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The absented centre: Middle England, the 'squeezed middle' and the Big Society

If the Big Society is in the middle of everything, where are state, the people and England? David Martin asks in this Friday Essay whether Britain can claim to have a centre any longer.
David Rickard
18 February 2011
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Ed Miliband famously squirmed when he was asked on Radio Four’s Today programme to define the ‘squeezed middle’. It is the stratum in society, implying if not limited to the middle class, that is supposedly being put under most pressure by the deficit-reduction and cuts agenda – losing jobs and child benefits, paying more in VAT, carrying the burden of increased tuition fees, having public services withdrawn, undergoing salary freezes, etc.

One of the reasons why Ed Miliband was unable to come up with a satisfactory definition of this rhetorical phrase is that the ‘working class’ – that social stratum from which Labour has traditionally derived its core support, and to which Miliband wishes to renew its appeal – will suffer from these things just as much as, if not more than, the ‘mainstream middle’ at which Gordon Brown pitched his election campaign.

If it isn’t just the ‘middle’ of society that will be severely affected by the cuts, could we say that it’s the ‘middle-to-poorest’ (the ‘centre’ to ‘left’) of society that will mostly suffer, to which stand opposed the ‘wealthy’ middle-to-upper (the centre-right)? In this new polarisation of society and politics, where is the centre ground to which everyone was supposed to be converging? Perhaps, as we stand poised before the Brave New World of AV, society and politics is once again dividing between left and right, and the middle is indeed being squeezed out.

And yet, against this backdrop of a society that seems increasingly without a middle or centre, the coalition government is seeking to bring about a Big Society, a project which involves “redistributing power from the state to society; from the centre to local communities” (Conservative Party 2010 election manifesto, p. 37). In other words, the Big Society places ‘society’ (back) at the centre of everything, replacing the ‘centre’ of society that was previously embodied by central and local government, and the institutions of the state. Society may, then, be without a middle and a centre, but this is in part because it has become the middle – the means – of everything: it has become the centre and so no longer needs another centre that is in some sense extraneous to itself.

So here’s a definition of the Big Society, which the said Conservative Party manifesto failed to offer, perhaps because if you define it, you delimit it and give it a centre: the Big Society is a vision of an English society ‘freed’ from the ‘intermediary’ institutions of the British state and the public sector to provide for its own needs from its own resources.

In other words, the Big Society involves stripping power and control over resources from state institutions that serve as the intermediary channel for delivering public and social services – whether these institutions are national and local government, public-sector bodies (such as the NHS and schools) or quangos – and handing that power back to the ‘society’ and ‘people’ themselves who are the beneficiaries of those services. Society is ‘disintermediated’, which means it has to find the means – indeed becomes the means – to provide for itself: to self-provide the services it needs.

I have felt necessary to state explicitly in the above definition that the Big Society is a vision for English society. This is not just because this is true – as a result of devolution, the UK government’s policies in areas such as communities, and public and social services, relate almost exclusively to England only – but because, otherwise, the debate becomes strangely abstract: referring to ‘society’ and ‘people’ almost as universals, removed from time and place. This is indeed how the debate is conducted. The Conservative manifesto did not mention ‘England’ once in the context of the Big Society; and in a speech on public-service reform two weeks ago, David Cameron failed to mention England a single time, whereas the reforms in question were practically all intended for England alone.

Indeed, the middle – the intermediary layer – that has been stripped out of the Big Society is not just government and the public sector, in the abstract, but (any concept of) English government and of a public sector owned and controlled by the English people, not just by ‘people’. The Big Society is ‘centred’ on England, it’s a vision for English society, and yet ‘England’ is strangely nowhere to be seen in the discourse that articulates the Big Society vision. In this way, England, too, is a / the centre that has been squeezed out by the Big Society: ‘Middle England’ no longer present in a social narrative set to be realised on England’s ground.

There’s another problem with the realisation of the vision and the structure of the Big Society narrative: while the Big Society is being proposed as one which takes care of itself without mediation from the centre, yet it is still being deprived of the means – the medium of its own money – with which to do so. The Big-Society transfer of power and control from the British centre to the [English] periphery ought logically to be accompanied by a massive reduction in taxes, enabling English people to redirect their financial resources to their individual and collective needs, and to provide necessary services for themselves. But this is not happening nor can it happen, so the narrative goes, because those tax revenues are needed to pay off the UK’s budget deficit. Hence, voluntarism and various forms of social enterprise are posited as stepping into the financial breach to provide the services from which the UK centre is withdrawing funding.

But whosoever controls the purse strings controls the agenda. The fact that central government needs to hold on to its tax take from England is not just a ‘happy coincidence’ that catalyses the Big Society on the basis that the withdrawal of government funding creates another ‘deficit’ that society itself has to supplement. Central government doesn’t just retain the coffers, it retains control. The Big Society has of necessity to be co-ordinated, directed and driven by the real power in the land (England): the UK government.

In a sense, decentralisation, indeed de-centre-isation, can only be driven from the centre and be a ‘top-down’ process: power is, notionally, handed down to the periphery and to the ‘bottom’ from the centre and the top. The opposite of that would be a ‘real’ revolution: the English periphery forcibly seizing power from an unwilling centre. Either that, or the UK government would have to totally abdicate its power over English society, letting [English] people decide entirely for themselves what sort of public-service provision and civic society they want and are prepared to fund.

Instead, it could be said that the UK government has abnegated its responsibility for England without abdicating its power over England: it’s exercising power without responsibility as far as England is concerned. This change is reflected, as observed above, in the discourse, in which ‘England’ cannot be acknowledged, because to do so would be an admission of responsibility for her. More specifically, in the Big Society, the centre dictates the parameters and structures through which [English] people are meant to assume responsibility for providing their own services and then take the blame if the wrong choices are made and things do not work out. So if England is without a centre, this is because the centre is outwith England: it has extricated itself from England and from open engagement in proper English governance, even while pulling the strings.

Accordingly, it is the UK government that decrees, top-down, that GPs should manage the English-NHS purse strings, even while insisting that this is a Big Society-style bottom-up reform, and even while those strings are being pulled ever more tightly from above. The actual service providers – GPs – will now be responsible for deciding how that money is spent and can be blamed if the services delivered are inadequate.

Similarly, it is the UK government that is driving through the implementation of more academies and ‘free’ schools in England only, and ensuring that higher education is anything but free for young English people; so that the schools themselves, not central government, will be accountable – literally – for the use of their squeezed budgets, and young people not government will take responsibility for their own further education.

And it is the UK government that is imposing cuts on local authorities and transferring to them the responsibility, and blame, for deciding where the axe is to fall – a buck which, as a recent post on Our Kingdom noted, many councils are themselves passing on to Big Society projects that have to bid for funding in the manner of a lottery. Well, in a sense, you can’t really blame local authorities for doing this: if even central government won’t take responsibility for the impact of its cuts on England, is it reasonable to expect local authorities to embrace the sword of Damocles that is being dangled from an increasingly unravelling central-government string above their heads?

This bad faith on the part of the UK government is not just a political convenience: the centre allowing the periphery to take the flack for cuts to and reorganisations of services for which the centre is actually responsible. This denial of responsibility for England is implicit within the very structure of the Big-Society remodelling of England: the centre withdrawing its ‘ownership’ of England (its responsibility for England, and the acknowledgement of that responsibility) as part of a literal transfer of the ‘ownership’ of England and English public services and assets to ‘society’ and, by definition, the private sector – public education provision increasingly supplied by privately owned free schools and academies; NHS foundation trusts competing against and for private ‘business’ in an increasingly ‘free’ health-care market; GP ‘consortia’ commissioning services, and purchasing drugs and equipment, in a competitive market involving the participation of increasingly powerful, large-scale private-sector providers; the patrimony of England’s woodlands being auctioned off to commercial businesses.

You can’t have ‘English’ public services and assets if you can’t acknowledge and value an England as such, and if you have no wish or sense of duty to maintain, build up and pass on to future generations an England with public institutions and services of which ‘the nation’ can be proud. If there is no England that can in this way be said to belong to the public, then it might just as well be sold to the market.

And a market is essentially what the Big Society is, or at least what it must become if it is to be anything in reality and not just a pipe dream. The reality is that where there are social needs for which the state is withdrawing provision, this creates a market: an opportunity for private businesses to step in and offer services that at least meet some of the needs previously served by the state, although the design and delivery of those services will inevitably be a compromise between the needs of ‘consumers’ (the market name for the ‘public’) and the requirement to make a profit, or at least cover investment and delivery costs in the case of social enterprises.

The Big Society vision, as opposed to the reality, glosses over the distinction between socially and commercially driven service provision: between services for which ‘people’ increasingly take responsibility and ownership, and which can be shaped around their needs, and services delivered and controlled by private businesses in response not so much to social need as market demand.

But need and demand are not the same, in either an economic sense or, more fundamentally perhaps, a symbolic sense. With respect to economics, the market can satisfy only those demands it identifies in its own terms, i.e. those for which there is a market and a potential profit to be made. But only society collectively – including but not exclusively via democratic government – can seek to establish what its real needs might be, and design not only services but re-design society itself (its values, priorities and systems), so that those needs can be more adequately – but never wholly adequately – addressed and alleviated.

In terms of symbolism, any student of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan will tell you that (the concept of) demand can never be adequated or reduced to (that of) need. Demand is what happens to need when need is articulated symbolically, i.e. in language. But the expectations of need fulfilled that language – the symbolic order – creates can never be satisfied completely in reality; and the space between symbolic expectation and reality is what we call desire or lack. According to this schema, then, the discourse that articulates the vision of a Big Society, in which the circle between demand and need is imagined as being squared, is a discourse driven by desire: a discourse driven, in other words, by wishful thinking.

It is this wishful thinking that says that the private sector will step in to supply the demand left unmet by the retreating public sector, and that this will somehow be adequate to meeting (English) ‘people’s’ real needs. And it is this wishful thinking that says that the private sector will somehow autonomously generate the jobs and growth that England and Britain need as jobs are cut in the public sector, and will do so presumably because there is a demand to be met.

This is wishful thinking not just in the economic and political sense that it may not be quite so easy in practice for the private sector to provide essential public services and create growth – and, indeed, that those two objectives may not always be easily reconciled. But it is wishful thinking, too, in its very structure and foundation in language: it articulates and mediates a fantasy of a replete society and economy, indeed an ultimately delusional vision of the convergence of society and economy, such that the economic organisation of society more efficiently delivers what society needs, and the ordering of society provides a demand-led foundation for economic growth: a market – supply and demand perfectly aligned with social need.

The Big Society, on this view, is the articulation of a desire for a fulfilled society where the gap and space of lack between demand and need is overcome. But, as such (as articulated in discourse), the Big Society is driven by that desire and by fantasy. What it lacks – and indeed, this is the very structural condition for its projection of a replete society – is a centring in flawed reality and in a collective understanding of England’s real needs. No wonder then that ‘England’ is the great lack and absence at the Big Society’s centre; and that the Big Society articulates itself in ideal, abstract terms beyond the realities of time and place.

The Big Society aspires – desires – to be something Other than merely England. But in the end, it must stand and fall by what it delivers for England in material reality, and the here and now. But will ‘England’ as such still exist or be recognised as an entity that could pass such a judgement on the Big Society? Will England ever have the means to decide for itself what it needs, and the means to address those needs it identifies? Will there ever be an English centre of governance and control over the public interest in England?

What indeed will remain of England once the Big Society has disintermediated it altogether from an economic and symbolic value chain controlled by the market, regulated from the British centre and driven by delusion?

David Rickard is a freelance researcher and writer, and is the author of the 'English-nationalist' blogs Britology Watch and National Conversation For England

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