Can “One Nation” survive clarification?

14th November, 2012 9:00 am

The beauty of the ‘one nation’ concept is both its ambiguity and the emotional needs it meets. In this regard, it is rather similar to ‘change we need’. Can it survive clarification? Few political concepts can but while it is still alive it is proving to be a powerful platform for debate on the centre-left. So it can be both about diversity and integration, reform of the state and its curtailment, post-liberalism and progressivism. For now, this is a strength not a weakness.

There are three main voices in this debate: ‘state sceptics’, ‘state reformists’ and ‘statist social democrats’. The latter has been Labour’s default. All make a contribution to the ‘one nation’ debate. The balance between them – and it will be a balance – will be determined by context, instinct, good fortune and influence.

In addition to this LabourList debate, two publications were launched on Monday which neatly fit alongside the ‘one nation’ debate. The first from the IPPR The relational state edited by Graeme Cooke and Rick Muir contains an absorbing debate between Geoff Mulgan, in the ‘state reformist’ camp, and ‘state sceptic’, Marc Stears. The second, a joint publication from the SMF and the RSA, Fiscal Fallout, also articulates a state reformist position.

The Mulgan and Stears exchange is enlightening and energetic. It should be noted, first of all, that there is a difference between being anti-state and sceptical of it – the Stears chapter is very much the latter rather than former. Stears’s view is the state tends towards standardisation and this can be disempowering. It is a view echoed in Jon Wilson’s recent Fabian pamphlet ‘Letting Go’ which argues we should learn to trust ‘the people’ more. There is another ambiguous concept – the ‘common good’ – which tends to accompany this analysis. Essentially, people, groups, interests come together in a mediated democratic space to articulate, associate, and compromise. This is how their humanity is expressed and safeguarded.

There is something very attractive about this and its focus on place, time, relationships, institutions and power. Its limitations are similar to the Big Society and, indeed, it is philosophically related. Actually, Max Weber’s notion of the state – as holder of a monopoly on legitimate violence – remains more convincing than the state as ‘standardiser.’ The bureaucratic model of the state is one way in which the state operates rather than the fundamental source of its power. One thing the state does with its legitimate power is raise taxes (other than when it fails horribly as in the cases of Amazon, Starbucks and Google!) With these taxes it creates social institutions that wouldn’t otherwise exist: schools, care centres, public parks, art galleries, national broadcasters. These are some of the very places where there is an opportunity for relationships to develop and human needs to be expressed.

Both Stears and Wilson are far too sophisticated to fall into the state bad, civil society good mode of thought that the Big Society often became. But if we need new economic, democratic and social institutions, one wonders whether realistically they can be built sustainably without state action. A Tocquevillean spontaneous, civic culture is attractive but could it ever be up to the task of meeting the complex needs of the twentieth-century post-moderns? However, the ‘state sceptics’ pose a serious set of challenges – very important ones.

So ‘one nation’ can benefit from the challenges of the ‘state sceptics’ but it seems that the ‘state reformists’ will ultimately provide a more robust and politically enduring governance agenda. The state in our recent experience has been in the main positive but, like any source of power, can become negative. States can be oppressive rather than emancipatory, extractive rather than inclusive, divisive rather than unifying. In democratic societies, the state has, in the main, proved to be emancipatory, inclusive and unifying.

Geoff Mulgan in The relational state and Ben Lucas and Henry Kippin in Fiscal Fallout both argue for major forms to the institutional logic of the modern state. All three consider that the ‘delivery state’ epitomised by the ‘New Public Management’ as Cooke and Muir point out is reaching its limits. This is not to suggest that, as Andrew Adonis points out in Education, Education, Education, that the results of targets and institutional focus was not considerable. In fact, the Academies programme may never have happened if it were left to local interests to determine.

As Ian Muheirn and Nida Broughton calculate in the Fiscal Fallout paper, cost pressures over the coming years will be immense. The figures are eye-watering. This makes a statist social democratic approach to achieving social justice pretty much unimaginable. It also means that the sort of reform that moves toward agreed outcomes but uses the complex human networks that assemble in and around public services will be critical in innovating, managing demand, allocating, and prioritising. As Stears makes clear, much of this policy agenda could well be shared between the ‘sceptics’ and the ‘reformists’.

For Mulgan and for Lucas/Kippin there is the need for the state to operate in a different kind of way: one that adapts, responds, and fosters human relationships. There are so many areas where this could make a real difference.

One could imagine a welfare state that meets particular needs rather than just offers set financial entitlements. A person may need childcare, training or for their debts to be reduced, for example, and smart relational interventions would empower. Public sector workers can better spread understanding and technique through peer networks. Patterns emerging in big data sets showing the relationship of groups of people with particular characteristics experiencing the same threats and limitations could provoke targeted interventions in, for example, public health, crime, transport, skills and work. The design of long-term care services around individual needs is also known to create wider efficiencies.

Relationships between business, skills providers, job centres, schools, local authorities could create better pathways into better work. The same could go for finance of growing businesses. Cooperative housing or energy both provide a service and wider public benefits as a result of responsibility forged through relationships. Support for the family through better childcare can ensure both parents meet their responsibilities and are able to access opportunity. Troubled and needy kids may need support and part of that may come through a more sensitive understanding of the gaps in the human networks that surround them – mentors could plug these gaps as a result. A similar approach could work in the realm of adult social services too – for example, Leeds City Council has set up a network of 6,000 neighbourhood volunteers to help older residents.

Lucas and Kippin argue for a strategic review of the state based around the best social and economic outcomes for expenditure. This will require considerable change – not least the sort of ‘single pot/local or sub-regional’ delivery mechanisms recommended by Michael Heseltine in the No stone unturned report.

Whether all this amounts to the creation of a ‘relational state’ as opposed to a radically reorganised state in which decisions take account of the centrality of relationships in securing better outcomes is not particularly important. What is important is that this reformist agenda constitutes a recalibration of state, market and civil society. Rather than separate spheres, they become interwoven, providing not only checks and balances but mutual support also – and where it matters. The checks and balances have become too weak – as the financial crisis demonstrated. The mutual support is at distance.

In one significant respect, the ‘state sceptics’ have been triumphant. ‘One nation’  – and LabourList this week – has become a shared space to explore a new centre-left argument. The time will soon be upon us to turn this into both a political and a governance agenda. There is no shortage of passion, ideas, policy proposals, and debate. ‘One nation’ is an optimistic message – and a platform for real change.

Anthony Painter is an Author and Critic.

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

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  • One Nation is just another soundbite to dear old Joe Public.

  • Serbitar

    One Nation today, gone tomorrow. Where’s the policy?

  • Hang on, “‘state sceptics’, ‘state reformists’ and ‘statist social democrats’” are the main voices in this debate? This is somewhat glib, defining all of these different voices like Glasman, Stears as fundamentally concerned with the ‘state’ above everything else. This is reductionist…those people think about more than just the state and it doesn’t define their thinking. I do apologise though in that I didn’t read much more beyond that, except seeing the phrase “a Tocquevillean spontaneous, civic culture”, which made me blanche. I know Tocqueville, and I have never read any talk of spontaneous civic cultures in his writings. He was fundamentally talking about the force of democracy as manifested in different environments – there was nothing spontaneous about it.

    • I should take that comment about Tocqueville back actually – apology No.2. I just found this passage from Democracy in America, about Americans resolving troubles (this in the 1830s):

      “If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare and the circulation of vehicles is
      hindered, the neighbours immediately form themselves into a deliberative body;
      and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which
      remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to a
      pre-existing authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned.”

  • Please stop with the One Nation theme. It worked as a soundbite in a conference speech as a clever way of undermining the Tories, but that’s as far as it should go. It’s getting a bit nauseating.

    • It’s difficult not to discuss one nation when the theme of the week is ‘one nation’ ….

      • Not talking about the theme of the week, I meant that I don’t think rebranding the party as One Nation Labour is particularly helpful. Like other people have said it’s the substance that really matters. One Nation comes across as simply renaming New Labour, and I think people will respond better to simply ‘the Labour Party’.

    • I disagree, it’s given consistency to a whole load of ideas that would otherwise just be a mish mash of debate.

      • I just don’t want it to end up being a ‘brand’ like New Labour.

    • AlanGiles

      Totally agree Alex. It is total bogosity. As I have said elsewhere, we are not, and never have been – never will be – “one nation”. Let you or me try doing what both Margaret Moran did and got away with, or Denis McShane looks likely to get away with – raise false invoices to defraud and let’s see if we would get off scot free. The political class still believe they are above the law – one law for them one for the rest of us.

      If I may say so, I think Mr Cruddas, like others before him (for example David “Two Brains” Willetts) have been allowed to believe they are far more clever than they actually are. They are actually quite run of the mill and the articles JC has commissioned this week proves it.

      • aracataca

        If only they could become as clever as you, Alan.

  • Hi Anthony,

    Interesting article. Two thoughts:

    1. By ‘statist social democrats’ do you mean ‘Gordon Brown’ or ‘left-leaning Labour Party members, such as teachers who don’t like Ofsted’? I’d have thought that most statist social democrats would be very comfortable with most of the relational agenda, particularly around things like greater autonomy for public servants. The bit which they don’t agree with is the argument that cost pressures mean that a statist social democratic approach to achieving social justice is pretty much unimaginable. Which leads me on to…

    2. The social reformer/sceptic ideas require greater public spending over the next few years. There is the potential, as a result of this extra spending, to realise efficiencies in the future, but nothing near an extra £48bn in cuts by 2017 or whatever the eventual figure that sticking to the deficit target would require. The risk, therefore, is that this gets attempted without adequate resourcing and focus (or gets bound up with service cuts), and hence fails.

  • I think I’m probably in the statist social democrat camp, but as someone who has worked and remains active in the voluntary sector, I’m more than aware that partnership is an absolute must

    I think the benefit of one nation as a theme is that it marks us out as recognising that we should be aiming to create a kinder and more cohesive society – and to me that’s absolutely within the social democratic tradition. Whereas the Coalition is being delibertely divisive in terms of the policies enacted, no matter what the rhetoric. I think that is something clearly seen by the electorate.

    However, we should be careful not to allow it to drift towards sloganising

  • postageincluded

    Benath the arcane verbiage and literary references there seems to be just one solid opinion here “We must spend less”. One tactic is implied “Hide the fact we’re spending less by talking up voluntarism”.

    Can “One Nation” survive clarification? Not if Mr Painter has anything to do with it.

    • AlanGiles

      Yes, it’s just the Coalitions “Big Society” but with a red (or purple?) banner instead of a blue one.

      • anthonypainter

        I’d actually put myself in the state reform rather state sceptic camp. So it’s considerably different to the Big Society narrative.

  • PaulHalsall

    As a person with AIDS, and single, and with no rich relatives, I am really very dependent on the state for my well-being. As more and more people live lives as single people, this situation can only increase.

    In my working life, in both the UK and US, I willingly paid into the state at much higher levels of tax than married people and families with children. I do see that those children will be the workforce of the future.

    If the state is about to fail, then the only approach for people like me is to try to forge ersatz families, and perhaps to attempt to procreate children (turkey basters might work!), in order to support me as I age.

    Is that really what we want?

  • Carolekins

    I liked the One Nation idea – as an idea, but what we need, here and now, are good, practical policies that will put right some of the very damaging things the tories are doing.
    * the ‘dispersal’ of families to faraway places where they have no links or help
    * the penalizing and in some cases closing of good local schools because of the proximity of academies
    * Centralisation, as seen in the growth [sic] and infrastructure [sic] bill introduced by Pickles and ably opposed by Labour
    What we need:
    *proper localism backed up with enough money and power
    *a huge house-building programme,providing jobs, and yes, houses
    The money? Easy: get rid of Trident.

  • Hi Don,

    1. It is more an ideological approach to the state that places the emphasis on the central state raising and redistributing in a universal fashion as a means of ameliorating social injustice. This approach has been historically successful but now faces severe financial, functional and political constraints and is, in fact, now going into reverse (and would be even if the Coalition had never happened). I would see Gordon Brown in this space. I wouldn’t see ‘teachers who don’t like Ofsted in this category’ just by virtue of the fact they don’t like Ofsted (in fact, the state sceptics have begun to question Ofsted). But once other information about their attitudes are gathered they would probably be revealed to be there!

    2. I’m not sure I agree. My starting point (from a reformist perspective) is that public money is poorly targeted with numerous national (universal) programmes targeting at similar or related public policy challenges but in different and uncoordinated ways. So better can be achieved within the same envelope. There are, however, real cost pressures – age-related and interest payment related – which constitute financial challenges. Some of these pressures will in themselves provoke reform. This is neither a good or bad thing – it just is. But necessity may well be the mother of invention. Technology may help (see MRSA mapping in Cambridge University story on BBC today) and new organisational innovations involving network mapping may do also – see Hackney social care model. Some of these things will deliver rapid returns. But don’t get me wrong, there is no magic solution here and hard choices will need to be made….which is why I like the strategic spending review idea in the SMF/RSA paper.


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