The good society
The approaching end of the Tony Blair era is an opportunity to redefine British society’s fundamental values and public policies, say Jonathan Rutherford and Hetan Shah of the Compass project.
As Tony Blair prepares to relinquish power and New Labour’s governance of Britain faces growing disaffection, a space is opening up for a new politics. Over the past year the pressure-group Compass has been working with hundreds of academics and policymakers and thousands of activists to create a programme for renewal in the post-Blair era. The Good Society, the first of three publications, is the initial fruit of our work.
Many people in Britain have lives of unparalleled social stability and affluence. In the last three decades the size of the country’s economy has almost doubled. But material prosperity has not brought with it increased satisfaction with life. We have become a more unequal and divided society. Levels of personal debt are unprecedented, and millions are time-poor, working long hours to make ends meet. Alongside the economic insecurity a new set of social problems has emerged – widespread mental disorders, systemic loneliness, growing numbers of psychologically damaged children, eating disorders, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction.
We are living in a social recession. Its symptoms and its pain are often concealed inside our homes, where we experience them as our own shameful and personal failings.
Nobody in today’s politics is offering a way out. Blair has launched his own three-month review of policy but it is confined to the cabinet. The leader of the opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, has caught the mood of growing disquiet. He speaks the language of wellbeing and environmental concern. His carefully crafted image is designed to cut him free of the harsh, ignoble, divisive past of the Thatcherism that ruled Britain for eighteen years (1979-97). But the reality is more a reconstruction of the Conservatives’ old politics. In place of the welfare state will be social enterprise. Work-life balance will be left to ‘voluntary employer-employee agreements.’ Gross national wellbeing means sustaining the quality of life of the affluent.
What must change
Inequality in Britain today corrodes the fabric of society. The richest 1% of people own 25% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% hold only 6%. An average FTSE chief executive is paid 113 times more than an average worker. Despite New Labour’s promised meritocracy, social mobility has decreased. Our academic achievements and life-chances are increasingly determined by family income. Most of the 20th century saw steady progress toward a more egalitarian society. In the last thirty years, this trend has been reversed.
With sufficient political will, we can make tax and benefit changes that would tackle child poverty. A minimum-income standards commission would ensure that benefit levels provided for a dignified life. It is wrong that the poorest pay a greater share of their income in tax than the rich. Taxation policy must be seen as an expression of the citizenship obligations of the better-off. Hiding behind stealth taxation only perpetuates acceptance of inequality.
We need to replace the work ethic with an ethic of care. The good society would have free social care and universal childcare geared to the developmental needs of children, not the demands of the labour market. Our lowest-paid workers should have the dignity of a living wage and an end to our opt-out of the European Union working-time directive. The longevity revolution means that by 2050, people over 65 will constitute 25% of the population. The desire to live longer lives more fully is growing. The first step should be a legal duty for age equality, as exists for race and gender equality; this will drive change in public-service delivery and reform.
Our society is increasingly segregated along the lines of race and religion. The precondition for a more integrated society is equality. Xenophobia, whipped up by the tabloid press, has to be confronted; so too must be the social consequences of the deregulated labour market and the lack of public housing, which fuel anxiety and fear in the indigenous population.
The current debate about Britishness is too concerned with imposing an inward-looking national integration. British people have ties to different national cultures and these relationships afford the opportunity for new kinds of citizenship and solidarities that will enrich our culture and society. A good society cannot be created in one country, or in isolation from the rest of the world. We need to return to the idea of an ‘ethical foreign policy,’ rethink Britain’s relationship to the United States and campaign for the establishment of new democratic forms of global governance such as a World Environment Organisation and a global arms-trade treaty.
Our hopes for the good society are dependent upon changing our relationship to the earth and to nature. Environmental sustainability is the major challenge of our time. If everybody on the planet lived like we in Europe do, the earth could not cope. There is no single or easy answer, but the change that is needed must involve us transforming our economic activity and carbon-creating lifestyles.
We need a range of initiatives: a Swedish-style commission on oil independence, micro-renewables in homes and schools, changes to planning policies so that services are sited locally and lower the demand for transport. But most of all we need an epoch-making upsurge of collective political will to stop dangerous climate change, to face the end of oil and to create an ecologically sustainable society.
We need to create a society in which we all have the resources, time and political recognition to live our lives to the full. Individuals are interdependent, social and emotional beings, fundamentally oriented toward, and dependent upon, other people. The guiding principles of such a society are social justice, environmental sustainability and quality of life. These principles lead the way out of the social recession to a good society.
The Good Society offers a step in that direction. It is not a blueprint and it provides no quick fixes. It is the opening of a public debate about what kind of society we want.
The Good Society is a vision for a new kind of politics. Some might say it is utopian. But we should remember what the intellectual architect of neo-liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek said: ‘The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and thereby an influence on public opinion.’
Jonathan Rutherford is chair of the Compass Good Society working group, and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University. Among his books is After Identity (Lawrence & Wishart, 2006).
Hetan Shah is policy director at Compass
This is an extract from the first Compass Programme for Renewal book, The Good Society