Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
In ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman recently argued that conservatives should not and cannot neglect the state, not only as an instrument of policy but also as a central and vital institution that has helped British citizens understand and structure their lives.
It is part of Britain’s civic furniture, like it or not; citizens, civil society and the state constantly co-create each other in a delicate, theatrical, participatory and sometimes fractious, dance.
Parties that emphasise the antagonisms between them (rather than their symbioses) can seriously damage the citizen’s ability to understand and navigate his or her environment.
As Theresa May ponders strategy, Goodman’s piece is timely. More surprisingly, it neatly complements a drive from the centre left to develop its own means of influence in the context of a Corbyn-led Labour Party which seems intentionally or not to have given up its core historical mission of reform via Parliament.
The centre-left’s increasing frustration with Westminster has been evident for some time, perhaps most comprehensively in John Harris’s Anywhere But Westminster series of video reports for the Grauniad.
This has no doubt something to do with scepticism about whether even a non-Corbyn Labour Party has the capacity to win a large enough minority of votes to govern (recall the shock of the 2015 result), and with disillusion after its own unhappy experience of electoral hegemony under Blair. It is worth recalling that of Labour’s 18 leaders, only four won General Elections, and two of those are absolute pariahs (MacDonald and Blair) while a third (Wilson) has been airbrushed from the history books.
Proof enough that it is a party comfortable in opposition; unsurprising, then, that Conservatives have been responsible for many of the most important progressive reforms, as George Osborne pointed out in his Margaret Thatcher Lecture recently.
In this ‘anywhere but Westminster’ vein, the leftish think tank the New Economics Foundation is launching a campaign, on the back of some polling of the sentiment behind the Brexit vote, to explore ways to enable people to “take back control” from “the few people in power”, using tools “developed primarily with new institutions such as devolved government, city mayors and forward-looking businesses to trade union and community-led campaigns across the country”.
Let’s gloss over the small detail that with the Brexit vote, the British people in effect took power away from Brussels and repatriated it to Westminster (against the advice of many in Westminster), indicating that they are more comfortable with control centred in the British state than in the European Commission. Let’s also gallantly pretend not to notice that the devolution that has given Labour’s more practical politicians the opportunity to govern big cities is a Tory innovation.
Still, the NEF’s initiative is welcome for precisely the opposite reason to those mentioned in Goodman’s piece – Labour, in contrast to the Tories, has been in thrall to the state since Attlee’s postwar remodelling of our civic space (Attlee is the one Labour leader that today’s party has any time for, though he would feel like an alien in Corbyn’s outfit).
If the Tories need to make their peace with the state, Labour also needs to shift its position – away from starry-eyed adoration of and uncritical reliance on the state as a tool for reconstructing and dominating citizens’ lives in the name of some abstract and remote collective goal.
The small, even petty, functions of civil society have been a target for ‘progressive’ thinkers and actors since Rousseau and the French Revolution’s annihilation of local powers in the name of equality, justice and freedom. But the equality that results is a desiccated set of weak ties and a civic environment which, having no landmarks, is impossible to navigate. The state steps into the vacuum, as Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America:
“Thus the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.”
The Brexit vote, backed up by the NEF’s polling, was a vote to make Britain more navigable for its citizens, to reduce the distance between government and people, and to improve the feedback loops between them. The private and public institutions that make up civil society are an essential part of that story, though as Goodman rightly points out they cannot do everything.
If the Tories are prepared to revisit the wise deployment of state powers to enable communities to flourish independently, and if Labour’s exiled centrists are prepared to entertain the idea that some of their own progressive, reformist aims can be better achieved through cooperation rather than inhibition, repression, draining, and snuffing out, then it starts to look as if the British people have the tools to manage the uncertainties of Brexit, while the Corbynites play happily on their own in their corner, unheeded, unremarked and unnecessary.