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Blog: Britain has long been a statist society; can it cope without the strong state?

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  • Cities
  • Communities
  • Criminal justice
  • Institutional reform
  • Localism

Much of our time in the RSA is spent working with a variety of public services at local, regional and national level. A relentless experience has been the degree to which services feel a sense of helplessness amidst a series of changes. It is easy to simply put this at the door of austerity, and we should not duck the fact that austerity is making adaptation to external demands harder, but the challenges are broader and deeper than that.

The more we observe and engage- as with have with the Metropolitan Police and through our work in Wiltshire on ‘people-shaped localism’ and through deployment of ‘collective impact’ methods in Suffolk - the more it is becoming clear that the fundamental nature of the British state is changing. This has barely been acknowledged.

There are at least five drivers behind this change: economic, technological, cultural, institutional and ideological. Of course, these impacts are not independent of one another and in combination they are a powerful force. If you are leading a local authority, a health service of some description, an educational institution or a police service you are looking at the future with a sense of trepidation. And the same goes for those who rely on these services – i.e. us. It’s not clear whether the necessary institutional adaptation can be sufficiently rapid. There needs to be a collective acknowledgement of this challenge – it applies prisons as much as the police, education and health.

Britain has been characterised for at least two generations by a statist culture mixed with individualism. We have enjoyed the free market and the asset benefits it brings us (or at least those of us born before 1980) but we also tended to like a strong state in the fields of health, education, crime and justice, and defence. This was the big change brought about by Thatcherism following the collapse of a more collectivist individualism in the 1970s. But given that, once the NHS is taken into account, the UK state is now comparable with that of the US, there is a risk of retaining the statism with the state in absentia.  

Let’s compare this situation with somewhere such as the US. We are talking differences in degree here - for example, the US has an even greater statism in its law enforcement than the UK. But you see a much greater degree of civic individualism in the best US cities (but it is far from uniform). Take somewhere like Pittsburgh and you will see a civic energy, backed by philanthropy and activism around education, neighbourhood planning, and economic regeneration. Pittsburgh has made a transition from an industrial to a post-industrial city as consequence.

The UK has generally relied on the big state to address these issues rather than civic activism, resourcing and energy. In education, regeneration, economic planning and so on, the state that has tended step in to initiate change. However, this Government is radically changing this. It feels like a point of departure: it could go very badly wrong or very right. The reality may well be both.

Austerity is the economic driver of change. Technology interfaces with change by raising the possibility of new forms of finance (crowd-funding, social impact bonds, collective ownership) and new means of collaborating and organising around change. An exclusively state run model is under siege in every significant area of public service delivery. It’s easy to see this as simply privatisation or the state stepping back but it’s potentially more sophisticated than that. The more interesting models of change we are beginning to see seek to bring people more directly into planning or provision. This involves seeing patients as participants in healthcare, learners as self-directed agents in education, or residents as drivers of local change whether in community safety or regeneration. Technology creates a demanding culture as we expect instant response. That will begin to create new demands on representative institutions and services alike. Technology and culture entwine. The mantra ‘people just want good services not loads more choice’ will disintegrate before our eyes.

In parallel, the devolution agenda (including increasing local responsibility for raising finance) creates an institutional change that constitutes further disaggregation of the British state. There are two possible pathways: mini-states (municipal Whitehalls) or new forms of lateral governance. In the first model, Whitehall’s culture is replicated in Town Halls across the land. In the second model, services reconfigure around outcomes and the lines between different institutions, people and sectors begins to blur. The first pathway is the more likely initial response but, faced with limits to resourcing and the need to meet new expectations and demands for more flexible forms of provision, the need to actively engage with demand as opposed to just managing it will come to the fore. Ideology will drive this as much as pragmatism.

None of these changes will be uniform but a direction is becoming visible. The old balance of individualism and statism risks becoming simply a corrosive individualism unless we can innovate new collective responses. Essentially, the challenge for us is to marry a greater sense of civic activism with an individualistic culture. The latter is a given, the former is not.

Can we make the transition from statist individualism to civic individualism balanced by support from the state? It won’t be the American model that we see, which, at its very best, balances civic energy with city or local level co-ordination backed by local wealth creation. Instead, it might be something more British: state support, civic innovation, individual initiative. This is the peer-to-peer social justice approach I outlined in a long read last year. If we fail, we will be left with a weak state, a struggling society, and an angry individualism. There is no way back to the strong state of old: it’s too underfunded, undermined and unable to cope with increasingly complex demands. The cost of failure will be extremely high.  

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  • I thought this was really interesting.  


    My CIC, Your Back Yard, works to support community-led regeneration, and I am seeing very clearly the collapse of state-led mechanisms that provided a lot of the necessary conditions for community-led solutions to local issues to emerge.  By this I mean the loss of: community-facing officers who could work with local people to stimulate ideas, of ward-level budgets that could pump prime projects, of VCS infrastructure organisations that could help form people into structured organisations, etc.  As a result, the 'pipeline' of good, community-led projects is in danger of breaking.


    I have also seen places where the 'hollowing out' of the local state has created space for innovative, dynamic responses, like people taking on the running of local shops, pubs and post offices despite (or perhaps because of) declining public sector support.  But these are, I fear, often based on uniquely inspired individuals or groups, rather than being the norm. The transition away from state-sponsored support has more often been too rapid for local people and organisations to cope with, leaving a sense of a vacuum where there used to be the local state.  We (Your Back Yard) are trying to help fill that void in some places, but, as the late great David Bowie once said, it ain't easy.

  • I enjoyed reading this but wondered about the role of the global economy and its influence on local communities and their possibilities for change. Socioeconomic inequalities are increasing, transnational corporations are ever more powerful and there is pressure to leave some behind and many worse off relative to the very top. How can this not erode and undermine the spirit of civic activism? It would have to be seen as a constraint or pressure for social adaptation. Framing this in positive political terms could be tricky...

  • Anthony as a topic this could hardly be more topical. I'm especially interested in the actual outcomes of devolution across the UK as a counter to excessive centralised  'stateism' - as compared with the expectations and hopes 


    But first a qualification. I'm not comfortable with the generalised statement of 'Austerity is the economic driver of change.' It may well be a driver of some change in some situations. It can also, however, be inimical to change, or engender unproductive and regressive change. This is especially so where it was predicated on an arguable false basis, as in the UK at the macro economic level. 


    Enforced austerity and the funding and expenditure cuts in its wake can damage confidence, create anxieties and generally induce risk aversion and consolidation of the 'core known and existing'. Alongside this a malaise and lack of confidence may blight an entire organisation or agency. This is going in in many municipalities across the UK. 


    I recall an impressive paper published by Deloittes  in the immediate wake of the 2007/08 crisis. It pleaded for rational and smart cuts in public services if cuts were what was to be imposed. The risk Deloittes warned of was that crude cost-driven cuts would ultimately degrade the capacities and competences of the public sector: In the longer run, wider, and often unanticipated, socio-economic costs would be generated. Moreover, the degraded public services would be less able to design or deliver the necessary changes to respond  to these costs and problems in new, effective and productive ways.. That was what happened in the period of the Thatcher Administration (and lesser so in the lesser recession during the Major Administration). IME, the Deloittes pleadings were ignored and the 'crude cuts' mistakes have been made and continue to be made in the current UK scenario.

    On my main interest in devolution and the impact on statism I would make two points. First, in the case of the much vaunted 'Northern Power House. My impression is of a UK Treasury and Chancellor determined to impose a highly constrained model that will perpetuate, not dilute, centralised state control. I'd argue that this impression is supported with the, 'take it or lose the associated funding offer' that the UK Chancellor used to impose Mayoral elections on cities (in at least one on electorate that previously rejected them).  In addition, perhaps an isolated point, but I note from an newspaper article today that, '97% of top officials at 'northern powerhouse' department work in London.'  The portents are not good.

    My second point is what appear to many observers to be the outcomes in post devolution Scotland. There the Scottish Government (operated by the SNP) has been perceived as adopting continued and maybe increasing, centralisation actions over social and economic policies. In particula, the SNP imposed a freeze on local Council tax raising and accompanying 'compensation' funding that increased the Administration's central control. Many commentators will argue, moreover, that some of the other centralising drives have been underwhelming at best, if not partial failures (see colleges restructuring or the new single Police Scotland force).

    It's maybe noteworthy and telling that 'Austerity and the need for savings' forms much of the 'justification' from the Scottish Government for the centralisation measures.