Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Cuts, Big Society & Decentralisation/Localism Equals The Big Bang

Combined with the massive cuts in public spending, the ConDem Government's Big Society initiative and its linked measures in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill will be like the Big Bang: destruction and chaos with no idea of what will emerge.

There will be five main response groups:

  • Monetarist extremists who believe the Government is not doing enough, like Rupert Murdoch.
  • Ostriches burying their heads in the sand believing that the Government is right because of the economic situation.
  • Outright oppositionists whose only weapons are anti-cuts campaigning, increased protest, and civil disobedience.
  • Engagers who argue that anti-cuts campaigning will have no effect and will try and salvage and build from the chaos.
Lastly, there are those, and I count myself among them, who are arguing that a multiple strategy including opposition and engagement is needed, to focus on the contradictions in the ConDem programme. Detailed arguments about this are discussed in my History & Social Action News 30 and the first issue of my Wandsworth Back To The Future newsletter, both available on request by email.

As one of those who has been working to build the Big Society over the last forty years, I recognise that it cannot be done without state money. In the 19thC the working and middle classes built an impressively large infrastructure of organisations covering life and medical insurance, unemployment support, medical services, housing and land development, retailing and production, farming, education and learning, and culture through mutual aid fundraising, supported by the philantrophy of the better off. Despite its ups and downs and inadequacies the Co-op movement is heir to this tradition, as is Nationwide Building Society and even the National Trust.

But the activists knew that all this effort could only alleviate, not solve the social and economic problems of the time. They campaigned for state provision because it was only through legislative intervention and funding that services to each down into society like education for all, better housing, planning control, etc. The municipal socialist agenda that emerged out of Battersea in the period of the New Unionist explosion remained central within the labour movement until its dismantling under Thatcher.

So the Big Society initiative is fine in principle but without funding to support it it is a fig leaf, a deceit, a con trick, it is the Emperor's New Clothes. But in order to convince a large section of the public that what the ConDem Government is doing is fundamentally wrong, and to try and salvage something, requires us creative engagement with the agenda, and to see how the powers in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill can be reshaped to be valuable tools in the arguments in every local authority about how to minimise the destruction. The Bill opens up new arenas for lobbying and campaigning.

What the Tories need to understand is that they cannot control the consequences of their actions. While they will have expected a reaction form students, they clearly did not realise that this would re-energise the generation which cut its teeth in political action in the late 1960s/early 70s. Nor did they realise that their policy to withdraw EMA would radicalise a growing number of secondary school children. Future historians may well see that a key motivating factor in the student protest was the the background MPs expenses scandal. This helped many turn to the Lib Dems because they seemed to be more honest, but now see that they are just as prepared to betray them as they thought the other two Parties were.

When the police charged the Trafalgar free speech/right of assembly demonstrators in November 1887, who would have thought that the Police Commissioner of the day would have to resign, and that legislation would have to be passed to give the right of assembly in the Square? Who would have thought that the new emerging protest movement of that Bloody Sunday affair would have helped the Match-Girls to win their strike and spark alight the New Unionist explosion from 1889-92? And who would have thought that one of those who they imprisoned for his role at Trafalgar Square would be a major leader in that explosion and an MP from 1892.

The Liberals should ponder on their history. It was they who brought that man, John Burns, into their Cabinet. And while their Government that brought in old age pensions, national insurance, labour exchanges and town and country planning, it also ruled through a long prolonged period of civil unrest and protest: the suffragettes and the Great Unrest of the labour movement, and the Unionist threat of armed revolt in Ulster. They then made the great mistake after the First World War of allying with the Tories, leading in the turmoil of mass unemployment and protest to their collapse as a major political force.

A poem that made a big impression on me at school was Yeat's The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

That is what the ConDem's are unleashing. The problem is that Yeat's beast slouching towards Bethlehem might not be a resurgence of Labour or a new mass Socialist Party, but a new fascism.

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