We have to start unravelling the Supplicant State
Town & Country Planning, July/August 2009
I was commissioned to write a comment article on the Guardian website last week about Gordon Brown’s strange re-launch document Building Britain’s Future.
I had to deliver it around the time when the document was going to be formally published, which was at precisely 4pm, after the statement in the House of Commons. But I was completely stymied when I got through to the website of 10 Downing Street.
There was a link to the new document. Unfortunately, when I clicked on it, it said ‘Error 404: Page not found’. Assuming that this wasn’t actually the intended content, I looked elsewhere but was forced to rely on the BBC’s report.
When I finally did read it, it seemed to me to be a whole new front opening up in the localism debate, though I am far from sure that either the prime minister or his advisors understand this.
The government has accepted that central targets are no longer tenable (though I fear we will still see them for some time to come). Gordon Brown intends to replace them with a handful of headline rights for individuals, the power to force the NHS to pay for private treatment, for example, after being on a waiting list for 18 weeks.
This puts the whole knotty localism question at the heart of political debate. How we can set local services free, yet still hold them to account? I’m glad it is now so central, but would be even gladder if I thought our politicians understood it – and gladder still if this was any kind of solution, but I don’t think it is.
The influential systems designer John Seddon (more of him in a later column) says that an enforceable individual right is really no different from a target, and I think he’s right.
There will still be a flurry of re-classification to make breaching the target harder. There will be fewer medical staff and more administrators in order to force people through the system. And there will be huge wasted resources too because the focus is still distorted, just as it is with old-fashioned targets.
But the real problem is just how narrow the whole localism debate has become. Politicians don’t realize this latest policy has anything to do with it, because they think localism is just about local committees.
They get marooned in the narrow question of where each function of government should take place – a kind of parlour game for politicians before they lose the will to live. They miss the point and bore us all into submission.
The real problem is that centralisation is far more insidious than they realise. Not only does it make government and public services intensely ineffective, creating vast inhuman institutions – factory hospitals and monster schools – where professionals are constrained from using their human skills to make a difference. But it also reduces us from citizens to supplicants to vast organizations, public and private.
Westminster politicians still don’t get it. Their localism means lots of local administration, while the tentacles of economic centralisation stay intact. Local parish mayors, who are still supplicants to Tesco or vast hospitals, schools and distant mega-police forces.
Politicians urgently need to understand that localism also means devolving power to frontline public service staff, to give them back the initiative to make things happen.
It means devolving responsibility to public service clients, delivering broader services alongside professionals.
And tackling our distant, burgeoning monster institutions, the huge schools, hospitals, job centres that manage us.
And tackling the monopolistic centralisation of business.
Taken together, the implications of centralisation are that we have become supplicants to a combination of increasingly distant government systems, working with increasingly distant and monopolistic private corporations.
It means a slow leaching of initiative, enterprise and life out of the places we live, just as it has leached them out of many of our public services. It means dead places which look for largesse from politicians and businesses. You can see them all around us already.
My new pamphlet Unravelling the Supplicant State is a plea to get politicians thinking about localism more broadly. It is difficult for them, because they only have the language of centralisation to describe it.
It feels risky for them too. There is an implied threat to their position in Westminster – the fantasy of pulling levers to make the country work – without which you wonder quite what they are for.
We need to reassure them that there is still a vital role for Westminster politicians if they would just let go the illusion of control. Tackling the Supplicant State requires bold legislation, not to give us a handful of controlled entitlements, but to set us free to make things happen.
David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation. His new pamphlet Unravelling the Supplicant State is available at www.neweconomics.org