• Good Government Matters

    Government over recent times has got itself a bad name. Politicians are of course always regarded as fair game, particularly by media whose proprietors often see themselves as competitors for power, but the critics’ task was of course made immeasurably easier by the expenses scandal. The damage suffered as a consequence of that self-inflicted wound has cleared the way for a renewed assault – by right-wing politicians and media alike – on the whole concept of government.

    The notion that government is the problem, not the solution, is of course not new, and was famously and explicitly asserted by Ronald Reagan. It has never been strictly true of course that the right have disowned government as such; what they have wanted is government that serves the narrow interests of a privileged minority rather than a wider society. So, right-wing governments (including New Labour) have generally overseen an expansion of government in areas like security, law and order, defence, and – in economic policy – maintaining the value of assets and preserving the privileges of the wealthy.

    It is nevertheless a surprise that the new coalition government should feel so clearly mandated by what was at best a confused election result to commit to smaller government as the central element in its programme. The major task faced by the coalition after all is to lead the country out of a financial crisis that, having been created by the failures of the private sector, was only just averted by the government doing what only government could do – using its authority and legitimacy to underpin the banking system and guarantee the value of the currency.

    It is surely one of the miracles of the modern world that a private sector meltdown whose malign consequences are still with us, and against which the only defence proved to be the power of government, should have led to savage cuts in the role of government.

    It is to be expected of course that – in tough times – the powerful should try to shift the burden on to the less powerful whose diminished voice means that they are less able to complain. The speed with which the lessons of the crisis have been re-interpreted in favour of less government rather than more is testament to the ability of the powerful to defend their interests. What is a surprise, however, is the readiness of other elements – including the junior partners in the new coalition government – to abandon government as the major means of achieving economic recovery and re-asserting the need for social justice.

    A loss of faith in government seems now to have infected opinion across most parts of the political spectrum. Even on the left, there is a marked tendency to look for salvation anywhere but government. It is almost as though the left has concluded that – so disappointing was the experience of being in government – there is nothing more to be gained from that quarter. Nothing more clearly demonstrates how thoroughly New Labour let down its supporters.

    Much political activism on the left now takes the form of community-based initiatives of one kind or another – whether it is support for a local currency or various forms of collective self-help or the development of local power schemes. The common factor in all of these small-scale projects is their conviction that ordinary people should take responsibility for changing society, or at least their bit of it, and that government is just another part of the conventional power structure – along with the bastions of capitalism – that has to be overturned.

    There is much talk of the need to engage “civil society” as the essential element in changing society. Government, it seems, is to be by-passed as a snare and a delusion. There is an almost romantic sense that ordinary people possess an innate wisdom and goodness that are somehow sullied and rendered ineffectual by the formal and structured processes of democratic government.

    No one, of course, who wants to see a better and fairer society could object to the impulses that drive these initiatives. But it is distressing to see the efforts of earlier generations to achieve universal suffrage and democratic government so casually set aside. Our forebears saw the power and legitimacy of representative and elected government as the essential safeguard against the overwhelming power of the capitalist and boss, the one guarantor that the interests of everyone and not just the powerful would be properly protected and advanced.

    Community-based initiatives have their value but, as a means of changing society, they are too small-scale, fragmented and dispersed to make much impact. Nothing will better serve the status quo than the concession that government should be limited to protecting the interests of the powerful and that proponents of change should look elsewhere. A new Labour opposition leader can best confront the coalition and restore the faith of Labour supporters by re-asserting that good government matters.

    Bryan Gould

    22 August 2010