Return to Babylon

Return to Babylon

Neal Ascherson, The Herald


Sometimes a train rolls backwards.


Could be the wrong snow up ahead, or brake failure on a gradient. But you wake out of your doze and suddenly recognise the stations passing the window. Hey, how did we get back here?


Politics has that feeling now. Bankers’ economics – didn’t we pull out of there 80 years ago? Mass unemployment the best way to balance budgets – how did we get back here? Charity so much healthier than public funding – see that fellow on the platform with his lum hat and mutton-chop whiskers, tipping a beggar to carry his bag? He’s to become the national role model once more, as he and the “local enterprise” he is supposed to represent take over the funding of new schools, old theatres, rural bus services and research laboratories. His modern name is “the active citizen”.


Those shrieking, guffawing Tory cheers, after Chancellor George Osborne proclaimed his spending cuts! Out of their train window, they could see approaching the dim old vaults of Babylon Central, where taxes were low, scroungers ate bread and marge, and a working-class mother told her son: “Don’t get ideas. Folk like us are just here to make up the numbers.”


When somebody says that “Britain steps back from the brink”, you know that we are being backed over another brink. When a politician talks about “the Big Society”, you know that something is about to get smaller. And in this case, it is the state. The Tory MPs were not cheering the Government’s Spending Review because the deficit was being tackled. They were rejoicing because the state – that enormous, damaged machine once invented to protect the weak against the strong and bring a much-tried people towards security and equality – was being mutilated before their eyes.


This is a worse blood-letting than anything undertaken by Margaret Thatcher. At its height, in the early 1950s, the state had owned or supported the railways, the coal and steel industries, gas and electricity, telecommunications, water and inland waterways, road haulage and public housing – to name the most obvious. A few, including steel and road transport, had already been sold off well before Thatcher came to power in 1979. But she and her successor John Major privatised most of what was left of the public sector, axed countless subsidies and castrated the trade unions and local government, all in the name of reducing the state.


That was a programme designed to pull the state out of the economy. But the Cameron government is going for the very heart of the state, severing the financial arteries of social and cultural public provision and decimating the army of those who work directly or indirectly to maintain those services. Nearly half a million public-sector workers will have to seek new jobs or join the dole queues in the next few years. The cuts in housing benefit may drive hundreds of thousands of families – many of them in work rather than jobless – to leave the English inner cities and seek affordable shelter in their peripheries. Are they to live in camps? Who will be left to organise and care for this immense, helpless migration? Between Thatcher and Cameron, New Labour – captured by free-market, neo-liberal dogma – made its own contribution to weakening the state. Most of that contribution was negative. The calamitous privatisation of the railways was not reversed. Worst of all, it was during the Blair-Brown governments that “financial services” (the City of London) were able to fortify themselves into a contemptuous immunity that still – even after the great crash – defies state regulation. They say that “the bankers just don’t get it”. Ah, but they do. They know now that no British government will dare to reform them in the public interest, or in the name of public opinion. Mediaeval kings knew how to set about a warlord or religious order who fancied themselves as a “state within the state”. But British governments have accepted defeat by the City. It’s not just financially that the British state is bankrupt.


The state was once minimal. It raised one-off taxes for war and sent excisemen to seize smuggled brandy, but otherwise left its subjects mostly alone. Its sudden transition to a welfare state, recognising the right of all citizens to public assistance, taxing and restraining private greed, guiding a class-riven society towards some degree of equality, took less than a century. The motives for that expansion were many. Among them were upper-class terror of revolution, popular faith in the notion of human equality which had been treasured since the English Revolution and the Scottish Reformation, and the moral outrage of the liberal middle classes at the degradation spread by industrial capitalism.


The Welfare State that appeared after 1945 was precipitated by war. The millions who voted for the “Labour landslide” that year, amazing the world by dismissing Winston Churchill, were saying that six years of sacrifice and loyalty entitled them to say “never again” to the miseries of the 1930s. But something like the Welfare State would have emerged even if Labour had not won. Its vision of planned social security had been around for a long time; owing as much to Liberal reformers – Lloyd George, William Beveridge – as to the Labour movement. As a result, it was a top-down deal rather than a radical socialist one. The newly nationalised industries belonged to the state, not to their workers. In social security, its basic principle was universalism. Income tax was graduated according to means. But everyone was to receive the same level of care and benefit, irrespective of income or wealth.


This was an astonishing principle at the time. It still is. Its most famous expression remains the National Health Service, founded in 1948. The NHS is a proclamation about what it means to be human: we are all equal in the face of suffering and death. But for the economist and social reformer Lord Beveridge, architect of the Welfare State, it was also practical politics. “Universalism” guaranteed a decent standard of living to the working class. But it was also a cash gift to the middle classes, binding them into solidarity with the Welfare State; they could not complain that they were being penalised in order to support “less valuable” members of society. That’s why George Osborne’s suggestion that benefits should be means-tested is so lethal.


Once you destroy the universalism, society splits into two. Over here are the “worthy” taxpayers, who expect value for their money. Over there are the “unworthy” applicants for assistance. A Welfare State constructed to do its impartial best for all shrivels into a minimal life-support system. Food stamps and bog-standard healthcare are reserved for an “underclass” of losers increasingly excluded from mainstream society. Over here, we will live in gated precincts patrolled by private security. Over there, in gaunt housing schemes on the periphery, they will exist on the drugs trade and burglary. “Welfare” becomes, as it is in the US, a dirty word.


That’s an American pattern. Its callousness and inefficiency were horribly revealed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which reduced tens of thousands of poor citizens to the status of homeless refugees supported by little more than charity. Yet one of the strangest sights in recent years has been our own politicians hugging the delusion that the British state and society can be “Americanised”.


Labour politicians have been, if anything, more deluded than Tories. Gordon Brown’s curious passion for the US led him to demand Union Jacks flying on every British lawn, and – disastrously – to handle City investment bankers with an almost Texan light touch. From Thatcher on, there has been an uncritical drive to involve private wealth and “top business” in public affairs, and to hand over financial responsibility for culture and higher education to benevolent billionaires.


That’s the system which is supposed to work in America. But here, in spite of the glitz and the bonuses, the amount of wealth in private hands is tiny compared with the countless personal fortunes which endow institutions all over the US. Outsourcing the duties of the state to the private sector cannot work in Europe, any more than the absurd Coalition assertion that Britain’s private sector can now replace the jobs lost from the public sector. The late, great historian, Tony Judt, remarked a few months ago, shortly before he died, that “Britain … mimics the very worst features of America while failing to open the UK to the social and educational mobility which characterised American progress at its best”.


The shattering collapse of global finance two years ago does not mean that “capitalism has failed”. What it does mean is that it cannot survive, not even in its American variety, without the state. Capitalism is a gigantically creative force but a blind one, which will eventually self-destruct unless it is restrained and guided by the state. This government’s big lie is that Labour’s profligate public spending brought about the deficit crisis. The truth is not just that “the banks got us into this”, but that state intervention – Gordon Brown’s desperate injection of billions to rescue the banks – saved Britain from total disaster: an “Argentinian” nightmare in which all credit dried up, currency became worthless and mobs battered on locked doors in vain efforts to withdraw their lost savings.


The “credit crunch” catastrophe happened because the state had interfered too little, not too much. Over the decades, its self-confidence had drained away. The generation dazzled to be provided with free healthcare and modern council houses with bathrooms had left the stage. Its successors – the “baby-boomers” – took this new security for granted and found its restrictions irksome. The dramatic spread of higher education which began in the 1960s, and even the 1968 rebellions against “repressive tolerance”, helped to breed a new individualism.


In the 1980s, and especially in Scotland, Thatcher’s destruction of nationalised industries and state subsidies for the private sector broke up the massive workforces which had been the sheet anchors of social democracy. From Conservative thinkers came appeals for “active citizens” who would combine to carry out social tasks once undertaken by central and local government: the “Big Society” mirage in embryo. But ironically, far the largest army of “active citizens” outwith government was organised labour. It was the trade union movement, which the Thatcher governments were so determined to cripple.


The ideology of the modern nation state took form in the French Revolution. For the first time, organised nationalism was used to mobilise whole populations to fight for a new society. This power was hideously misused in the 20th century, by Hitler and Stalin among others. But the French vision was committed to three great principles, liberty, equality and fraternity, which the post-1945 British state hoped to implant through its institutions. We still have a good measure of liberty. But the third principle, fraternity, is failing because the second principle has been abandoned. Equality, now the most incorrect word at Westminster, is silently bleeding to death in Britain. And when it dies, fraternity – the sense of community and common interest – dies too. And when fraternity is gone, liberty and democracy cannot long survive.


Equality does not mean levelling down. It means levelling up. It means that all citizens have an equal claim on the state’s encouragement, and that the social order is not an insult to their human dignity. It makes a reality of Robert Burns’s A Man’s A Man For A’ That, and of Colonel Thomas Rainborough’s “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he”. It’s what Jimmy Reid meant when he looked up at the high-rise windows and wondered how many men and women in there could have been “top-class horse riders, Formula One drivers, champion yachtsmen” – but would never have the chance to realise their potential.


Outrage at that monstrous waste, determination to let human beings fulfil what’s in them, is the fundamental passion of democratic socialism. It’s what moved Gordon Brown into politics. And yet, when he was trying to make a list of “British values”, equality never got a mention. The “sense of fair play” came up instead. But “fair play” is just a boo at the ref. “Equality” is a battle cry, a call for the hammer of justice which only a state can wield.


Inequality in Britain diminished until the late 1970s, then began to increase again until today the gap – in health and living standards as well as wealth – is as wide as it was 90 years ago. But all research shows that societies which feel they are reasonably equal are happier and more successful. We are travelling backwards, and the current assault on “the public sector” only makes the slide faster.


Scotland never wanted or needed this. It’s not just that nearly a third of employment is in the public sector. It’s that the mania for privatising never made sense here, in a country whose tradition is communitarian rather than individualist, deeply suspicious of its own and everyone else’s elites, obsessive about equality.


In “Britain of the cuts”, the present Scottish Government has become the last bastion of faith in a public-service state. It upholds beliefs which were once shared all over the UK: that health and prescriptions, school meals and university education, care and public transport for the old, should all be free, the state’s honouring of the contract between citizen and ruler.


But the Scottish bastion is now isolated, and the waters are rising around its walls. The huge cuts in Westminster’s block grant may force the Holyrood government to abandon these pledges. Scotland is a nation with half a state. If that half-state is prevented from doing its duty, then some will conclude that 11 years of devolution have been a waste of time. And others, looking ahead in anger, will demand a whole state for the future.