Association: the answer to both Cameron's Big Society and New Labour's Big State

Modern democracy does require something more than a cynical set of operators negotiating with corporate power while misleading the voters and spinning the press. Associational democracy is a good place to start for any government casting about for an alternative. But first you must accept its diagnosis
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 January 2011


Paul Hirst's Associative Democracy prefigures many of the debates we are having today in British politics on the right as well as the left, when he argued so presciently that what was needed was ‘extending governance without big government’. We are still, in a way, catching up with Paul (about whom I published a personal memoir and a funeral address when he died in 2003). The heart of the book’s argument is a formidable, critical engagement with the tradition of social democracy in its Fabian and statist forms that reaches into the area that used to be called civil society and has now been branded as the ‘Big Society’, at least in Britain.

On the one hand, Paul saw that the nation state was a robust entity and that nations states would continue to be a force in global affairs, (hence his hard-nosed scepticism about ‘globalisation’ in his work with Grahame Thompson, vindicated today as the nations of the G20 fight it out). Paul’s critique of the cult of ‘globalisation’ had an important domestic dimension. It linked to his opposition to the way the public realm was being hollowed out by the global norms of corporate populism and marketisation. He understood that the nation state would remain a decisive force in global politics and he defended the nation’s state as the organising space for democracy.

But this space had in turn to be defended against the nation-state-centric welfare tradition of Labourism with its lack of democracy. Paul saw that the traditional political welfare state was losing both its legitimacy and effectiveness. Far from providing a bulwark against the negative effects of the market as it did originally, it was, thanks to its intrinsic weakness and inability to build on its mid-century gains, exposing the public realm to now much better organised corporate interests. Paul concluded that the corporate welfare state could not be rescued. Hence the central importance of ‘Associative Democracy’ for those from the democratic socialist tradition – both as an alternative strategy and as a form of public life.

A living legitimation

Other papers in this collection assess Paul’s overall theory. I reflect on why Paul’s approach to democracy matters in the present context of the new Coalition government between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. I won’t try and do so in terms of the legal structures or constitutional arguments, critically important though these are for democracy in the UK[i]. Instead I want to take up a theme that Paul was also acutely aware of: the lived nature of power structures and how this shapes and forms their legitimacy.

Paul wrote: 

“Montesquieu taught us that modern democracies have minimised the role of value commitments and of active citizenship necessary to their functioning. They have acquired neither the virtue of classical republics or the honour of aristocracies.”

But the British state was not - until recently that is - stripped of all such commitments. Perhaps because it never was a ‘modern democracy’. Instead, it forged a tradition of public value and public service. One that was a formative influence on Conservatism, especially its Whig tradition, and also on Labourism, especially its Fabian tradition.

We are all familiar with it: the particular gentlemanly culture of government developed amongst the wealth and inequality of Victorian Britain and across its Empire. It combined a unique variation of both the aristocratic honour Paul refers to and a Roman-style sense of virtue. The high mandarin, the judge, the general even, the leading politician, the local magistrate, the Christian conservative, the Toynbee Hall socialist, the trade union official, shared a code of proper behaviour. It was much stronger than a sense of ‘fairness’, today’s glib concept of fashion. In the City where a gentleman’s “word was his bond” it was highly efficient and made a great deal of money. For the educated classes there was a schooling in classics designed to inculcate ‘virtuous’ behaviour (Latin was the only required qualification for entry into Oxford and Cambridge until the mid-1960s). It generated a code for a governing elite that created a definite sense of ‘honour’. The term is still used in what now seems a hollow echo of this culture by members of parliament to describe each other in the House of Commons – if perhaps nowhere else and by no one else.

Top aristocrats, rolling in wealth and entitlement, were considered to be exempt from the expectations of the code - unless they entered public service or ran for office, which most did not. It was a code of government behaviour for the gentry and gentlemen. Brutally inculcated in public school and horrid for women, I’m not praising its nature or suggesting that it was not ‘honoured’ as much in the breach as in its performance. I am simply acknowledging the importance of its existence as a code of government. To use Paul’s words, “a set of value commitments necessary for the functioning” of an imperial polity that stretched much further than Britain, with an uncodified constitution that vested all power in the Sovereignty of Parliament.

These values were not seen as something to be shared equally by all members of the body politic, or as we might say with its ‘citizens’ - only that was not what they were called. On the contrary! They had no such entitlement. But they did have expectations. They respected the code. And for its part the code was designed to ensure their consent. Respect for public opinion whether or not people had the vote, and awareness of the strike power of an urban population that ceased to be loyal, was always part of British ruling culture. The people were the subjects of a governing class that ‘knew best’. But they were not its slaves – they too had to believe. The ‘set of value commitments’ that forged our peculiar regime ensured that Great Britain enjoyed “popular government” something that Henry Sumner Maine strongly emphasised was to be distinguished from democracy[ii].

“Why are they saying this?”

This culture and set of public values has gone. We retain an uncodified political framework but without the gentlemen who used to be in charge or a code of honour that checks those who enjoy its powers and authority. There is a set of reasons for this including membership of the EU, human rights laws, the rise and decomposition of political parties, the end of the Empire, the decomposition of the aristocracy. One important one is the development of a populist media that denigrates politicians. What officials say and how they explain their policies is treated as less important (or perhaps to be fair often as no more important than) than what their brother feels or their wife wears. Everything is personalised to make it more ‘relevant’ and policy is not examined as this is regarded as ‘boring’.

Politicians are aware that this creates a problem of authority for them, as their legitimacy slips away. And they often try to overcome it. So I want to do something that might seem surprising, even perverse: I want to admit to reading their speeches and asking “what are they saying” and “why are they saying this?”

I am not advocating that we must take their ideas seriously as arguments rooted in intellectual integrity. I am saying we need to see their arguments as considered political actions, which they wish to communicate despite the media (inspired here by Quentin Skinner). We need to get to grips with how they are dealing with a double problem: the growing crisis of the legitimacy that came to a head in the MPs expenses scandal of 2009 and the absence of governing values that restrain power and satisfy citizens which helped to permit this. For ‘democracy’ or not, British politics and public life is now entering the void that Paul describes – a polity with neither honour nor virtue.

As he prepared to become Prime Minister Gordon Brown looked to ‘Britishness’ as a solution. He was uncomfortable with the UK’s traditional defining institutions, from the monarchy and the army through Oxbridge and the countryside to Parliament itself. He sought instead a ‘Britishness’ that stretched from citizenship ceremonies to a written constitution he imagined would be written by himself based on ‘values’ that would reduce Scotland to a mere state within a little America. He imagined a United States of Britain capable of mobilising civic enterprise like its brother across the pond, with Brown himself as the ‘father of the nation’. Well, that pack of cards turned to dust and now it is Cameron’s turn. 

David Cameron’s case for the ‘Big Society’ suggests that he wants it to fill the vacuum of governing values through a kind of organic citizenship mobilisation without any constitution at all. Doing so by orchestrating a popular replacement of the state (note the continuing absence of formal democracy). Here are some extracts from his speech of 6 October to the 2010 Conservative Party Conference:

But citizenship isn’t a transaction – in which you put your taxes in and get your services out.

It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than you, and it matters what you think and feel and do.

So to get out of the mess we’re in, changing the government is not enough.

We need to change the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society.

Your country needs you.

“Your country needs you” was Kitchener’s phrase − the slogan that created our largest volunteer army sent to the trenches… not a good omen perhaps.

Later the Prime Minister continues:

Statism lost ... society won.

That’s what happened at the last election and that’s the change we’re leading.

From state power to people power.

From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose.

From big government to the big society.

The big society is not about creating cover for cuts.

I was going on about it years before the cuts.

It’s not government abdicating its role, it is government changing its role.

It’s about government helping to build a nation of doers and go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better.


What is he talking about, what is he trying to do? When it comes to fairness Cameron argues, 

Fairness means giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave.

If you really cannot work, we’ll look after you.

But if you can work, but refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.

OK, let’s stop here. The proposal is that fairness is about what people do not what they are. The wealthy do not have an obligation to the poor as such but only a) to the poor who behave well and try to improve themselves, or b) who are utterly incapacitated. Obligation entails an expectation of reciprocal action. Cameron puts it clearly even if it is not original. In effect, however, it is being presented as an ethical code.

However, this means it has to be universal, the same principles have to apply to everyone. But is the same code addressed to the wealthy? Imagine if at his next Mansion House speech the Prime Minister addressed London’s bankers and financiers now that they are significant recipients of state welfare and warned them, “Fairness means giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave”. Suppose he told them also, “That’s the change we’re leading – from state power to people power – from unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose, from big government to the big society.” And in case the bankers didn’t realise that he meant it: “From top down to bottom up, from state power to people power – the Big Society spirit blasting through”.

This is quite threatening language. The bankers would be checking their wallets or using their smart phones to move money out the country. But then the Prime Minister adds, “But the Big Society needs you to give it life” at which the bankers and financiers can lean back and smile – its voluntary!

Radical improvement – a fuite en avant

I am not the only person who senses that something funny is going on here that is not a joke.

I am trying to look at what is going on, what the Coalition is doing and what their strategy is for ensuring they have the moral assent of the public to the legitimacy at least of what they are doing, even if they disagree with it.

There are at least two things to observe about Cameron’s pitch. First, the language is odd. I haven’t seen anything written about it yet: the rhetoric of the Coalition. It is not just him. Cameron has talked about an “emancipation” and “liberation” from the state. Nick Clegg has talked about a political revolution, putting power in the hands of people. Prince Charles recently also declared that he was a revolutionary. So we have a political leadership on the right − conservative, liberal democrat, and royal family − all using language about themselves that echoes the late 1960s.

Yet it is self-evident that they are seeking to preserve privilege and power. I suggest that they are looking into the void Paul Hirst identified: that they feel the loss of legitimacy; that their expectations of their ability to get away with it have been truly shaken; that they have concluded that unless they can present themselves as representing ‘radical’ change disaffection will sweep them away. They are substituting fuite en avant for ethics in an attempt to assure consent for themselves.

To put it another way, they know perhaps better than anyone, that if they tried to stand and conserve things as they are, they would be open to the charge that they are hollow, empty, morally worthless and stand for nothing. Their response has to be therefore to change things! They must ‘stand for radical improvement’. This is the only way in which they can evade responsibility for things as they actually are….

Not that popular contempt for government is specific to the UK. But whatever the wider crisis of western democracies each country will experience it in ways made particular by its own institutions.

And of course there have been previous attempts to set out a new direction with a grand phrase that turns out not to mean very much. The last one was Blair’s proposed ‘Third Way’. This spun a term of Clinton’s into an apparently strategic concept around which there were even global gatherings of progressive leaders designed to breath life and inspiration into it through a chain reaction triggered by their concentrated charisma.

At home it never moved people. I think that everyone except Tony Giddens sensed it was a gimmick. As I have suggested elsewhere the most important term in the concept of ‘The Third Way was the word ‘The’.

It is hardly original to realise that any significant strategy for the left has to lie between complete state power and the complete supremacy of the market – between dictatorship and market fundamentalism. Indeed there is a wide ocean between this Scylla and Charybdis which can be crossed by many different routes. The ridiculous audacity implicit in the notion of ‘The Third Way’ is that there is only one third way.

The leader knows

But what on earth or ocean could this be? The answer has to be that the leader knows. He who identified its existence sets its path. Or to put it in somewhat duller language, the Third Way was a positional attempt to turn Blair into an ideological figure equal to Gordon Brown in his grasp of the imperatives of globalisation and then a world leader. Giddens’s book may have sold 80,000 copies in South Korea but the public here rightly felt it was an attempt to pull a synthetic substitute - that wasn’t even wool - over their eyes.

The Big Society has not yet had any such international accolade, which is a relief. But there is greater interest at home. It touches something that many would like to make real, a promise perhaps of some autonomy for civil society. Certainly it seems more like a genuine proposal that we do something for ourselves than the stifling, over-centralised conceptualisation of Blairite thought control that was ‘The Third Way’.

But does the Big Society rhetoric have traction? Among the famously loyal ranks of the Conservative Party I’m told that it is referred to as BS – an acronym for something else, and I don’t mean Basic Skills. However, it’s too early to say what, if anything, ‘the BS’ will deliver. Even if it completely fails as a mechanism for a real transfer of power on the lines of Cameron’s rhetoric, it reaches out to an enormous desire to participate. One which New Labour distrusted and which Old Labour felt to be dangerous.

It is also an attempt to recruit (remember Kitchener’s call) and mobilise the longing many have to roll up their sleeves and do something about a tangible problem they witness and could help redress. When Cameron insists, “People say it’s just a cover for cuts. This isn’t true at all. I thought of it years before the financial crisis” he is saying it was developed as a response to New Labour during the boom. Then, it was a strategy for making the Conservatives electable and re-electable as a party by reconfiguring plentiful public resources while making a saving at the same time. The problem with this approach now is the financial crisis. The Big Society is a provocation to participate actively but the political message of the cuts is one of fatalism and endurance.

The Big Society suggests a way of enabling a shared cross-class engagement, a non-transactional one-nation Toryism for citizens. This appeal might have made sense as the start of a new social ethics of government and citizenship to combat the void Paul identified.  But it presumed there was money and growth in a very rich but profoundly unequal society.

Today, however, Cameronian conservatism has another and clashing ethics, one of cuts and belt-tightening and buckling down and sharing the pain. The first is a ‘narrative’ about a new ‘Big’ society that appeals to new forms of participation while tracing its antecedents back to Burke’s “little platoons”. The second ‘narrative’ appeals to the defensive public fortitude for accepting pain. Cameron is trying to ‘do’ two different things.

Here is another way of seeing this. Already, a major argument over who is to blame for the financial crisis has started. The Tories seek to pin it on Labour. Labour may be able to pin it on the bankers. The bankers are closer in all respects to the Conservative Party. If the public perceive the Tories as losing this argument then the bushy-tailed advocates of the ‘Big Society’ will find themselves seen as the monstrous siblings of the ‘Big Bonuses’. The Coalition would then suffer a contradiction in the full sense of the word, a rent within their own image and projection of what they are, rooted in an economic breakdown as well as a crisis of the legitimacy of the regime.

To their credit, the Conservative Party has the energy, wit and intelligence to attempt to deal with the latter in a creative way: the formation of the Coalition is itself part of this. Just as Thatcher invented herself as she went along and in doing so set out a determined new direction, leaving Labour gasping as the old-fashioned truly conservative party, so, for a second time in thirty years, it is the Conservative Party that is ‘breaking the mould’. Indeed, part of the explanation for its weird rhetoric is that it now seems to believe that to be Tory is to be radical.

But whereas the radical marketisation of Thatcherism sought to dissolve the bonds of the welfare state through steps like the right to buy council houses, it was also funded by the black gold of North Sea Oil and by its assault on the vested interests of the old city and its culture of gentlemanly capitalism. It opened up London to become an epicentre for the long boom. ‘Thatcherism’ from Margaret to Tony undid the old regime’s elitist culture and undermined its Reithian self-confidence. It didn’t need a substitute framework of value commitments or an ethic of non-transactional citizen bonds, in the way that a bubble does not need society.

Will Labour have the courage to set out an alternative or will it fall back on the comfortable, traditional tribal radicalism of anti-Toryism, betting that no recovery is possible in five years, after the train wreck?

This is where I think we need to look away from the economic crisis (which may indeed pass into a recovery driven by the developing world doubtless helped by its need for a bolt-hole in London) to the domestic democratic culture that the Big Society seeks to address.

In a striking, OurKingdom post Big Society Dilemmas: a challenge for Tories as well as Labour, Michael Kenny contrasts the Cameron notion of Big Society with Michael Oakeshott’s proposition that England has two embedded traditions of civic associations and enterprise associations . The former are intrinsic, the latter instrumental. The former involve non-market, mutual support: the latter a definite campaigning or business objective. The problem Kenny spots is that Cameron is seeking to draw on the spirit of the former to drive the demands of the latter as they come down to us in the form of state or local government needs.

This is a very helpful way of seeing how the Big Society contrasts with Associational Democracy. First, the powers that the people - as opposed to the state - are supposed to gain need to be their by right under the constitution in an associative democracy, and not an expectation devolved upon them by the central administration that might be taken away at any time. Second and just as, if not more, important, the local and citizen associations must be obliged to exercise their own internal democracy. Paul argued that fluffy notions of community when this term has ceased to be a description of an association of fate, or heady notions of a network that is all too likely to be evanescent, in fact lend themselves to the arbitrary, exclusive and unjust (not to speak of incompetent). The role of the state has to be to ensure that there are rules and regulations to ensure that associations are open and accountable. They need to embody an ethic of citizenship and self-government that will deliver services controlled by users for mutual objectives in a rule-based fashion. In this way we can go about  ‘extending governance without big government’.

As I referred to Henry Sumner Maine, we might see this as a transition from a democracy of status and representation to one of contract and association. (I would like to see deliberation added as well, but that is a further discussion.)

Hollow chambers

The language of parliament now seems hollow - as empty as the Chamber itself most of the time, with just a smattering of MPs even when Ian Duncan Smith proposes his historic welfare reforms. Up to the 1960s there was a sense that we were governed by an honourable political class. It might have been incompetent, but it was honest. There were dishonourable people among them, but they were ‘bad apples’.

The political class is no longer seen in this way by the public or media. The participation of citizens in its routines is diminishing. Modern democracy may not require a thick script of political manners, in the way that many previous political systems have, but it does require something more than a cynical set of operators negotiating with corporate power while misleading the voters and spinning the press. So our Coalition rulers are looking for a language and, well, something that isn’t ‘BS’. They need a relationship that isn’t merely cynical. The Big Society will probably not achieve this, but if it doesn’t, what alternative set of ideas, language, concepts and virtues should their opponents consider? Associational democracy is a good place to start, but, and this point can’t be made strongly enough, before its solution can be considered, its diagnosis of the problem has to be accepted. It is not available as a graft onto the Sovereignty of Parliament or the Labour Movement in their Mandarin and Fabian forms. It is an alternative to them.

[i] See my LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper, working paper 5,

[ii] Henry Sumner Maine, Popular Government, 1885, republished by the Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1976.

This article is part of the openDemocracy series 'Associative Democracy Revisited'. The series follows a debate held in October 2010 around Paul Hirst’s views on associative democracy and their current relevance, with a particular focus on Hirst’s book Associative Democracy (1994). The results of the debate are summarized in the e-book, Revisiting Associative Democracy. Read the book as a PDF, here. See page 24 for the above article as originally published.  


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