The past two years or so has seen a growing sense of public disaffection and disillusionment with political, social and economic institutions in British society. The general erosion of trust and values in society has been highlighted by various crises in recent times, with the most spectacular of these being the public's loss of confidence in the banks as a result of the financial and economic crisis. The issue of bankers' bonuses has been the lightning rod for the expression of public anger; but the underlying causes are broader than that. The complacent assumption of the last two decades, that Britain would enjoy uninterrupted rising affluence, has been spectacularly debunked, and given rise to a deep uncertainty about Britain's economic future.
In a similar but potentially just as serious crisis is the institution regarded as the complement and counterweight to the market, namely the state. Despite cheers on the left heralding the return of the state when the government stepped into bail out the banks, it has not escaped public attention that the government's failure over time to do anything about the juggernaut of global finance was a major contributing factor to the recession. The parliamentary expenses scandal served merely to further entrench public distrust with politicians and to provide a concrete focus for a more diffuse sense of public disaffection with government and British democracy.
To complete the triadic tale of woe, there is a pervasive sense that society itself has experienced a moral decline. Even before the economic crisis there was a general sense that, despite the years of unprecedented affluence, much touted increases in public spending, and full employment, something has gone awry. A 2007 poll showed that 60 per cent of those polled thought Britain as a place to live was in decline, up 20 per cent from 1998. A year later that figure had gone up to 71 per cent (Page, 2009). It is now well established that people in Britain are less happy than they were fifty years ago, despite becoming three times richer as nation (BBC News, 2005).
It is no surprise that David Cameron's adroit use of the phrase 'Broken Britain' has struck a chord, and that it provides the emotional and political appeal for the 'Red Toryism' approach with which he is attempting to re-define the Conservatives. But the sense that something has gone badly wrong with Britain is not confined to the right. While some measures show that Labour's investment in public services has led to improvements, other indicators that go to the heart of New Labour's project make for grim reading.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation studies show that, despite active welfare policies, poverty has increased over the last five years. For pensioners, the working poor as well as the unemployed, things have worsened (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2009). Anti-social behaviour and crime continues to be a major preoccupation of the public, despite the massive increase in spending dedicated to tackling it. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened, not just in monetary but also in social and geographical terms (Dorling et al, 2007). More people are going on to university, but the proportion from low income groups is still disproportionately low (HEFCE, 2009). Already among the lowest among Western industrial societies, rates of social mobility in Britain are declining at a faster rate than the US, despite being the object of New Labour's progressive crusade (Machin and Bladen, 2007).
New Labour's failure to bring about a different kind of society from Thatcher's is now raising deep questions about the role of the state and its relationship to citizens and their lives. The failure to achieve its policy outcomes on the economic front needs to be seen as related to the phenomenon of values, moral decay and the wider aspects of well-being that have recently come to dominate the public agenda. The importance of public institutions and how they relate to citizen well-being needs to be brought to the fore.
Blaming big government
Though the story of New Labour's failures passes over many key improvements achieved in twelve and a half years of a Labour government, the failures are hard to gloss over. They reflect both the intractably complex and socially interrelated nature of many of the problems that policies have tried to address; as well as the neglect of less tangible but nevertheless critical aspects of citizens' needs and well-being such as the quality of their collective life as members of civil society.
The widely-perceived decline in values and behaviour has happened despite a concerted implementation of what could be said to be the most ambitious progressive agenda that Britain had seen for a while. The Conservatives have been quick to suggest that this is no coincidence. It is government itself, and in particular, the interventionist, Fabianist policies of re-distribution, that is at fault for Britain's moral and social decay. Despite its overt intentions to the contrary, big government has only served to undermine individual and social responsibility:
The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them. What is seen in principle as an act of social solidarity, has in practice led to the greatest atomisation of our society. The once natural bonds that existed between people--of duty and responsibility--have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state--regulation and bureaucracy. (Cameron, 2009) In identifying the size of government as the cause of our current malaise, Cameron's analysis is wilfully blind to the wider economic factors at work . Recognisable in Cameron's position is the long-standing thread of neo-liberal anti-statism, only this time cloaked in the language of enabling collective empowerment, rather than individual freedom. Indeed the failure of both parties to acknowledge the key causes of the problems they have identified highlights a real problem with British political culture today.
That the structure of advanced capitalism today disproportionately rewards those at the top, who are paid more, and taxed more lightly, is no longer disputable; nor is the fact that the increases in GDP...