NOT the General Election: Privatisation

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Already bored with the election campaign? The NS and the Institute for Public Policy Research bring you something better: the debates that the politicians always fudge. This week --

Revive a public realm

The idea of a public realm is such a normal part of our world-view that it is only as it begins to be undermined that we realise how vital an area of our lives it represents. Yet compare our own complacency about this erosion with the excitement that permeated Europe in the late 18th century as old hierarchies and modes of thought were discarded, and a new public space was created that allowed genuine exchange about ideas. Thoughts and hopes that had hitherto been only private could now go public. The air was pregnant with a sense of political possibility, together with the knowledge that such enfranchisement would cascade through people's lives and inner imaginations.

This was the Enlightenment. It was about democracy and citizenship, certainly, but beneath these lay an enormous optimism that the suffocating social and psychological closure of feudalism was losing its grip, and that people must seize the moment to create not just an accountable political system, but a larger context that permitted each and every one their full individual expression. We are social beings, and we need a functioning and vital public realm to complete our capacity to be fully social -- otherwise we privatise conscience and social action in precisely the way our 18th-century forebears were so anxious to escape.

What has this to do with the general election in 2001? In my view, everything. If today's political class wishes for something better from the campaign than voter cynicism and falling turnout, then it should champion the public realm in all its dimensions, and not collude any longer in the corporatisation of British public life. This means once again opening up genuine political argument. Part of the job of politicians in a democracy is not just to win power; it is to ventilate argument, without which the public realm becomes degraded into an empty charade -- and from which we all recoil. That implies courage and conviction, but also a belief that there are open to us genuine choices, which the state can pursue even if business objects.

We must be able to do things that, yes, imply taxation and regulation and, yes, are done by the state alone and not in partnership with business. In short, we must start to reclaim the public realm from the notion that, because only business is efficient, no public action is possible unless performed wholly by, or in partnership with, large corporations.

Genuine liberty in a democracy is about universal enfranchisement in which every citizen knows that he or she can be part of a process that can make a difference -- even if it is a right that is sparingly exercised. Once you concede that a host of courses of action are ruled out because that might infringe the liberty of the rich or of business, then our enfranchisement is qualified and we become unimportant cogs in someone else's scheme of things -- the condition of the people in pre-Enlightenment Europe. So while efficiency is plainly important, our consciences and sense of citizenship are more important still. Nor do I accept, in the wake of the orgy of waste, duplication, avarice, miscalculation, fraud and hype that has crippled the world telecoms industry, for example, as a consequence of privatisation, deregulation and market forces, that definitions of business efficiency are so superior to anything provided or performed by the public sector.

The reinvention of the public realm, along with renewing faith in public action and the potential of public enterprise, has become one of the most pressing issues of the moment. Paradoxically, the Conservative Party recognises this in its anxiety to preserve the old institutions of the British state -- the public as the Tories knew and loved it -- and in its resistance to British integration into the European Union. …