Before it was blown off course last autumn, the Brown government seemed to want to start a new public conversation about the British state and its role in obstructing, or supporting, the aspirations and collective goals of a diverse, dynamic, but still too divided society (1).
The social-democratic rationale for such a conversation is clear--as Cameron and Clegg converge on an anti-statist 'pro-social' agenda, the government knows it needs to make a different kind of argument for a different kind of active, democratic, enabling state that can empower individuals, grow social capital, and promote a common good (see also Rogers and Muir, 2007). The evidence is on its side (see Paul Skidmore in these pages on the findings of the Everyday Democracy Index, or Theda Skocpol's historical argument for the productive interaction of national representative politics with grassroots civic activism in the USA (2000)). But the perceptions and emotions of the British voters (and, increasingly, abstainers) are not. The state is felt as alien, imposing, procedurally opaque, unable to deliver.
Perhaps the most creditable aspect of the original New Labour project was its (accidental?) marriage of a modest rehabilitation of social regulation, redistribution and investment with a partial, but not insignificant, package of constitutional reforms. But if Labour itself rarely made the link, relating each plank to distinct constituencies of supporters, it isn't surprising that the public didn't. And the inadequacy of these measures to the scale and recalcitrance of the pathologies they claimed to address--the stubborn centralism and elitism of our governing machinery and political culture, the social strains of an increasingly unequal and imbalanced economy--combined with the over-selling of the spin-doctors to further feed cynicism and disaffection. The past few months have raised even more concerns about the state's integrity and competence, the economic conditions for further advancing social justice, and the populist lures of the right and far right.
For the left, additional problems arise from the fact that 'the state' can for most intents and purposes only be a nation-state (or attempted approximation) within an international states-system, with its logic of, internally, elision and suppression of difference, and externally, exclusion, competition, and realpolitik. And the British state has proved a particularly poor vessel for the progressive aspirations of...