Friday, November 24, 2006

Blair and the death of society

He really just doesn't get it, does he?

"A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review."
Does he even get what the "social contract" is all about? It's one of the fundamental ideas underlying the British political system, not to mention the birth of modern concepts of liberty and liberalism. Blair's decision to bring it up - though in a deeply, almost offensively garbled manner - shows once again that his understanding of political theory is rooted firmly in the 17th century. And not the right bit, either: this is Hobbes, not Locke.

You see, the fundamental things that Blair's missing are that
  • a) the social contract is a theoretical concept to explain the development of political subjugation and interrelationships, not a physical, legally-binding piece of paper of the kind he'd have us all sign
  • b) the social contract is not imposed upon the people by the state, but upon the state by the people, outlining just what government owes its citizens in order for them to continue to owe the government allegiance
Ignoring the royalist Hobbes (the interpretation of whose theories is, in any case, fraught with ambiguities), in the past, the concept of the social contract was generally advanced from below - the people giving away some aspect of their rights to the state, usually in return for guarantees from the state of protection, order and such like. When contract theory began to advance was usually at time of crisis - during and after the English Civil War, following the deposition of James II at the Glorious Revolution, during the French Revolution and during the American War of Independence. On each occasion, the concept of the social contract was used to demonstrate that the state had betrayed its side of the bargain, not that the people owed more to the state.

Of course, a written social contract could work fine, were - say - the state to agree that if it failed to provide adequate policing, schooling etc. then the citizens affected would no longer have any obligation to pay taxes. But the Blair version of the social contract is a complex and inconsistent beast that seems merely to heap yet more obligations on to the citizen, while removing responsibilities from the state based on the actions of individual citizens. At a glance, and assuming some logical consistency and, well, common decency and reciprocity within the plan, removing obligations from the state might sound like a good thing to some - small government and all that - but this is Blair we're talking about. Please note the ominous words in that Guardian report,
"what is expected from citizens (beyond paying taxes and obeying the law)" (emphasis mine)
This is not about reducing the size and scope of state/governmental control, but increasing it - because nowhere is mention made of us mere citizens (well, subjects, actually) gaining anything new out of this proposed contract system.

In the original concept of the social contract, the benefits were obvious - peace and security rather than anarchy and chaos. The suggestions of what these new contracts could be made to do include conditions on access to the NHS, to education and even (implicity) to the police's protection. Blair's cunning concept of the contract is to reduce the state's own obligations while increasing those of the people, so that it will be the people to blame when everything comes crashing down - for not upholding their end of the deal.

To an extent, this is a logical offshoot of Blair's constant efforts to shift the blame throughout his time in office - be it Scottish and Welsh devolution (giving the new executives just enough power to be able to blame them when they cock it up, but not enough so that Downing Street can't claim a hand in their successes), the localisation of public spending and law-making (again, enough power to blame the councils for tax hikes, but not too much so that central government can't claim to be the source of beneficial reforms), the whole idea of allowing hospitals and schools to determine their own spending priorities and the like.

Tony has rarely been directly responsible for the failures of the last nine years - he's always made sure there's a slight buffer between him and having to take responsibility for his decisions. Even to the extent of (it would seem) trying to set up his mate Lord Levy as fall guy for the loans scandal, and ensuring his other mate, Lord Goldsmith, fixed his legal advice to support the Iraq war to allow Tony to simply say "but the lawyer said it was right, blame him".

With this new cunning plan, however, (especially with the idea of "individual contracts between parents and schools" implying microscopic levels of detail), Blair would finally divest himself of all legal responsibility towards the people. Anything goes wrong, any public service fails to get delivered - "ah, but you didn't abide by the terms of your contract".

Once again, it seems, Blair needs to update his political philosophy library. Rather than this silly fixation with Hobbes, he should get up to speed with Locke, Rousseau, and the American Revolutionaries. Perhaps, most importantly, he should take heed of Proudhon:
"What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No... The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society."
Because, as Rousseau pointed out, with the social contract what is created is a collective will and a collective, mutual responsibility:
"Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole"
What Blair is proposing, in forcing a literal, physical contract between the state and individual citizens, is a destruction of this collective obligation between citizens. He is proposing the destruction of society itself.

Update: A Blair and Hobbes footnote

A passage from Chapter 15 of Jonathan Israel's superb Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford University Press, 2001), on Hobbes' conception of liberty - which bears some striking parallels to Blair's apparent belief system:
"In Hobbes, liberty of the individual is reduced to that sphere which the sovereign, and laws of the State, do not seek to control: 'the liberty of a subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the sovereign hath praetermitted'...

"All participation in the political process, the making of law, and forming of opinion is hence excluded. Hobbes indeed disparages the republican, or positive, concept of freedom... Such liberty he deems antithetical not only to monarchy but to political continuity and stability, accusing those addicted to such ideas of 'favouring tumults' and 'licentious controlling the actions of their sovereigns'. The political liberty republicans extol he considers a ruinious illusion, a mythology manipulated by agitators and factions for their own ends, to undermine and weaken the sovereign."
Replace "republican" with "liberal", you've pretty much got Blair's attitude...

There's a top-notch overview of the historical difficulties facing the new Prodi administration in Italy courtesy of the supremely readable Phil Edwards, up now at The Sharpener. More knowledgable and insightful analysis than anything else you're likely to have read this week.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Via Jarndyce (yes, I know... I nearly fainted from shock...) I've found my first right-wing blogger in favour of staying in the EU! (Yes, I know... I nearly fainted from shock...)

It's about bloody time one of these cropped up - there's a surprising number of them around in the real world, where the fantasy land of a fully independent, self-sufficient Britain is seen as just as (if not more) unrealistic than a federally integrated EUtopia. By all means slag off the EU - it deserves it at least as often as not - but at least have the dignity, when positing counterfactuals, to make sure that they are vaguely plausible. (Says the man who argues for a complete reform of the EU on a multiple-tier membership system that could eventually spread out geographically to cover at least the same area as the Council of Europe, if not beyond... I know...)

Meme time

Let's get this out of the way sharpish. Via Not Saussure, ten things I'll never do:

10) Slap a nun with a haddock

9) Travel faster than the speed of light

8) Shag Jean Arthur (damnit...)

7) Swim the Sea of Tranquility

6) Meet a nice South African

5) Eat Brian Blessed

4) Kill a man using nothing but a single baked bean and a rolled-up copy of the Tablet (though I would consider it with the Church of England Newspaper)

3) Staple a monkey to a tree

2) Staple an elephant to a tree (although, to be fair, largely only for logistical reasons)

1) Join a political party

The Dutch elections are confusing me. Nanne has the results and is trying to work out potential coalitions, but no one is agreed on what's going to happen next. The New York Times reckons the country will swing to the left, the Washington Post sees a vote in favour of the pre-elections centre-right government with a marked rise for extreme parties on either side of the political spectrum, while EurActiv sees a political dead heat marked largely by a rise in votes for anti-EU and anti-immigration parties.

So, anyone care to enlighten me? All the English-language Dutch political blogs I used to read seem to have died... What's going on, and what are the implications?

Update: Ah! Here we go - Guy of Non Tibi Spiro with an informed roundup over at Fistful.

Update 2: And now former Europe Minister Denis MacShane's in on the act, with a surprisingly sensible overview ruined by a thoughtlessly stupid attack on Proportional Representation at the end - already countered by Make My Vote Count, just as they countered MacShane's previous attacks on PR after the German elections last year.

Update 3: And now The Economist's on the case, arguing the results show the rise of the far right and a clash with Islam. Odd...

Update 4: Nanne's back with more - damn good stuff. I still don't understand what the hell's going on, but then it doesn't look like anyone does. Yet.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Simon Heffer: blogger

A new little something from me over at The Sharpener.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Europragmaticsm - a sensible EU approach from an unlikely source...

Yes kids, that's right! It's the most exciting day of the year - EU budget day! Weeeeeeeeeee!

If you really, really must, EU Politix have a nice (mercifully short) summary of the usual potential issues - notably the spat between the European Parliament and the European Commission over budget cuts, staffing levels and the like.

It's all same old, same old - only the EP does, at least, finally seem to be acting a tad more like the scrutinising body it should be. (Even if scores of MEPs do still rip us all off with their extortionate expenses and fraudulent "attendance" claims... But shush about that...)

However, moderately interesting (considering it was a speech by someone from the Treasury to a group of Accountants - the after-talk party must have been wild...) EU budget-related news came yesterday, via Gordon Brown's mouthpiece, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury Ed Balls - who has been his master's voice on EU matters before.

The Guardian covered this briefly yesterday, before the speech had been delivered - and the always quick-off-the-mark Richard North of EU Referendum was quick to have a chuckle at the "Europhile" Grauniad's expense for their confusion about whether Brown/Balls are pro- or anti-EU.

Because, of course, there's no possibility of breaking the dichotomy of attitudes to the EU - you're either in favour of absolutely everything the EU does and stands for or you're utterly opposed to the whole institution, and there's no room for a more subtle, relatively impartial approach. Which is why passing EU-sceptics have accused me of being Europhile, and passing pro-EU types have labelled me as Eurosceptic. (More on this later...)

What is moderately surprising, however, is that there appears to have been no follow-up to Ball's excitingly-titled Speech to the Annual Conference of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, or what implications this and his previous EU statements may have for a Brown premiership's attitude towards Brussels.

Balls' statement that "if the EU Budget is to inspire tax-payer confidence, there is more to be done. We need the highest levels of scrutiny and the most rigorous lines of accountability" is obviously spot on. For twelve years, the budget has been criticised by the European Court of Auditors for not being even half accounted for - last year, two thirds was spent on God alone knows what. It gives the anti-EU types all kinds of ammunition, and precisely bugger all for those who want to point to the benefits of the EU. Because, after all, how can you say "the EU did this" if you haven't got any real proof that it was EU money that paid for it?

Balls also mentions the House of Lords European Union Committee's report Financial Management and Fraud in the European Union: Perceptions, Facts and Proposals, which looks to be well worth more careful study (as per usual, the House of Lords proving its worth by doing a far better job of keeping tabs on what the EU's up to than any MP).

The House of Lords report underlines once again where the EU's budgetary problems lie: not in Brussels with the bureaucrats, as many assume, but in the individual member states:

"some 85% of all spending was and still is carried out by Member State agencies, rather than by the central European Institutions themselves... the European Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control has long asked for a "breakdown of the Member States or of the different areas like agriculture [or] structural funds" ...We support calls for the European Court of Auditors to produce a list of those Member States demonstrating poor management of European funds. We consider that such a list would encourage all Member State governments to take this issue seriously. Such a list should only be produced on the basis of accurate data and so will require the development of a sound basis for payment transaction sampling."
Now, it seems, the Treasury is following the Lords' lead - and also seemingly attempting to lead the EU by example, Balls stating in his speech that
"because we are determined that the UK should take the lead in demonstrating how EU funds can be managed to the highest standards, I am today announcing proposals to enhance national-level auditing of EU expenditure in the UK... Following detailed discussions with the National Audit Office and Parliamentary colleagues, the Government intends to lay before Parliament an annual consolidated statement on the UK's implementation of EU spending, prepared to international accounting standards, and audited by the National Audit Office"
In other words, for the first time since joining the EEC/EU three decades ago, the UK will be able to see a more accurate picture of just what the financial cost/benefit is. Or, at least, when it comes to public funds - as it will remain utterly impossible by their very nature to see the wider costs and benefits of EU membership in terms of investment, business and the like.

What this will in turn do is enable anti-EU types to find countless examples of what they consider to be wasteful EU spending (heaven forbid that there should be an EU-funded lesbian single mothers theatre group of the kind always targeted by the Daily Mail when it comes to Lottery funding...) - hell, they could even attack the additional expenditure that producing such a detailed audit will require - while pro-EU types will finally have some definite figures to use in counter-arguments when asked "what's the EU ever done for us?"

And then, should our fellow member states see fit to follow suit, who knows? We may even, as a continent, be able to get a better idea of just what we're spending money on when it comes to the EU - and so finally be able to tell if it really is worth all the fuss and bother.

There's a lot more in Balls' speech that is of note - and potentially promising for a more pragmatic approach to the EU than we have really seen from any Prime Minister (assuming Brown gets it) in a long time. If Gordon can team up with France's potential next President, the seemingly equally pragmatic Ségolène Royal, and Eu-hesitant German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then statements like this from Balls could well lead us to a much better future:
"the EU should act only where there are clear additional benefits from collective efforts compared to action solely by individual Member States - rather than 'more EU' for the sake of it. That is what a hard-headed pro-Europeanism, based squarely on advancing both our national interest and the EU public interest, demands."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much sums up my attitude towards the European Union. Balls' statements in paragraphs 50-59 of that speech, if they lay out the Prime Minister Brown approach to the EU, show a genuinely sensible attitude towards the whole institution.

If they get anywhere near succeeding, who knows - we might finally be able to supplement the tired and frequently inaccurate binary labels of "Eurosceptic" and "Europhile" with the long-overdue "Europragmatic". That's what I'd label myself - and I have no doubt that there are many more out there who would feel similarly, put off by both the federalists and the withrawalists.

To date, there has been no one at a sufficiently senior level willing to fight for that little bit more subtlety and flexibility within the EU that could - just could - see it adapt enough to maintain its survival. With the imminent departure of both Blair and Chirac, following the loss of Schröder, the EU-3 could - just could - finally in 2007 have the kind of pragmatic leadership required to drive through the genuine reforms that, 50 years after the union's birth, are long, long overdue. The Merkel/Brown/Royal threesome (yuk - sorry, bad mental image) could well be just what the EU needs.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Two years ago, a semi-anonymous blogger was telling them that the 2012 Olympics were likely (not including infrastructure development and PR) to cost around £4.7 billion, rather than the initial estimate of £2.3 billion. Now they're estimating £5 billion - though with some warning that could rise again to as much as £9 billion once they've finally worked out how to do basic arithmetic.

For a bit of perspective, that's the cost of about three Iraq wars (figure), or 300 new hospitals (figure). All for two weeks of people in short shorts running around in circles and throwing things. Top stuff... Nice to see this country's priorities in the right place.

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