The Big Society – The Anatomy of the New Politics
The University of Buckingham Press, 2010, Jessie Norman MP
Occasionally a book comes along that articulates what the politicians can’t say in their unfortunate Twitteresque sound bites. These are often conceived and prepared by remarkably dull people, and designed to hit the news bulletins at exactly the right time to fill the heads of the watching goldfish with content-free platitudes and frivolous diversions, such as the sexual antics of celebrities. This book is the total opposite.
It is written by someone who is clearly well versed in the history of western political philosophy and modern politics. It is written with the intelligent layman audience in mind. So do not worry if you don’t know your Plato from your Aristotle; you will follow this book very easily as it dances, fleet of foot, across the body of knowledge, occasionally pulling up something of relevance to our contemporary setting and suggesting some new ways of looking at some old things, and then with a sprinkle of brilliance, providing us with the intellectual meat and bones behind the Big Society.
In the Introduction, Norman says
At its heart, this book suggests, is the idea of what in 2006 I called a “connected society”. This emphasises not the two-way opposition of state vs. Individual, but the three-way relation of enabling state, active individual and linking institution.
His overriding intellectual influence is Michael Oakeshott. I have to declare an interest: my two tutors at the LSE were Elie Kedourie and Robert Orr, so I am very well disposed to Oakeshott. Both came to teach at the LSE because of Oakeshott. He is the most outstanding British Idealist Philosopher of the 20th Century. Some describe him as a conservative philosopher and some a liberal. Both are right in many ways; Oakeshott moves beyond and above left and right, conservative or liberal in politics, into his own classification, as does Norman . His works mirror the on-going conflicts in the modern Conservative Party between its liberal and conservative traditions that I touched on in this short article.
In his seminal 1975 work, On Human Conduct, Oakeshott contrasts the modern enterprise association, this being a teleologically-guided state such as ours where the state itself is the provider of all the needs of society — its health, its defence, its welfare, etc — with that of the civil association.
Norman points out that the modern creators of the enterprise association we see today are the Fabians, whose solution to every problem was to extract more wealth from the taxpayer, and get state officials to provide goods and services with that pelf. With religious zeal have they and their followers prosecuted this agenda, such that when I sit in court now as a magistrate, I often see people who live in families where no one knows who their father/grandfather is and no one has worked for three or four generations. To top it all, they consider it their right, yes, their right, to have you and me provide for them! As Norman expertly points out, emergency welfare was provided over many decades, even centuries, by the tradition of mutualism: working class patient health provision, guild socialism, trade unions. Local provision of essential services was what the radicals and reforming left stood for. The state was associated with aristocratic privilege and was indeed the enemy of their well-being. Murray Rothbard in his usual combatitive style has a very interesting take on this line of thought.
The civil association is where the political discourse is geared to discussing rules and discovering laws that allow man to pursue his own interests, providing his own goods and services, peacefully, without causing harm to anybody. In this sense, Oakeshott can be seen very much in the Liberal tradition. This civil association has no end goal. Its goal is to provide the settings, the rules of the game if you like, for the creative capacities of mankind to bloom. Oakeshott, like Hayek, is acutely aware of the limits of knowledge and the errors that inevitably happen to rationalist programs, such as the envy-ridden provider state we have today, and prefers to rely on man’s innate ability to sort himself out. In many respects Norman finds Oakeshott lacking. While the architecture he describes does provide the rule of civil conduct needed to allow a free society to exist, he argues it fails to provide the grounds for the rich diversity of all human talent to flourish on its own.
The connected society, with a positive program to provide more than just the framework, is then spelled out. Apart from helping to bring Oakeshott and indeed the first modern individualist, Hobbes, to a new audience, Norman’s brilliance is building on this tradition, woven with the sympathy of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Norman establishes the need for a “connected society,” a society understood in terms of affection or personal tie in addition to the rules spelled out by Oakeshott’s civil association.
He quotes Burke
to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is…the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.
The history of the British Government is littered with attempts at reform that have ignored existing institutions and so undermined them; ….take the case of friendly societies. Between 1800 and the beginning of the Second World War, there was a huge advance in voluntary provision for sickness and old age by means of these working class mutual-aid societies. By 1938 over 20 million working people were registered members. Even an early 19th century friendly society might provide the benefits for sickness, unemployment and disability, as well as loans and a widow’s pension. More services, including pensions, were added over time. It was run by the members and for the members on a one-member one-vote basis, so that costs were low and dishonest claims kept to a minimum. It was sustained and contributed to, a spirit of self-reliance and mutual support, which discouraged reliance on charity and state provision.
(See also my book review of David Green’s magnificent history of this period for more detail on the sorry saga of how the state usurped wonderfully spontaneous people-driven and people-focused provision of a range of essential services)
Politics is the greatest practical “voice” in the ongoing debate about how the rules or laws should be set to achieve this. Philosophy (in Oakeshott’s later writings) is the leading voice in articulating understanding; practical politics deals with its implementation. Perhaps one of the greatest essays written in the English language is Oakshott’s 1959 “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”.
Picking up on this essay, Norman writes
Different institutions, from different traditions, each have their own distinctive “voices”: those of science , business, religion, the law, education, or arts, for example. In a conversation each voice has its own character, yet each must speak in common terms to others if it is to be understood, to move people, to persuade people, or to command. How they develop, how they interact with each other, and how they are heard by different people, will determine the character of the conversation as a whole.
Finally, the metaphor of the conversation underlines the wider critique offered here. The last government was characterised by the default instinct to extend the powers of the state over the lives of its citizens. In conversational terms, one might think of the state as the domineering bore at the table, whose loudness overwhelms the talk of others…. the extension of the state, whatever its short-term attractions, tends to undermine the voices, the energy and the creativity of its citizens. If it is hard to see this now that may partly be because we have lost sight of how rich and fulfilled all human life has the potential to be.
The key goal of the connected society is for active citizens, or the “active self”, empowered by the state (or rather, with power repatriated back from whence it was extracted!) to fulfil their creativity and start taking responsibility once more to revitalise our rich history of voluntary mutual support.
Rigor Mortis economics dictates that a 16 year old girl with no qualifications (our rational incentive responding agent, homo oeconomicus) thinks to herself “I will get pregnant, I will be thus provided with a house and a living wage, job done: life all sorted.” In reality, the girl may be desperately unhappy, unloved, and have little or no family support. This is a person disconnected and trying to re-connect, trying to get some status. The active community is the best route to help here. The state has failed, so it is about time we looked back for inspiration at reconnecting people and empowering local community solutions. The slow and steady mantra of state provision for everything at the expense of family and community support has crowded out human creativity and exacerbated the desperate social problems we have.
I do not like the Cobden Centre being called a think tank, and encourage all of us involved to be social reformers and assist in this reconnecting agenda, i.e. be a do tank. Chris Neal is a great inspiration with his GB Job Clubs, which Steve Baker MP and I support in an advisory capacity. Chris is the epitome of the active self and GB Job Clubs is a new little platoon. We can but try.
It is hard to see why any thoughtful person would object to the connected society.
I strongly urge you to buy and read Norman’s book.