After the deluge: the meaning of ‘the public’ and the power of self-determination

The recent Compass initiative on the lack of responsibility of Britain's elites is timely, but we need to have a much wider and more ambitious debate about the meaning of the public. Part of the answer can be found in developing the idea of self-determination -- something already under way in Scotland.
Gerry Hassan
7 August 2011

There is a fundamental crisis of public life and ethics in Britain: of the standards of public institutions in politics, business and much of the media, which throws up huge questions about the purpose of politics and democracy. This is not a series of episodic crises, but systemic, deep rooted and long term.

Our mainstream politics and politicians seem to be beyond understanding this. Thankfully away from this narrow, cloistered world, numerous writers, groups and initiatives are exploring ways of addressing these challenges.

Charles Moore, arch-Thatcherite and official biographer of the great lady has written a fascinating piece, ‘I’m starting to think the Left might actually be right’ examining the over-reach of the corporate dogmas of the last 30 years. This period has seen, he argues, the noble concepts of liberty, freedom and emancipation being hijacked by the market.

The centre-left Compass in association with the new economics foundation (nef)  this week launched an initiative, ‘In the Public Interest’ which calls for a People’s Jury to challenge what it calls ‘Britain’s feral elites’. They cite the crises of banking, political expenses and media phone hacking as symptomatic of a breakdown of responsibility by those with power and privilege.

They propose a 1,000 member citizens’ jury with a paid secretariat which will commission research and call witnesses. It would examine five main areas of public life: media ownership, the financial sector’s role in the crash, MP accountability, policing and the public interest, and how we can apply a ‘public interest first’ test to political and corporate life.

Now Compass should be lauded on many levels for the work they have done over the last few years. They have provided one of the few bright spots in the mainstream left challenging the group think and capture of neo-liberalism. The work of nef can be seen in even more positive terms in trying to map out the beginnings of a counter-narrative and alternative to the marketeers.

Commenting on this intervention, Neal Lawson, chair of Compass writing with Dan Leighton in ourKingdom in response to Anthony Barnett, focused on the importance of the ‘public interest test’ as the central part of the process and challenging corporate power.

They argue that because in 2002 New Labour scrapped a ‘public interest test’ in corporate mergers and replaced it with a competitiveness test that this is the crucial means of challenging increased concentrations of power in public life.

Lawson and Leighton, write that the ‘public interest test’ is ‘a term economists and policy makers cant live with’ but ‘it is a term society can’t live without’. They then lay into ‘objective technocratic tests’, not realising that they are advancing one as the panacea to our problems. This isn’t the solution, but part of the shrinkage and retreat of progressive politics.

This new campaign has brought forth support from the liberal minded intelligentsia and such well-known names as Polly Toynbee, Helena Kennedy and Greg Dyke. But it also brought criticism from some voices who would normally be supportive.

Peter Wilby writing in this week’s New Statesman commented on the shere belief in the power of reasonableness behind the proposal:

It is a very British notion that anything can be achieved by setting up a super-sized committee under benign liberal supervision.

He also makes the astute observation given the crisis of British politics of the absence of any right-wing voices. Figures such as Charles Moore and Ferdinand Mount would surely be sympathetic if they had been approached and invited.

Anthony Barnett on Our Kingdom has noted that citizens’ juries and deliberative assemblies can be creative and enlightening, yet this campaign feels narrow, controlled and top down. ‘What seems wrong is the way its agenda has been set in advance’ he writes. What will happen if people have a wider set of concerns about public life Barnett asks ‘rather than the elite’s disregard of the public interest test?’

Even more crucial than this are the issues missing from the Compass-nef initiative and its five main areas. No acknowledgement of the importance of liberty, the over-reach of the state in surveillance and ‘the war on terror’, the national questions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the emerging English dimension, and the European crisis.

This endeavour comes with the best intentions from the narrow spectrum of progressive thought which believes fine-tuning the British state via edicts, legislation and control can change behaviour and bring forth happiness.

It is one view of the world to which fortunately there is an alternative even in centre-left circles posed by the work of London Citizens who now draw together an impressive array of people and local groups. Such community led initiatives stress the importance of people taking power themselves, the issue of voice, and making a space between the state and corporate power.

The Compass-nef initiative and London Citizens are both attempts to address the hollowing out and narrowing of debate, choices and possibilities in our public life.

They both ask important questions about the nature of politics, society and even more change. What does political and social change look like today? Who in an age of insecurity and inequality are the actors and agents of change? And what kind of philosophies and values are behind ideas which want to do beyond the old left and dogmatic right?

Pivotal to this is taking back the concepts of liberty, freedom and emancipation from the free market fundamentalists. And this implies that people have to somehow begin to find the confidence to create their own collective future different from the pre-ordained certainties of the globalisers.

Such a debate about ideas of political and social change barely exists in Scotland. In the last few years we have had vague platitudes off the political agenda for a ‘second Enlightenment’, the need for a ‘Tipping Point’ citing Malcolm Gladwell’s entertaining, lightweight book, and the technocratic waffle of people like NESTA on personalisation and co-production a decade after they caught the excitement of policy wonks. All of these have been supposedly benevolent and coming from and focused on elites.

Scottish public life is shaped by a battered, but still standing social democracy and a Scottish nationalism unsure about what its project says about the kind of society it would like to advance.

Scotland’s politicians and public life are still fundamentally unsure of what kind of political and social change it wants. They face a choice between whether change comes from institutional Scotland or by building popular alliances from below.

The traditional Scots approach, whether it be Labour, Tories or SNP so far, has been to cosy up to institutional elites and hope and believe that this will bring the people with them. It has worked historically, but produces a closed, complacent, undynamic Scotland, and the world of authority and deference is slowly coming to an end here as elsewhere.

There is significant room for an approach which challenges the elites in Scottish public life, in our public sector and life, in business and elsewhere, and instead looks at how people can take charge of their lives.

Such a choice between an institutional and a people’s Scotland will have huge consequences for the kind of nation we are and future we embrace. But to begin to make an informed choice, we have to bring to the fore the kind of debates going on down south about the nature of change. Do we want to leave Scotland in the control of politicians or ask the wider questions which London Citizens and others ask?

This brings us to the philosophy and practice of change. The Scottish experience of creating a different political space, culture and community has been informed by the notion of self-government: the idea of political change and politicians bringing about change. Where the next stage of the Scottish journey needs to go as I have argued here and elsewhere is the terrain of self-determination – which has a wider relevance for the British left and politics.

The notion of self-determination isn’t just about constitutional politics or the state, but how we develop different ideas of autonomy, organisation and politics from the individual to the collective. It is about embracing a vision of the future which draws on some of the most creative traditions in the left’s past, which addresses concentrations of power and status whether they sit in the corporate world or public sector, and the increasing expectations of people to have choice, voice and make decisions about their own lives.

Such a politics has huge potential north of the border of addressing the radical impulses of Scottish nationalism, and in so doing contributing towards the debate about what comes after the debris and destruction of neo-liberalism. This cannot be a return to old left certainties or wallowing in perfecting policy wonk solutions. Instead, as the world wobbles on the precipice of a huge economic and global crisis, this is a time for radicalism, imagination and taking back the idea of creating a different future.

Gerry Hassan is co-editor of ‘Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination’ published in March 2011 and now in its third edition and co-editor of ‘ImagiNation: Stories of Scotland’s Future’ published next week.

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