The Big Society Versus The Big State


Wednesday June 17th 2010. 6.42 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the quality of the introductory remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and of the ensuing debate demonstrate why this was such a good subject to lay before your Lordships’ House today for debate. We are all indebted to him. Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to welcome the admirable noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to her new ministerial responsibilities. She was formidable in opposition and she will be formidable both in the Cabinet and at the Dispatch Box here in your Lordships’ House. She has brought great credit on herself and I am sure that she will continue to do so for many years to come.

Like others I, too, welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wei, and congratulate him on a remarkable, extraordinary and memorable maiden speech. I was struck that he mentioned in his remarks his professional connection with the foundation named for Lord Shaftesbury, who was of course the great 19th century social reformer, and who gave this country the asylums, the ragged schools and the public health legislation. I think that we may see a reflection of the inspiration of Lord Shaftesbury in the work which the noble Lord undertakes in the years that he will spend in your Lordships’ House.

The noble Lord mentioned with some trepidation his youth. Perhaps I may say as someone who was once the youngest Member of your Lordships’ House but was also the youngest Member of another place, that, sadly, it is something that passes very rapidly. Enjoy it while you can. Robert Kennedy once said that youth is,

“not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination”.

The noble Lord, Lord Wei, showed great imagination in his remarks today and we look forward to very many more contributions in the future.

As we are recalling the 19th century, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that in 1839 Thomas Carlyle published the Condition of England Question. Perhaps if instead of evaluating political success on the basis of crude economic indicators we, too, were to assess the condition of England on the basis of broader

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social policy, we might be shocked by the tatterdemalion society which we see today.

The Condition of England Question 2010 would reveal that three-quarters of a million British children have no contact with their fathers following the breakdown of their relationships. According to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year. Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK-which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children.

Five million images of child abuse are in circulation on the internet, featuring some 400,000 children. Every day we end the lives of 600 unborn children; one in five pregnancies now ends in abortion and we have laws that permit abortion up to and even during birth in the case of disability. In Edinburgh, figures published earlier this year showed a 75 per cent increase in the number of babies addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ addiction. Suicide accounts for 20 per cent of all deaths among young people aged 15 to 24. More than 140,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year.

Last year, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in despair, which is one call every seven seconds. Also last year, 29.4 million anti-depressants were dispensed, which is a 334 per cent increase since 1985 at a cost to the National Health Service, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will know from his experiences, of £338 million. The number of homeless people in the United Kingdom is 380,000, which is the same as the population of Bristol. Five hundred people will sleep rough tonight.

The prison population has increased by 85 per cent since 1993. This week, 85,056 men and women are in our jails. Gun crime in the United Kingdom claims 30 victims every day. The average lifespan for people who get involved in gun crime in Manchester is a mere 24 years. Individuals now owe more in debt than the wealth generated by the entire country in a year. At the end of April, total UK personal debt stood at £1,460 billion. It shames us, and underlines the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about neighbourliness that in Britain, an estimated 1 million elderly people do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week. There would be so much more about the Condition of England Question that should give us pause. The poet, TS Eliot, could have had this dehumanised society in mind when he suggested that we are “living and partly living”, while CS Lewis prophetically foresaw a society where we would see The Abolition of Man-the title of one of his books.

The missing piece of the political puzzle has been the importance of relationships. Too narrow a focus on economic growth and market efficiency can too often overlook the importance of fostering community and family life, and supporting relationships. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned the shortcomings of liberal economics, and he is right. Political liberalism has many strengths, but it has weaknesses too. It can become Utopian and easily bogged down into too

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narrow a focus on proceduralism; that is, so long as you go through the motions it makes it legitimate to repair society by constitutional or procedural change, or by an economic fix. The average voter, I suspect, would agree with Thomas Macaulay’s assertion:

“An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia”.

In 2008, David Cameron identified what he called a “broken society”, a phrase that has been challenged in your Lordships’ debate today. He said that he intended to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer. During the general election, the Prime Minister attempted to define the difference between his party and the Opposition around the slogan of the “big society versus the big state”. We have spent a lot of time rightly talking about that today.

Although I have always had an instinctive aversion to the overbearing, busybody collectivisation of life by an authoritarian state-I spent 25 years either as a local councillor or as a Member of another place representing an inner city area of the city of Liverpool-there is also a danger in believing that we can somehow dispense with the state, especially when it comes to providing protection for the least fortunate and the least well off in society.

The welfare state emerged in 1942 when William Beveridge laid out his plans to eliminate “freedom from want”. He saw the state as a safety net-I was intrigued by the beautiful metaphor used by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, where he described the big society as like a coral reef-but certainly not a suffocating blanket. His objective was to eliminate what he identified as five “giant evils”-squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Thanks to Beveridge, we tilted away from indifference and reliance on charitable giving to intervention and direct help. But, as the years passed, the state grew like leviathan, spawning bureaucracies which fed upon themselves. A uniformity was imposed, which has led to the same centralised regulations being placed on citizens from Barrow-in-Furness to Bournemouth, regardless of local differences and circumstances.

The debate about whether the state has become too invasive, which David Cameron sought to initiate, has been caricatured as a smoke screen or cipher to make swingeing reductions in the remit and resources available to state agencies, but it did not strike me that way. We must not let the debate become a pretext for a polarised confrontation between those who propose cuts in public expenditure and those who oppose them. If we could take a more thoughtful approach to the role of individual citizens and their role in promoting the common good, a phrase used by the most reverend Primate during his remarks earlier in the debate, we would see that the big civil society and the state need one another. Insisting on the present organisation of the National Health Service or social services should not become a species of Holy Writ for which its defenders will go to the stake.

For a society to be healthy we have to be participators and the trustees, not the owners, of what we possess. Social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness or the hegemony of the state. There are

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signs that out of the debris of a compromised fiscal system, some people are beginning to reassess what really matters to them and what they truly value. Here is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life, and the duty we each have to the communities of which we are a part.

When partnerships are created between the state and what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, quoted earlier by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, the voluntary groups and neighbourhood associations that would be integral to what David Cameron has called a,

“broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”,

we would have our best hope of combating today’s gigantic challenges. And who can doubt, as many noble Lords have said today, that there are many functions that have been taken on by the state but which could be discharged by the little platoons?

Along with a more reflective approach towards our individual role we will also have to reassess the blighting effect of the great bureaucracies on individual behaviour. Their tendency to sap personal endeavour can be deeply corrosive. Our civil society has become uncivil as modern citizenship has revolved around the flaccid language of rights alone. I was glad to hear the most reverend Primate talk about the need for a virtuous society. A few years ago I wrote a little and rather unmemorable book called Citizen Virtues which made precisely that point. We must not create a situation where we breed unrealisable demands, a cult of selfishness and materialism. The uncivil society is further entrenched by individual isolation, a weakened sense of ethics and a lack of virtue. We enter perilous waters when choice is not conditioned by any regard for consequences and when society has no shared framework for reaching conclusions because there are so few shared values.

Through the Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship, which I direct at Liverpool John Moores University, and where I hold a chair-I declare my interest-I have seen some extraordinary examples of public service among young people in the north-west of England. If their attitudes could become tomorrow’s practice, we will have grounds for hope, but we should not underestimate the scale of the disaggregation which has occurred in society and which I set out in the points I made about the Condition of England Question.

So we do need a serious consideration of the parameters within which the British state, comprising some 63 million citizens, should operate. We also need to ask ourselves how we will form citizens who are willing to accept the responsibilities and duties which a less nannying and omnipresent state would require. Saint Edith Stein, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, was a German-Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic nun. At a time when the Nazi state was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of National Socialism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill, and about the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the state in which they live. She rightly insisted that both society and the state consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities. They are made up of men, women and children

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whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real. These are her words. “The state”, she said,

“is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer. And it is their actions that conform to or violate norms and values … the state is just or unjust, protective to those whom it ought to protect, and scrupulous or unscrupulous in its dealings with other states, only insofar as the relevant individual persons have these characteristics. Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals”.

The state, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens. Stein warned that when the two do not coalesce it inevitably leads to conflict:

If such coercion is to be forestalled and agreement and partnership is to emerge, it will require a huge effort to persuade every citizen to take seriously the promotion of the common good. If we are to do this, and if the big society is to take the place of the big state, this will require nothing less than a fundamental change in our attitudes and culture to achieve, something that I certainly would welcome.