Magazine article Soundings

The Broken Society versus the Social Recession: How Should We Approach the Social Problems of a Post-Crash Britain?

Magazine article Soundings

The Broken Society versus the Social Recession: How Should We Approach the Social Problems of a Post-Crash Britain?

Article excerpt

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Politics is about the defining of crises. If everything is just fine, people have no interest in changing anything, or in trying out something new and potentially risky. But if convinced that things somewhere are going very wrong people may become motivated to support or even become part of a movement that looks like it can make things right again. Nobody becomes an environmentalist thinking that all is well with the ecology of the planet; nobody becomes committed to feminism because they believe that women are not discriminated against on the basis of their sex.

For Margaret Thatcher, in 1979, the crisis was a moral collapse in the British spirit of self-reliance and self-control, the central symptoms of which were powerful trade unions and left-wing local councils; for Tony Blair in 1997 it was the failure of old-fashioned thinking to keep up with the new times of modernisation and globalisation, epitomised by out-of-touch public sector workers. In both cases the remedy followed from the naming of the crisis: smash trade unions and take powers from local authorities; marketise public services.

British politics today is a crisis without a name; or rather, a series of crises with a number of potential names. As John Clarke has argued, the competition to give it a name and thus create a 'ground on which to demand new ways of doing things' is intense. (1) Our crisis is, of course, in large measure economic. The collapse of the banking system has exposed poor management of national finances and, most significantly, the cracks in the real economy over which City-inspired debt had papered. But it is also a social crisis: a 2007 survey of 'social evils' by the Rowntree Foundation found that people today are increasingly anxious about both the very concrete manifestations of social decay, such as drugs and alcohol, crime and violence and family break-up, and the more abstract challenges, such as a decline in 'values', increased inequality and the absence of a sense of community. Such findings confirm a variety of claims about 'affluenza', increasing unhappiness, and the wider ramifications of inequality. Finally, the crisis is also political: the institutions of government in Westminster and Whitehall seem routinely to be found 'unfit for purpose', and their personnel, now publicly exposed as self-interested and self-serving, are untrusted and unsupported. A bet on the size of the majority of the next governing party may be a little risky; a bet on a further decline in voter turnout, and on an increase in votes for what used to be 'fringe' parties, is a sure thing.

Most current political rhetoric, propaganda and positioning (as well as more general political comment and chatter) is an effort to win the battle over the naming of these crises. One tactic is to try and elevate one above all the others: some Conservative politicians and journalists would like to make national debt the primary crisis, in order then to hold the Brown government directly responsible for it; Liberal Democrats and some on the left would like the political crisis to be seen as the most significant, the remedy being electoral reform, and maybe devolution of powers to localities (the latter a position with which some parts of the Conservative Party would also have sympathy); and there are also those who emphasise the social crisis: Compass has come a long way with the concept of the 'social recession', while many leading Conservatives have sought to describe our condition as that of a 'broken society'. (2)

In this battle the Labour Party is at a distinct disadvantage, not least for the simple reason that, having been in power for twelve years, it is hard to find a crisis in which it cannot be implicated. That is why it will concentrate its efforts on emphasising the possibility of a future crisis, if government is handed over to an untested set of inexperienced public schoolboys. Meanwhile, Cameron too has failed to articulate clearly a single name for the crisis. …

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