The state’s new few

A book called The New Few by Ferdinand Mount has recently been launched in London and has gained quite a bit of media attention in the UK. The central premise of the author is that over the past 30 years power and wealth in Britain have “started to migrate into the hands of a relatively small elite”. Given that Mount was himself part of a westminster political elite (he used to be a key adviser for Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s) he could be at risk of being seen as a perpetrator rather than a reporter of such a trend. Yet, this would be wrong – Ferdinand Mount is one of the most impressive thinkers of his generation, and a person who is genuinely committed to a state which strengthens society. Policy makers in the UK should always read, when Mount writes.

The concentration of wealth and power is bad for society according to Mount – it disconnects the powerful few (‘the oligarchs’) from the many thus threatening not only the ‘good name of capitalism’ but the ‘integrity of our democracy’ (I think post 2007/8 such givens are already threatened across the globe!). Mount makes some excellent points about the need to enhance shareholder power in businesses to hold management truly accountable for their performance. However, his proposition about the ‘hollowing-out of public life’ is something that has increasingly being accepted by the political classes over the past decade. Power has become “seperated from the electoral process” as decisions are taken at a remote level and society therefore concludes that they “can have little influence, whether as party members or voters.”

Mount gives this neat example of how decision making in the UK is increasingly done for society, rather than by society – the intrusion of the big state so to speak. “The example of High Bickington, a village in Devon [a county in south west England], which had put forward a scheme to build some new housing, a civic centre and a school. Although supported by the local community, the district and county councils, the scheme was ultimately killed off because of the intervention of a regional quango [organisation of appointed permanent officials] – the unelected Government Office for the South West.”

We know that such centralisation and concentration of power in the state sucks the dynamism and entrepreneurialism out of society. Communities are forced to rely solely on the state, and fail to maximise the mutual support of people helping each other. Such state power atomises citizens, rather than brings them together to collaborate, weakening the very social bonds and relationships that are the essence of a stronger society. For the past two years the current UK government has tried to pursue a policy idea known as the ‘Big Society’ – a radical agenda for a ‘post-bureaucratic age’ to put more power in the hands of people. This ‘people power’ narrative is exactly the sort of radical approach Ferdinand Mount argues is required, yet by all media and society stakeholder accounts the Big Society has failed to have the transformational change those of us involved with it hoped and expected it to have.

There are many reasons for this, and if a post-mortem does have to take place there will be lots of stories to tell from institutional weaknesses (the failure of the state to drive the transformation required) through to the lack of a clear narrative (nobody in the UK understands where the country needs to get to, and how it can get there over the next 10 years – hence the cynicism within UK society coupled with the hunger for hope and optimism).

I was sent an email yesterday about a blog post on the UK’s Guardian newspaper website that listed all the Big Society agenda is delivering on the ground for British people really suffering with a dire and worsening economy. This is the uber-frustrating part: the Big Society agenda should never have been about a laundry list of new state funds and pilots – it should have been about a transformational change in the relationship between the state and society. Nobody is going to knock an extra $20m fund for supporting voluntary sector organisations currently struggling, but this has had no impact on what Joe Public thinks about his state, his responsibilities and future opportunities. Essentially state activity is not connecting with the mass of society – so, regardless of whether you welcome or reject the big society activity, ultimately its current narrative (or lack of) is sadly failing to resonate.

In fact if you read the list out in either a deprived neighbourhood blighted by years of unemployment, wasted state investment and low aspirations or in a prosperous leafy suburb only slightly feeling the pinch from the European recession people would look at you equally puzzled – the Big Society simply means zip on the doorstep of Britain. That is a a missed opportunity for both the UK state and society – there is such a good story about a better future state and society to be told, one which gives people struggling today some real hope about tomorrow, a story that all of the UK – rich and poor – should and could have a stake in shaping. When the US was on its knees, as a result of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s, FDR didn’t just give the people a list of New Deal programmes he gave them a new hope, a narrative people could connect with: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Without such a state narrative that connects with society, the hollowing-out effect which Mount talks about will just continue to get bigger, weakening society further.

Still, don’t write off the Big Society just yet – who knows, maybe that boldness, courage and vision required to ensure the state is redesigned to strengthen society rather than itself  will come from somewhere. Hope is good thing.

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