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Leader: The government needs to know how afraid people are

We are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.

I can imagine a New Statesman reader looking at the contents of this issue and mentally supplying: "That's enough coalition ministers (Ed)." After all, the NS has never exactly been a platform for the establishment to explain itself. But it seems worth encouraging the present government to clarify what it is aiming for in two or three key areas, in the hope of sparking a livelier debate about where we are going - and perhaps even todiscover what the left's big idea currently is.

The political debate in the UK at the moment feels pretty stuck. An idea whose roots are firmly in a particular strand of associational socialism has been adopted enthusiastically by the Conservatives. The widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for "big society" initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale. But we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like.

Digging a bit deeper, there are a good many on the left and right who sense that the tectonic plates of British - European? - politics are shifting. Managerial politics, attempting with shrinking success to negotiate life in the shadow of big finance, is not an attractive rallying point, whether it labels itself (New) Labour or Conservative. There is, in the middle of a lot of confusion, an increasingly audible plea for some basic thinking about democracy itself - and the urgency of this is underlined by what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa.

Incidentally, this casts some light on the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context. Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. But, for example, the comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates. The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.

I don't think that the government's commitment to localism and devolved power is simply a cynical walking-away from the problem. But I do think that there is confusion about the means that have to be willed in order to achieve the end. If civil society organisations are going to have to pick up
responsibilities shed by government, the crucial questions are these. First, what services must have cast-iron guarantees of nationwide standards, parity and continuity? (Look at what is happening to youth services, surely a strategic priority.) Second, how, therefore, does national government underwrite these strategic "absolutes" so as to make sure that, even in a straitened financial climate, there is a continuing investment in the long term, a continuing response to what most would see as root issues: child poverty, poor literacy, the deficit in access to educational excellence, sustainable infrastructure in poorer communities (rural as well as urban), and so on? What is too important to be left to even the most resourceful localism?

Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present. It isn't enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, "This is the last government's legacy," and, "We'd like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit." To acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it. But not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. Equally, the task of opposition is not to collude in it, either, but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie.

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

This is not helped by a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, nor by the steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system. If what is in view - as Iain Duncan Smith argues passionately on page 18 - is real empowerment for communities of marginal people, we need better communication about strategic imperatives, more positive messages about what cannot and will not be left to chance and - surely one of the most important things of all - a long-term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy.

For someone like myself, there is an ironic satisfaction in the way several political thinkers today are quarrying theological traditions for ways forward. True, religious perspectives on these issues have often got bogged down in varieties of paternalism. But there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about "the poor" as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates - like the flow of blood - is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul's ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it.

A democracy that would measure up to this sort of ideal - religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional - would be one in which the central question about any policy would be: how far does it equip a person or group to engage generously and for the long term in building the resourcefulness and well-being of any other person or group, with the state seen as a "community of communities", to use a phrase popular among syndicalists of an earlier generation?

A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Dr Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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Common's Confidential: Crosby's red guard

Lynton Crosby is friendly to Labour only in the manner of a dingo putting a limping kangaroo out of its misery in the Australian Outback.

The spitters outside the Tory smugathon in Manchester weren’t the smartest. Lynton Crosby, the strategist behind David Cameron’s victory, enjoyed a thumb’s-up after a dozy demonstrator dazzled by his bright red trousers assumed that the Lizard of Oz was a Labour sympathiser.

Crosby is friendly to Labour only in the manner of a dingo putting a limping kangaroo out of its misery in the Australian Outback. So impressed was Mark Textor, Crosby’s phlegmatic partner-in-spin, that he purchased his own protective pair of crimson trews in the ultimate fashion offensive.

The Tory pairing for the London mayoral race of the smooth Old Etonian Zac Goldsmith with the street-fighting Crosby tees up an intriguing battle with the Labour combo of the street-fighting Sadiq Khan and the smoothish Old Etonian spinner Patrick Hennessy. Each candidate will know his opponent’s weaknesses better than in any other election.

The PM’s claim to Andrew Marr that he happily meets trade union leaders was exposed as a porky by a bit of choreography that helped Cameron to avoid bumping into Len McCluskey, who was on the same show. Downing Street boasted that it had outmanoeuvred the Unite leader at the BBC’s studios in Salford so that Blue Dave didn’t run into Red Len.

The PM prefers monologues to dialogues. Had the second guest been a hedge-fund squillionaire, Dave probably would have been all over him like a Labrador in heat.

The No 10 spinner Craig Oliver enlisted the Independent Press Standards Organisation to inform newspapers of the PM’s understandable desire to avoid the repetition of a scurrilous allegation about Sam Cam made in Call Me Dave, Michael Ashcroft’s (unofficial) revenge biography. The rumour is “entirely unfounded”, as the Tory benefactor and co-author Isabel Oakeshott conceded, after furnishing the gory details on page 136 of the book. Claims that it couldn’t be true because Mrs C was “too much of a snob” only fuelled, I’m told, Sam Cam’s fury.

Never in the field of politics were so many hacks courted by so many wannabe leaders as at this year’s Tory conference. It would be quicker to list the Cons who have ruled themselves out. Even Chris “the Jackal” Grayling insists that he is in with a shot. The most blatant self-promotion was from Justine Greening, who has taken a leaf out of George Osborne’s book and gone for a full makeover. These days, she resembles Peter Mannion’s ambitious special adviser Emma in The Thick of It. Greening’s spad offered political reporters “select” meetings with her boss. So select, grumbled an invitee, that the real chosen few were those who weren’t invited!

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis