Decline of the Public
by David Marquand
Polity. Paperback, £14.99
The world is filling up with disillusioned Blairites, and not just because of the Prime Minister’s unswerving support for George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
David Marquand swells the chorus with this powerful and eloquent polemic.
Marquand hoped that a “New Labour” Government would reinvigorate “the public domain” of British life, hollowed out, as he saw it by the privatizing and centralizing assaults of Margaret Thatcher. Instead, he finds that the tendencies he deplores have raced ahead under Tony Blair. So the task remains to be done. Marquand is himself an ornament of the public domain: political philosopher, politician, European. In Decline of the Public he has written a thought-provoking tract for our times, though the provocation is as often to disagreement as assent. But this is as it should be. “In the public domain”, he writes, “citizens collectively define what the public interest is to be through struggle, argument, debate and negotiation.”
This book is an invitation to an argument.
There is a preliminary problem: the “public domain” is a rather tricky concept.
It is not the same as the public sector, though it includes it. Rather it is “a dimension of social life” which straddles the “sectors”, situated between the family and the State and binding both together in a common citizenship. The two elements which Marquand emphasizes are the public-service ethic, located mainly in professional groups (lawyers, engineers, doctors, teachers), and the activity of citizens which defines the public interest. Professionalism is inescapably exclusive, citizenship inescapably inclusive. The tension between the two forms the main plot of the book. Inability to resolve it is Marquand’s main explanation for the “decline of the public”.
In Marquand’s reading, Gladstonian liberalism is the foundation of the “public domain”. Rooted in the republican polity of the Civil War period, the Gladstonian revolution “put public duty and the public interest before market rewards and private interests”, marking a decisive break with the eighteenth-century system of “patronage, clientism, connection”. The “Gladstonian conscience” was a reaction against the economists’ attempt to force social relations into a market mould. The growth of probity in government, state regulation, and private philanthropy were its most conspicuous features.
But it was above all the expansion of the professional middle class which enlarged the public domain. Although they sold their services in the marketplace, their standards were professional rather than commercial:
“professional pride, professional competence, professional duty, professional authority and . . . professional career paths”. This was because caveat emptor -“let the buyer beware” -could not be applied to them. In buying a professional service, the buyer cannot beware; he has to trust the competence of the seller.
Hence the importance of certification, control of entry and other non-market practices to maintain standards, in return for which the professionals were expected to “internalize a set of norms precluding them from abusing their monopoly position and exploiting their clients, and enjoining them to promote the public good”.
This would seem to be an idealized account: Dickens tells a very different story in Bleak House, but no doubt Jarndyce and Jarndyce was a relic of the Old Corruption. Much more important, Marquand offers a left-slanted Whig interpretation of history. He is curiously blind to the religious source of the Gladstonian “conscience”, and to the role of aristocratic and military values in narrowing the domain of the private and commercial before and right through Victorian times. The national interest came before the public interest: Nelson was as much of a professional as any Victorian solicitor; what dished the Old Corruption was that it was incompatible with military success and imperial rule.
In short, Marquand exaggerates both the triumph of the market in the nineteenth century and the revolt against it, taking his cue from Karl Polanyi’s flawed masterpiece, The Great Transformation.
The Gladstonian State was succeeded by the twentieth-century Welfare State, based on the ideas of Beveridge, Tawney and Keynes. Its inspiration was more democratic than that of the Victorian State, but it was just as elitist in construction and performance, with the professional giving way to the expert.
In this development, Marquand thinks, lay the seeds of the Welfare State’s disintegration. “Civic engagement” was sacrificed to “a centrally determined efficiency”. Professionals increasingly saw themselves as technocratic specialists rather than as contributors to the public good: inhuman tower blocks, urban motorways, nuclear civil power, landscape-destroying intensive agriculture were the monuments to their hubris. Academics, puffed up with their specialisms, turned their backs on the public culture, and those who inhabited it. The result was a growing gulf between the suppliers and users of services, and between elites and masses.
Market ideology, with its language of producers/providers and customers/clients, offered an alternative model of binding: the invisible hand would make the inefficient and partly corrupt public domain unnecessary.
This sets the scene for two fine discussions headed “Revenge of the Private” and “Kultur-kampf”. The central thread traces the connections between the demand for self-expression in the 1960s and the privatization of the economy in the 1980s.
The children of the 60s condemned the role-playing of the public domain as inauthentic and hypocritical: “the personal is the political” was the feminist slogan of the time. Marquand charts the impact of this notion on the style of politics and the content of the media. “Increasingly we demand of our rulers not just that they be competent at ruling but that they be authentic human beings as well: that they appear before us unmasked . . .”. Like celebrities, they have come to depend on the “shifting sands of popular and media favour”.
With this comes a new version of the eighteenth-century politics of connection and patronage. The offices of leaders are like courts. Cabinets have virtually ceased to function, as courtiers jostle for the Prince’s ear. In elective form, the prime minister behaves much as the monarch behaved before the modern State arrived.
As Marquand tells it, neo-liberalism in the economy ran together with the privatism of the age: the freely choosing consumer is first cousin to the authentic individual. Its doctrine of accountability through markets offered an easy answer to the problem of accountability through politics. It offered a plausible answer to the policy failures of the 1960s and 70s: market failure was really government failure. Finally, the neo-liberals promised to solve the problem of industrial governability by returning activities to the discipline of the market. Thus Thatcherism set out to dismantle the public domain which Gladstonian liberalism had created. One of Marquand’s favourite paradoxes -and he does tend to multiply his paradoxes -is that the project of privatizing economic life demanded an increase in central control, since, apart from the need to regulate the privatized utilities, a considerable re-engineering of social attitudes was required to adapt the population to the needs of a competitive market economy.
This process has continued under Blair and Gordon Brown. Marquand concedes that New Labour’s constitutional changes have weakened the centre’s capacity to have its own way; also, there are “public domain” survivals in the BBC’s World Service, and the proliferation of single-issue groups. But these are “blips on a downward curve”. New Labour has continued the policy of narrowing the public domain.
Ministerial language, he notes, is saturated with consumerism. Blair’s populism goes further than Thatcher’s; his disdain for party goes even further. Marquand notes New Labour’s contempt for intermediate institutions, exemplified in the attacks of Jack Straw and David Blunkett on the judicial system. Hand in hand with devolution, Ministers have tried to compel local authorities to dance to the centre’s tune through a plethora of initiatives. “As viewed from Whitehall, local authorities exist to deliver centrally determined services to uniform, centrally imposed standards.” The Northcote-Trevelyan doctrine of an independent Civil Service is as remote from Blair’s government as it was from Thatcher’s. The number of political advisers has risen from thirty-eight to seventy-four since Blair took office, with Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell given authority over Civil Servants.
Private-sector managerialism “has as many votaries in the Blair government as it did in Thatcher’s”. A “trust-denying audit explosion” has destroyed what remained of the public- service ethic. “In universities, schools, hospitals, social service departments, crude performance indicators, simplistic league tables, and centrally imposed targets . . . (continue to) undermine professional autonomy.” In short, the Blairite State is a “nagging, interfering presence in every corner of social life”, in a society in which political life has been flattened and public debate reduced to a “monochrome monism”.
Contrast this picture of Blair’s Britain with Gordon Brown’s recent lecture to the Social Market Foundation, “A Modern Agenda for Prosperity and Social Reform”. The main theme here is that markets are instruments of “opportunity and security for all”. “Limits to markets” are set not by the social value of non-market activities, but by technical “market failures” so chronic that non-market provision, especially in health care and education, is needed. Thus what Brown means by the public domain is simply the public sector plus politics.However, some of the disciplines of the market are to be forced on the “public sector” as well through a system of national targets combined with “decentralized”, that is, local, choice- responsive, means of delivery. Brown is quite frankly sceptical of “the public service ethic”: “at its best, public servants seeking to make a difference, at its worst, just the defence of vested interests”. The main difference between Brown and Blair seems to be that Blair thinks there is more scope for marketizing the public sector than does Brown.
Both Labour leaders are miles away from the Gladstonian system which Marquand wants to revive in democratic form.
And the solution? Marquand suggests thirteen “simple principles” for reviving the public domain, ranging from the restoration of self-regulation in the professions to a written constitution with checks and balances to guard against concentrated central power. The “monarchical state” -target of his most persistent attacks -must be dismantled; accountability through “voice” must replace market mimicry and populist government; intermediate power centres such as local and regional authorities, universities, trade unions, the professions, NGOs, the judiciary must be reinvigorated or invented. A democratic Upper House, proportional representation, locality, particularity, flexibility and inclusion complete Marquand’s vision of a new, democratic polity.
The main criticism I would make is that David Marquand never faces up to the real difficulty of restoring the balance between private and public and between the State and the intermediate bodies. Partly this is because he underplays the fact that spreading affluence and IT have enormously reinforced the possibilities and attractions of the private, quite apart from any effect of neo-liberal ideology.
The era of great issues, whether economic or social, is, for the time being, over.
Even wars are now too short and costless to fulfil their old mobilizing role.
But it is also partly because Marquand never honestly faces the fact that the intermediate bodies -particularly the professions -long ago surrendered the autonomy which gave them their special role in the Victorian scheme of things by accepting state money. It was this which -paradoxically! -turned them into sectional interests and made their accountability such a central political issue.
It was then easy to relabel them “producer groups”, which needed the shake-up of market disciplines and public inspection and audit. The universities, whose vanishing independence Marquand stoutly upholds, are the most conspicuous victims of this disastrous evolution.
This is not to say that New Labour solutions will work. Centrally imposed targets combined with large amounts of extra spending provide only a short-term solution to the inefficiency of the public sector, because it has no inherent incentives either to efficiency or to serve the public.
What this suggests is that those left-wing critics are right who see the tentative marketization of health care and education as stepping stones to privatization – leading first to the privatization of supply and then, via vouchers, to the privatization of demand, leaving the State holding the sink schools and hospitals. The critics, though, have no alternative. They cannot recommend a return to the “bad old days”
of loony-left councils and rampant public- sector unions, but equally do not know how to reinvent the common purposes and civic commitments which sustained the public services in the past. After his sweeping prescriptions, David Marquand concedes that the problem of how to combine professional autonomy with accountability needs to be approached in a “modest, flexible, and experimental spirit”. With that, at least, we can agree.