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Statism can’t save civil society

Central government attempts to rebuild common life are doomed to failure

Artillery Row

In one of his Times columns this month, William Hague wrote that the Coronation of King Charles the Based had highlighted to him the need to combat plummeting social participation, which was leaving the young lonely and disconnected. His solution? For Ministers to initiate ‘a volunteering revolution.’  

Calls for top-down, state-backed fixes to the hollowing out of Britain’s public life are hardly new. In fact, the MP Formerly Known as Niles Crane‘s proposals were remarkable largely for the moderation with which he proposed Ministers should wield their executive power; he stopped short of one of the favourite policies of postliberals, the re-institution of National Service. 

Bringing back National Service feels like it should be the preserve of expert boomers offering pub policy, loudly declaring it to be the best way ‘to stop this new generation being so bloody soft,’ before wistfully sipping their £8 glass of Pinot Noir and asking if anyone remembers proper binmen. But it’s often repeated by communitarians or post liberals seeking a way to restore Britain’s seemingly exhausted social fabric too. 

In 2010 David Cameron established the National Citizen Service, which provided summer and autumn residential programmes for 16- to 17-year-olds. During his run for leader, Rory Stewart suggested he would introduce a universal non-military National Service for 16 year olds, to help them ‘come together more strongly as communities and as people.’ In his book Postliberal Politics, Adrian Pabst called for an overarching ‘National Civic Service’ with three strands; natural, civilian and emergency service.

The ideas underpinning these policies are both sincere and noble

The natural would go about ‘restoring the common home of nature’ by providing groups of volunteers with the tools to reverse the ecological deterioration of Britain’s natural environment. The civilian arm would help enabled people to make a contribution to society by engaging in civic tasks – helping older people in their homes, for instance, or by mentoring children in schools. The emergency service strand would ‘help build up more capacity for national resilience in addition to military capability’ by providing teams of willing civilians to participate in emergency disaster relief and the like. All three would see people, ‘especially the young and the old, either building or using their skills to make a contribution to society.’ 

The ideas underpinning these policies are both sincere and noble. The increasingly atomised and socially isolated nature of modern life – particularly amongst the young – has seen the public domain of citizenship become smaller and smaller, leading to an increasingly hollowed-out public sphere.  As Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone, a reduction in the number of Americans taking part in communal activities had caused a decline in social interaction and civic engagement. This had led to ‘a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state.’ When Cameron launched ‘the Big Society’ in 2009, he mirrored the sentiment by charging his government with ‘Mending our broken society because unless we do, we will never solve those stubborn social problems that cause the size of government to rise.’ 

Cameron’s vision of the Big Society and the importance of community to his politics speaks to how central community has been to conservative thought since Burke wrote, infamously, that ‘to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.’ It is relatively easy to draw a line from Burke, through Disraeli and Stanley Baldwin down to Cameron: it is a conservative instinct to manage economic turbulence both gradually and sensitively, with all due regard to the stability of people’s lives.  

Burke recognised that stable communities would prove a bulwark against the extremism developing in Revolutionary France. Disraeli recognised the need to ‘bridge the gap between the rich and the poor” and “elevate the condition of the people” to achieve social unity by reconciling the interests of all social classes. As Britain’s economy stalled and unrest began to mount in the mid-20s, Stanley Baldwin reached back to his predecessor, arguing that the interwar Conservatives stood ‘for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people at home which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world.’ Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was not merely soundbite politics; it was a recognition that society had disaggregated after becoming accustomed to a state that had absorbed too much responsibility which, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, it was unable to maintain. In times of great change and challenge, conservatives recognise the need to manage that change sensitively by paying great mind to social stability. 

For Cavanaugh, the only real form of civil society exists ‘outside the direct purview of the state’

The idea of re-instituting National Service or involving Ministers in ‘volunteering revolutions’ speaks to this near-continuous conservative quest for community. Those in favour believe that bringing people from a variety of background together to work towards a shared objective, providing an opportunity to form networks and connections through ‘social mix’ and building social cohesion through encountering difference (meeting people you’d never normally meet). A programme of group-based tasks, by focussing on community improvement, help nurture a sense of civic obligation, giving participants the sense they are contributing towards something greater than the immediate work at hand by participating in a wider – and national – collective project. 

The fundamental issue at the heart of any attempt to restore social cohesion with central government playing the leading role, however, is that it runs up against the conservative understanding of community. Burke was right; it is the little platoon we belong to first, not the big brigade, and central government is the biggest brigade of all.  

As William Cavanaugh writes in his seminal essay ‘Killing for the Telephone Company’, the gradual replacement of the bonds of locality by the bonds of nationhood has continued unabated since the nation-state was first developed – largely as the result of war. He quotes Charles Tilly, who argued that ‘in the crucial period of state formation, the state either absorbed rights previously resident in other bodies (guilds, manors, provinces, estates) or eliminated them altogether, as in the enclosure of common lands.’ 

For Cavanaugh, the only real form of civil society exists ‘outside the direct purview of the state.’ The peculiar characteristics of the British meant that the civil society outside the purview of the state was often governed instead by local forms of association. That’s because, as Roger Scruton described, they ‘are related more easily to clubs, regiments, schools and teams then to human beings. Or rather, they found human relations more natural, more easy to conduct without embarrassment, when they could between people already joined by some shared form of membership. 

But the ever-increasing scope of government – both local and national – expunges ever more small, local forms of association, reducing the rights, roles and responsibilities born by the public realm. It is, as David Marquand puts it, a ‘hollowing out of citizenship,’ and the result has been a reconstruction of British society founded on the presumption that ‘the public realm is morally, economically and socially inferior to the private realm.’ This is the ideology that drives hub-based government, and the hollowing out becomes a self-fuelling motor to drive yet more state expansion.  

This speaks to some of the tensions in conservative postliberalism. The advent of globalisation has left individual citizens more exposed than ever to global forces outside their control, and conservative postliberals believe the nation-state must become stronger in order to protect its’ citizens from those global forces, to provide increased economic and cultural security. As Michael Ignatieff writes; ‘what effective sovereignty means for an average citizen is that their state has some real, even if limited, capacity to protect them from economic harms that are not their fault.’ 

Another central government push won’t result in the restoration of Britain’s social fabric

But the more power the state gathers, the weaker civil society becomes. The weaker civil society becomes, the more difficult the pursuit of ‘the common good’ becomes, because civil society is the vehicle by which the common good can most effectively be pursued. As Alasdair Macintyre argues; ‘the shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.’ 

If postliberal conservatives want to repair Britain’s fractured public realm, they should view their task as something akin to repairing a great vaulted ceiling in an ancient church. The roof must be made strong to keep out the elements, as the state must be strong to protect its’ citizens from forces outside their control; but a torrent of ribs, each of which must bear its’ weight, hold that roof aloft. Those ribs are the local, durable and self-governing associations, institutions and groups that constitute the building blocks of British common life. Each block is largely, in its’ way, insignificant. But the gradual erosion of thousands over the years leaves our roof preciously unsupported; without them, there is no meaningful sense of British common life and no meaningful pursuit of ‘the common good,’ as Roger Scruton wrote; 

If we are in a position to decide on our collective future, it is because we already have one… because we already belong together, as members of a social entity, bound by historical obligations at least some of which we did not choose. In other words, the social contract makes sense only on the assumption of an historical community, a first person plural, which is not the result of a contract at all.

The nation-state ‘is not the primary keeper of the common good.’ It is instead a means to assert national sovereignty, a way to protect citizens, the last groaning bulwark against the unrelenting savagery of the world. But you cannot turn the nation state into a national community; a roof cannot support itself. Lord knows it needs repairing, but it is the masonry that is crumbling, and it cannot be patched up. 

That is the underlying problem with central government delivered attempts to rebuild common life; it is based on the continued co-opting of the bonds of nationhood by the bonds of locality, the prioritisation of the public over the private realm. As long as the trend continues, civil society will continue to wither. The state cannot deliver the common good; it can only make pursuit of it possible by reinforcing Burke’s depleted ‘little platoons’ and ensuring the safety and security communities need to found and flourish. 

A post-liberal conservative policy would be to allow a society of responsible individuals to shape and bear its own responsibility for the common good, seeing the state’s role as a facilitator rather than a director of toil. How does that work? It means a genuine devolution back to communities, returning important rights, roles and responsibilities for groups to centre around and perform. It means reducing the size of government so that it is people in control of their common lives, able to freely associate without the nannying interference of a state that always knows better than a community what is best for the community. It means the reduction of the tax burden, higher wages and a genuinely family-oriented family policy to allow people more money and more time to dedicate to the rebuilding of their communities. It means building enough houses, so that people aren’t forced to choose between uprooting themselves from their local community and owning their own home.  

Another central government push won’t result in the restoration of Britain’s social fabric, nor a sudden flourishing of genuine community. It will be just another top-down attempt to induce synthetic community; one more time over the top for an ideology that believes it is only ever one more community hub, one more community worker and one more engaged stakeholder away from paradise. It will be like being asked to do National Service for the telephone company.  

But at least I’m too old to be called up. 

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