Such a thing as society

The instant-hit hedonism of lad mags doesn't help our broken society, ran the header on Comment is Free, introducing an extract from today's speech to the IPPR by the shadow education spokesman Michael Gove, in which he discussed the Conservative's social policies. Below, we could read a complaint by Gove that magazines such as Nuts and Zoo "paint a picture of women as permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available". While not exactly coming over all Clare Short, Gove did seem to be placing the blame for at least some of society's ills on the commercialisation of sex. It was less clear what remedy he was offering. Moral exhortation from politicians would scarcely be likely, by itself, to put an end to the vulgarisation of society (of which sexually unsubtle lads' mags are much more a symptom than a cause); while government intervention and censorship, in the present climate, seems neither likely nor desirable.

Not surprisingly, the debate turned on this aspect of Gove's remarks. I was going to join in, but then I read the speech. It turned out that Gove's Guardian-friendly disapproval of Nuts (and even more Guardian-friendly enthusiasm for "the work done by women's magazines, and their publishers, to address their readers in a mature and responsible fashion" - presumably he had this week's Cosmo with its "50 fascinating orgasm facts" in mind) comprised a couple of lines from a long and highly impressive analysis of what has gone wrong with society under New Labour. While the solutions it offers aren't fully worked out, there's more than enough here to deflect recent Labour criticisms that Cameron's conservatives are "empty". It also answers David Miliband's protestation, made as part of his oddly well-received leadership campaign, that the "broken society" is a politically constructed myth.

Gove begins, modishly, with a reference to Ubuntu, an African concept much beloved of Archbishop Tutu and deployed, as Gove reminds us, by Bill Clinton during his 2006 speech to the Labour Party conference. There's larceny for you. Ubuntu is said to mean (I am no Bantu linguist) that human beings find exist only in the context of mutual relationships. It has, of course, been said many times before: "No man is an island" (Donne), "Man is a political animal" (Aristotle), "We are all members one of another" (pseudo-Paul). There's a slight danger here, I suspect, of tending towards communitarianism with its implicit call on the individual to surrender to the demands of the group. Neurological studies, moreover, show that Asians are far more likely than Westerners to see objects and people in terms of relationships. Individualism is strongly marked in both Europe and the USA and is rightly cherished, even if its results can be unattractive.

Nevertheless, Gove is clearly onto something when he locates much of what has gone wrong with British society in the present government's obsession with controlling everything, knowing everything, intervening in everything, responding to everything. All this government activism, however well-intentioned, serves to replace the complex web of relationships between people - parents and their local school, patients and their family doctor, villagers with their village shop and post office - with a situation where unelected quangoes impose bureaucratically determined solutions against local opposition, family doctors are turned into productivity-producing manchines working from large, impersonal polyclinics, and schoolchildren learn nothing that isn't required by some test. "Under Labour there is really only one relationship which matters," says Gove. "The relationship between the individual and the state." This, he thinks, is more or less the way Gordon Brown conceives the social contract:

It's interesting to note that when the Prime Minister does engage with questions about political loyalty - for citizens that is - it's on an exclusive level. He thinks solely about Britishness - about the relationship of the individual to the state structure over which he presides...

And that's because, I fear, for Gordon Brown, there really is no such thing as society - only the individual and the State.

Gove speaks tellingly of how a Labour government obsessed with central control and target-setting has warped society and, ultimately, human personality itself:

Frustrated by government bureaucracies which treat them as just a number, dismayed by automated helplines and unresponsive websites which deprive them of human contact and a sympathetic ear, they come to the surgery in search of someone who will listen, who will value them as humans not cases.

This rings very true. I don't think it's entirely the fault of the government, however. It's the whole media-political setup which moves on, thoughtlessly, from "here's this problem" to "what is the government going to do about it?" The demand for instant solutions to every difficulty, with politicians feeling the need to prove themselves by constantly producing new initiatives, a new set of targets, a new or toughened-up regulation, more control, more laws, any time something comes up.

An example alluded to but not mentioned by Gove is the elaborate regime introduced by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. Introduced in response to the tragic but freakish happenstance that the Soham murderer Ian Huntley had secured a job as a school caretaker despite having come to the attention of police in another part of the country, the act requires anyone who comes into contact with children, even a parent volunteering to take their child's friends to a football coaching session in a local park, to undergo extensive (and expensive) criminal records checks, and be enrolled on a vast new database. In some cases, the net will be extended to cover even the partners of those who work with children. It has been estimated that at least a quarter of the adult population will be required to register on the scheme, which is of doubtful effectiveness and will doubtless be found, a few years down the line, to be full of paedophile-shaped holes. In the meantime, a great many people will have been put off by the bureaucracy, the cost, and by the invasiveness of the whole process and the people who suffer most will be children.

The SVGA register is only one example of the whole culture of mutual suspicion which has grown up under New Labour's watch. Perhaps it's a coincidence, and any government, faced with constant demands by the media for action, would have reacted in a similar way. It shouldn't be forgotten how much of the target culture started under the last Conservative government, which did after all introduce the national curriculum in schools, with its apparatus of centrally-controlled testing, and which also began the catastrophic culture of managerialism in the NHS. It was the Tories, too, who emasculated local government, removing powers and imposing rate-caps. But all these trends have gone further, much further, under Labour. And while the Conservative forerunners of such policies were means to an end, whether increasing efficiency or consumer choice, with Labour the opposite seems to be the case. Claims about efficiency and choice often seem to be mere excuses for the true motivation of ministers, the extension of state supervision into every nook and cranny of personal life.

While Gove has the right things to say, however, I remain sceptical of his or David Cameron's ability to deliver much of the real change required to reinvigorate society, or even that such a thing is possible under any government, real or imagined. It would be a brave politician indeed who, faced with a powered up John Humphrys demanding what "the government" do something about this or that hospital waiting list or mini crime-wave or annoyed campaign group, would look him straight in the eye and say, "It's not my fault. These things are the responsibility of the doctors, police, teachers. Our policy is to let them get on with it." That would be real democracy.

There's something deeper, too. The institutions whose loss or atrophy Gove laments, from small rural post offices to proud, self-regulating, independent professions were the achievement of centuries. The networks of civil society are too decayed, surely, to spring back to life were the dead hand of state control suddenly to be lifted. A more likely result would be anarchy. The people have been too long educated in habits of obedience, have been taught to look for advice and guidance to a benign state rather than thinking for themselves, have been, in a word, infantilised. But then all this was prophesied 150 years ago by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty; the anniversary falls next year, and I hope many will be moved to read, or re-read, that classic work. Here are some of Mill's concluding thoughts:

The mischief begins when the government, instead of calling foruth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising and, upon occasion, denouncing, its makes them work in fetters or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a state.. which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands, even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great things can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.


Anonymous said…
Excellent article.

Unfortunately you are probably right in that it is too late to do anything about it without massively painful re-adjustment. Even more unfortunately the consequences of not doing anything about it are even worse. Eventually the system will collapse, leaving us with some kind of totalitarian dystopia.
The tumour of the state must be cut out at some stage and the sooner it happens the less painful it will be. Any government committed to this course of action would need to move with great speed and determination, in the teeth of opposition from the elite.
I am more optimistic about the reaction of ordinary people, whom I think would welcome the destruction of their oppressors. For that is what they are. Enemies of the people.

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