tradition (she’d cared for her own ailing grandmother when growing up), she persuaded her husband to let them move in with us; we built an extension to the house, converted a garage into a bedroom and fixed-up a disabled bathroom. Though they only stayed for about a year before passing away, for mum there was at least some solace in knowing that they lived their last days in comfort & dignity.

Comfort and dignity; that’s the most we really want out of old age and the least that any of us deserves. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years that we’re ill-equipped, both as a country and as individuals, to meet those modest standards.

In 2006, a report by Derek Wanless found serious shortfalls in the social care system: there’s a lack of joined-up service provision, delivery throughout the country was patchy and care providers are hampered by a lack of resources due to stretched council budgets. On top of that, the system of arbitrary means-testing is bitterly resented and many who fail that test are forced to sell their homes & move into nursing accommodation.

With an ageing population and rising life expectancy, Wanless warned that spending on social care would have to treble to about £30bn by 2026 just to meet the needs of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. That’s money we don’t have at present, and without it there’ll be millions of older people becoming wholly dependent on the care & charity of their families. That’s providing those families even have the ability to provide that care, of course; not everyone can afford to build extensions of the side of their bungalows.

In response to this mounting long-term crisis, the government’s in the midst of devising a Green Paper aimed at reforming the system. In anticipation of this, the IPPR has done a little research into the public attitudes to social care, what they expect from it and who they expect to pay for it. The results are a little muddled, conflicted and raise far more questions than they answer.

The first thing to take out of this report is that the public isn’t entirely sure what social care is; whilst a large majority of people can identify services like ‘meals on wheels’ or home visits, less than half were aware of the (fairly meagre) financial support for carers, and barely a third knew of the direct payments given to people needing care. This is important because the survey also found that care is an everyday part of many people’s lives, with just under a quarter of respondants claiming to offer help or support to someone close to them. Clearly, their lives could be made easier if they were more aware of the types of help available.

What’s slightly more concerning given the funding gap is the response to the question of what plans folk are making for their future care needs. Given the fact that around half of us aren’t putting anything towards a private pension, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that a large majority of us either haven’t thought about it or haven’t done anything to plan for it. In a way, this is understandable; after all, we could all be hit by a bus tomorrow, right? Sure, but the problem is that lots of us aren’t getting hit by busses, and if we all live a lot longer without planning for how we’ll be looked after when we reach old age, then we’re going to have a bit of a problem.

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So if we’re not doing anything to plan for our own old age, who should be responsible for it? How about our kids? After all, think of all the money parents spend on them; a little TLC wouldn’t be too much to expect in return, would it? Well, apparently it would. The chart below shows that most people from 35-70+ don’t believe that their future care should be paid for by their offspring, most likely out of a wish not to be a burden on their future success & happiness. On top of that, a large majority believe that care should be provided by health/social care professionals, rather than family members.

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And as for how this social care could be funded… well, it’s enough to give a libertarian a heart attack:

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As you can see, the current method of means testing isn’t very popular, and the alternative proposed by Derek Wanless of having free basic care for all, but additional services paid for, doesn’t fare much better. The large preference seems to be for free, universal care based solely on the level of help needed, similar to the NHS. This obviously poses a huge headache for policy-makers because you’re talking about a massive amount of money (certainly more than Wanless’ £30bn estimate), a significant expansion in services and an increase in the size of the public sector.

The main conclusion made in the IPPR’s report is that the government should establish an independent panel to establish the possible courses of action for improving social care and then beginning a national debate about how to proceed. I think this is certainly needed. The public needs to become better informed about the choices facing us and there needs to be open discussion about what role local & national government can play, what role the private sector can play, and what our own responsibilities are as citizens. That discussion is probably the only way to better long-term policy.

Just returning to the anecdote at the top for a moment: whenever a loved one’s birthday rolls around, I find myself reminded of the extraordinary & selfless care my mother gave to her parents, and wondering whether I’d be able to give the same level of devotion she showed to them and her two sons. Right now, I’m not sure I could, and I’m equally unconvinced that they could pay for it themselves or that the state could provide it for them. This nagging fear that my own parents – and millions like them – might one day be robbed of the right to age in comfort & dignity is why we need to discuss the options open to us, and, because each of us is someone’s son or daughter, I’d hope we could have that discussion in good faith.

Burning down the house? What could ‘a new politics’ look like?

May 20, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in British Politics | 13 Comments

When tens of thousands of concerned citizens converged in London for the G20 protests, their dreams, motivations & irritations were as diverse as the city itself. Some came to cause a ruck; others to plea for peace. Some were driven by the dire state of the economy; others by a feeling of peril for the planet. Some came to claim their right to the most modest hopes – a decent job, decent pay, safe communities to live in – whilst others proselytised for whichever radical ideology would make Thomas More proud.

But if you could identify one thing which united this cast of thousands, it would be the feeling that democratic politics just isn’t working. In only 10 years, we’ve been visited by three era-defining crises: 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror, the escalating threat posed by climate change, and the global financial meltdown. In each of these crises there were multiple warnings several years before they became emergencies, yet our nations’ governments either responded when it was too late or have still to produce an adequate response.

Taken together, these issues have combined to undermine the traditional argument for the state’s legitimacy; to protect its citizens from harm. Without being able to satisfy that most basic of requirements, politics is in real trouble.

The expenses scandal has superceded all of this, of course; turning the discussion away from politics’ structural malaise and towards the self-serving, insular & arrogant habits of our politicians. It’s in this context of disgust and despair that The Guardian has launched a series of opinion pieces on how best to conduct root and branch reform of Westminster to ensure that not only can politicians no longer claim expenses for non-existent mortgages, but to repair the damaged marriage between the public and its servants.

A very noble cause, of course, and there are several suggestions there which deserve further debate. My own take on this question offers fewer specifics than those from writers who know the workings of Westminster. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how it could be possible to strike a better balance between the state’s ability to anticipate and reduce threats to public safety, and the need for the public to become much closer & more involved in politics.

The first thing that needs to be said is that whilst the expenses scandal should be used as an opportunity to demand reform, it shouldn’t be seen as the sole reason why reform is needed. As I’ve already noted, public perception of politics and its practitioners was low even before the expenses scandal, and simply fixing the system so that an MP’s can’t live quite as luxuriously won’t do anything to resolve those structural flaws discussed earlier.

So what will? Well, there are some good proposals like reform of the House of Lords, proportional representation or the need to enshrine our liberties in law, but overall I think we need to talk about Westminster’s power can be squeezed. There needs to be more effective early-warning systems to spot long-term dangers to our economy & society, whether in the form of oversight committees or regulatory agencies. They need to be everything Westminster currently isn’t: independent of party politics, rigorous, forensic and capable of making unpopular recommendations to the government of the day. Our establishment should have been able to see the dangers of the credit economy far sooner than it did, should have been able to see the dangers of our overseas wars sooner than it did, and should’ve begun implementing steps to reduce our carbon footprints far sooner than it did. To regain public trust, the state must respond quicker to problems on the horizon, and that might require the reduction of Parliament and the state’s primacy as the auditors of our national health.

But whilst responding quicker and better to incoming crises would restore the public’s faith in the state’s basic functions, it’s not enough to increase their engagement in politics. For that, we will have to look again at ways of substantially increasing localisation. If more of our public services – everything from education & health to prisons and welfare – were not just delivered locally, but administered locally and became more accountable to local people, I think you’d see not only greater public interest & activism, but also better, more efficient ways of seeing those services delivered.

Obviously, the ideas expressed here are a little vague and deserve far more than what’s been sketched out in a meagre blogpost. All I would say to conclude is that if our poltics is to enter an age of reform, we should have the capacity to imagine far more than a few new Parliamentary procedures. If not, that long-delayed reconciliation with the public may remain some way in the distance.

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