Peter Ryley replies to Tony Blair

The Progressive Case Against Change


Tony Blair’s sally into the world of Euston certainly has all the hallmarks of a classic, using the techniques that Jamie Whyte mercilessly pilloried. There are instances when banality poses as profundity — what on earth does “We are a much older people than we were” actually mean? These are supported by generalisations asserted without empirical foundation — I am sorry, Tony, but being employed in the public sector feels more like being a participant in a continuous revolution than working in institutions that “were established in something like their current form in the 1940s”.

However, the heart of his appeal for the support of the left in his programme of public sector reform is more important and is contained in the following statement.,

“There is always a progressive case for reform. What progressive case is there for the status quo, except in utopia?”

The obvious question that arises is what reform? The introduction of compulsory human sacrifice to propitiate the Gods would certainly be a reform, but hardly a progressive one. The debate is not about reform versus stasis; it is over which out of a range of reforms are preferred. Trying to make a case for reform per se is not enough to convince.

There is more though. There is a progressive case to be made against change. This was beautifully put by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook:

We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much. … In this context the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project. A form of conservatism — to be most sharply distinguished from its multitude of imitations, its travesties and caricatures, and scarcely know to those who carry the banners of conservatism in the modern world — becomes indispensable to this work of resistance. This conservatism leads us to search for all those valuable resources that have been thrown away in the process of eager industrialisation. For the greatest casualties in this version of development have been human, perhaps even more than material, resources.

The Revolt Against Change. Towards a Conserving Radicalism. Vintage, London. 1993. pp.3 – 4)

Part of the reason for the decline in Labour support does not lie in those issues that the media obsesses over, notably Iraq, but in an inchoate desire for a more stable and kinder future. Blackwell and Seabrook saw these ‘forces of conservatism’ being the centrepiece of a left project. They were ignored. Instead, they are David Cameron’s secret weapon. Labour take note.

Choice is not power

One of the more bewildering aspects of the language of New Labour is its penchant for picking two irreconcilable concepts and saying that Labour is neither, yet is also both - simultaneously. This is what happens in Blair’s defence of choice.

It is more subtly stated here but is present none the less. The first phase of public sector reform is described by Blair as being based on “strong central direction and public targets”. The current phase is now, apparently, a process of “transfer of power from providers to citizens”. Note the language here; it is a transfer of power from providers not government. Implicit in this is a view that the public sector behaves as a monopoly with, at best, complacency, and, at worst, an intrinsically hostile attitude towards its users. In this way there is a supposed unity of interest between government and citizens against the recalcitrant providers of public services. The circle is squared. Centralised government direction can happily co-exist with the devolution of power to citizens whereas I had always assumed that increasing the ability of people to decide for themselves had to result in a reduction of central power.

This analysis would be fine if it were true. Those of us in Adult Education, which has long operated in a genuine market with provision solely driven and determined by consumer choice, are acutely aware that there is currently a shared interest between providers and users against the government as it uses its powers of funding to effectively impose a narrow model of instrumental education to be delivered at NVQ level 2, regardless of the choices of citizens. A swathe of popular adult education provision is disappearing across the country because it does not match the government’s funding criteria.

In reality, choice is a very limited form of power compared to ownership, control and democratic governance. This is even more so in a model based on central direction and targets. What results is not a choice of provision, which will remain centrally directed, but a choice of provider. In other words, “you can have any colour as long as it is black - but you can choose from all these showrooms where you buy it”. This is hardly, “Power to the People”.

Peter Ryley works at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Hull. He blogs at Fat Man at a Keyboard.

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