Did my eyes deceive me? Were those the amiable, smiling faces of Tessa Jowell, shadow Cabinet Office minister, and Progress chair Stephen Twigg on the platform at the Progress-ResPublica debate? Or were they mere marionettes obscuring Stalin and Ceausescu who were pulling their strings? It was an illusion quite obviously entertained along the platform by Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica, and Francis Maude, Jowell’s cabinet other half, charged with the alchemist-like task of making the ‘big society’ a reality. For here was Blond inveighing against the ‘malign state’, while Maude saw ‘monolithic state providers’ behind every Whitehall door.
Maude even thought the ‘big society’ a decisive break with the belief that ‘the state had the answer to every problem’. But when did anyone believe any of this outside of the former Soviet bloc? And where are these monoliths? Maude talks of ‘breaking the public service monopolies’ by public service reform. Curious as he was a minister for some of that inglorious period, but he is either unaware of, or chooses to ignore, that Mrs Thatcher demolished most of the UK’s comparatively modest state sector. Railways, the steel industry, gas, water and electricity services, and British Telecom – among others – were sold, and the mining industry died when she created what was effectively a monolithic state police force to drive the miners to submission. Her NHS and Community Care Act 1991 was the first introduction of the market into public services. It gave far greater scope for the private sector in the NHS, where it had existed since 1948 anyway. But it completely turned upside-down local authority social services so that today the great majority of social care’s 1.25 million strong workforce is employed by private companies and charities. Education has long ceased to be a service controlled by local authorities – a myth which the education secretary Michael Gove likes to perpetuate to push his free schools.
Myth-making is the ballast to build the ‘big society’ but the most dangerous conceit is that the Tories are arrogating to themselves the role of standard bearer of mutuals and co-ops, words, I doubt, they could spell two years ago. Yet Thatcher’s legislation on demutualisation all but destroyed mutualism and gleefully oversaw the demise of a large number of building societies, none of which now exists as an independent bank and most of which are mere brands within conglomerates.
Blond tells us that it is a scandal that it has been left to Maude to promote co-ops and mutuals. This laughable rewriting of history ignores Labour’s roots in the co-operative movement and its 28 Labour-Co-op MPs. But it seeks also to wipe away the fact that the last government allowed staff to take over the running of primary care trusts, while foundation hospitals (with 1.5 million members) have a strong co-op principle at their heart. It created 100 co-op trust schools, boosted social enterprises, and stimulated the creation of hundreds of co-ops running everything from home help agencies to leisure centres, parks to health centres.
It is difficult to see anything ‘red’ about Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’. It is essentially libertarianism that appears to be based on no serious research or consideration of the relationship of state to intermediary bodies and the individual. Whatever can one say to a man who believes that the Attlee government ‘nationalised society’? Somehow he stops short of the claim by White Russians that Lenin and his cohorts nationalised women to make free love a state service. This is not nonsense but, as Dr Johnson said, nonsense on stilts.
Alas, the Labour government was too ready to hide its co-op lights under a bushel and only in its last year or so did it start to talk seriously about a more strategic and widespread promotion of co-ops and mutuals. But it is still not too late for the party to reclaim its past and to create its future.
Terry Philpot is a writer, volunteer and trustee of three charities
For more on the ‘big society’…
A ‘good society’ would see social pressure exerted to make Britain a fairer place argues Richard Angell
Anas Sarwar MP on Labour’s answer to the ‘big society’
The unreliable big society – Tom Levitt in his Third Sector column
Dave Roberts says the ‘big society’ could, with some changes, be a Labour idea
As an example of Labour’s ‘good society’ in action David Miliband and Tessa Jowell suggest that the BBC is turned into a co-operative
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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