Only connect

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  • Cities
  • Communities
  • Devolution

I first realised the depths of the metropolitan snobbery that blinded the UK when I was making a short film for Granada about what we called at the time ‘the dirtiest city in Britain’.

I won’t reveal which it was. It got me into the most fearful trouble when the film came out, fronted by Roger Daltrey of all people, in 1989. But it required that I should get the data on all kinds of air and water pollution for the UK’s cities.

These were available for cities all over Europe, but in the UK – with the sole exception of smoke and sulphur dioxide (thanks to smoke control legislation) – they were only available for London.

The great northern, industrial cities, were not considered important enough for pollution data.

For that reason, if no other, I think of the year that the Berlin Wall came down as the high point of UK centralisation – when successive London governments could take their economic wheezes and just test them on the Scots.

That year also marked the end of a decade of de-industrialisation, when the creaking, unmodernised factories of northern England began to close. This is usually blamed by the Left on the Thatcher government, but could equally be laid at the door of North Sea Oil. Once the oil began to flow, the pound rose in value and our manufactured goods became uneconomic for export.

One of the nightmares of Brexit may be that this was just a first wave of deindustrialisation, and that a second wave – as carmakers and other modern manufacturers row back on their UK investments and rebuild in the EU – may now be on the way.

That is a nightmare for the same reason it was the first time. It means we will have to rethink our economy far faster than these things usually happen.

It means we will, once again, face mass unemployment, as a workforce educated for mass employment is precipitated into a new world where they are expected to be entrepreneurial.

Where we have one advantage over the previous wave of deindustrialisation is that there is at least a glimmer of hope that our cities, the children of industrialisation, will be set free from the straitjacket of metropolitan snobbery of a quarter of  century ago.

They will be able to innovate, to test out new economic solutions, and to reap the rewards through business rates.

There are risks to this. The new government may, in a moment of muddle and confusion (could such a thing be possible?) claw back powers and responsibility to the centre.

The cities also live with a major disadvantage. Their main tax base is based on property and the vast bulk of property values are in London and the south east. Their flexibility will have to extend to shifting to new ways of raising revenue.

And there is a third risk as well. That they will not see clearly enough that a devolved nation means that – if they fail to spread the fruits of economic success – they will end up spending those fruits on welfare.

Trickle down may not work in the real world as it is intended. But it is a positive danger in a devolved world, where the failure to connect economic success with the whole city will impact directly on the public services bill.

The danger is, of course that the cities will be so stuck in the old assumptions of centralised economics that they either won’t see this, or they won’t know what to do about it. There have been successes, after all, from Action for Cities in 1987 through to City Deals, but the central problem of connectivity has not yet been solved.

That is the reason why the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission has been launched, ahead of a field of other economic justice inquiries (IPPR, Respublica) – to provide devolved cities and towns with the techniques they will need to take some responsibility for their own prosperity.

But, as Charlotte Alldritt argued last week, there is a new urgency after Brexit. Not just because of the economic dangers – but because of the fissures revealed across the nation, between the dwindling number of haves and those who are struggling with businesses, rents, mortgages and have yet to benefit from the success they see in the city centres.

This question of these missing connections between inner and outer is assuming a new importance, and it is about more than just transport links. The underground speeds people in and out of some of the most impoverished London boroughs, but they still lack those all-important economic links.

Cities are beginning to experiment – Birmingham with the social economy, Preston with their pension fund money, and there are more entrepreneurial experiments with new kinds of business support (Totnes), or new kinds of local energy generation (Wadebridge) or new kinds of local food business (Manchester).

But this is like looking at the industrial revolution that lay ahead only months after James Watt boiled his first kettle. We can see the future only through a glass darkly.

When E. M. Forster coined the phrase “only connect” in Howard’s End, he meant human connections. These are important too, and underpin the economic connections which are going to be so vital. But it is the whole range of possible interconnections, woven together, which are increasingly the focus of the commission.

David Boyle is a Research Associate for the Inclusive Growth Commission. You can find him on Twitter @DavidBoyle1958.

Find out more about the RSA's work on inclusive growth.

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  • Post Brexit, I've been thinking along the lines of values and rightly or wrongly have come to the conclusion that Brexit values aligned with a more communitarian outlook whereas Bremain values aligned wih a more liberal outlook. This points to the dynamic between communitarianism and liberalism with the former evoking a need for commnity continuity and stability and the latter evoking a need for community change and growth.

    However, the trouble with liberalism and its need for change and growth is that it is inherently ecologically and socially destructive which is a good thing if change and growth is required but also a bad thing since it is inherently unsustainable. Liberalism, whether social and economic, is fundamentally unsustainable since if all living things had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then we would all starve or else be immobilised by moral constraint. This points to the fact that the sustainability of life is underpinned by life/death relationships but if not properly managed, these life/death relationships will inherently lead to unmanaged competition even if under the liberal framework of individual rights-based entitlements. This is why economic liberalism inherently leads to uncontrolled competition and the formation of monopolies of power and why social liberalism or individualism hollows out communities and leads to atomisation, alienation, identity politics and consumerism.

    In this respect liberalism as a social policy tool has been a good thing in terms of deconstructing traditional communities based on entrenched patterns of patriarchy, gender inequality and class inequality but this creative destruction now needs to be rolled back in order to allow communities to recoalesce on the basis of virtue-based value systems and in particular, ones I argue that are designed to create a sustainable future that is built on a platform of community democracy and community resilience.

    This I think is the true nature of the communitarian backlash against the eu and the globalised liberalism that it supports. Unmanaged liberalism is inherently unsustainable and destructive and whilst it is a useful ideology to deconstruct and reform communities as a social change tool, at some point it is necessary to withdraw the use of this tool in order to allow communities to reformulate around different principles. Quite ironically, with regards the eu debate, the communitarians (brexiters) were using liberalism to support their communitarian arguments whilst liberals (bremainers) were using communitarianism to support their liberal arguments.

    This highlights that liberalism functions as part of a dynamic with communitarianism with the former being used to evoke change and growth wheras the latter is used to evoke continuity and stability. As such, yes the competition of liberalism is as important as the cooperation of communitarianism but each needs to be recognised for the benefits and losses they bring in order to manage social change and social continuity. In this respect, progress for its own sake and the constant social change that liberalism through individualism and self-interest brings in the form of atomized competition is damaging and unsustainable if it is not consented to by all segments of society. In effect, by trying to bring half of a society unwillingly into the liberal mold whether through eu membership or through centralised government imposition is not only undemocratic but also disrespectful of others that might wish for continuity and stability in order to build up community values through decentralised democracy and resilience. Liberalism does not allow for this regrounding of community rights because it relies upon competition or creative destruction in order to constantly change and grow society or in international order terms, it requires a willingness to cooperate in order to compete to evoke constant change and growth on a global level.

    In conclusion, without recognising that liberalism is paired with communitarianism and that the two need to be applied to varying degrees according to consensus then we are not only damaging our ecological and social relations through imposed competition, which arises because liberalism is unable to reconcile the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when expanded to all living life-forms, but we are also damaging our relation with our self since this competitive outlook is internalised to form a divided antagonistic self. So whilst liberalism is an important socio-economic policy tool to enforce change and growth through negative rights, the inherently competitive and unsustainable effects of liberalism needs to be recognised as such and so it needs to be recognised that liberalism has as its opposite a communitarian perspective that enforces continuity and stability through positive rights and so allows communities to cooperate on a platform of democracy and resilience to formulate their own identities and values. However, if over time this continuity and stability creates entrenched inequalities, then liberalism again becomes useful to creatively destroy these entrenched inequalities. As such liberalism and its inherently competitve outcomes and communitarianism with its inherently cooperative outcomes are social policy tools which can be applied to varying degrees to create a managed dynamic between change and continuity in that if continuity (and sustainability) is required then communitarianism needs to come to the fore whereas if change (and unsustainability) is required then liberalism needs to come to the fore. At present I would argue that communitatrianism needs to come to the fore in order to ingrain communities with a sustainable development ethic based on stability which I argue would be best achieved by creating a global cooperative network of decentralised democratic communities which is underpinned by an ethos of decentralised community resilience.

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