by Jonathan Todd
“High-quality government institutions will increase the level of social trust, which will make reciprocity translate into solidarity, which in turn will increase the possibilities for establishing policy for increased equality.”
This is an important conclusion from the political scientist Bo Rothstein. His research suggests that a society that strives for active equality and cultivates pro-social behaviour begins with such institutions. The creation of these institutions is an act of mechanical reform. But their purpose is to catalyse moral reform.
Unlike William Guest, the main character in William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890), we cannot hope, sadly, to fall asleep and find such mechanical reform complete. Labour must seek to deliver this reform in the somewhere that we find ourselves: Britain in the here and now.
This is a place of brittle social trust, as support for tough welfare and immigration policies attests. The wide popularity of Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony spoke of a country increasingly at ease with its past and eager to imbibe occasions of shared meaning. Yet we can be quick to assume that our fellow citizens are free riding on our hard work.
To some extent these sentiments can be assuaged by applying conditionality to welfare and immigration. We need to feel confident that those who can work are doing so or taking steps to do so and those who come to the UK are contributing to our economic and social wellbeing. But the anxieties around welfare and immigration perhaps speak to a wider sense of malaise and mistrust than that which can be wholly explained exclusively in terms of these issues themselves.
It might reward a society so lacking in confidence that its members will contribute fairly to ask: What are the duties that should be required of all?
We all have a duty to obey the law and pay our taxes. Trust has been corroded by senses that a privileged few don’t play by the same rules or tax codes as the rest of us. These senses urgently need to be tackled and are one reason in favour of simpler, more transparent taxes: the less opaque the system the less scope for evasion or avoidance. But obeying the law and paying tax seem a relatively undemanding set of common duties.
Recovering a stronger sense of shared citizenship might also require compulsory voting and some form of mandatory national service. Spoiling the ballot paper should be legitimate, as we cannot demand that anyone necessarily support the options put before them, but we cannot hope to be any more than a society of them-and-us if politics, the method for addressing issues of mutual concern, is only ever for them.
Mandatory national service has recently been advocated in the US in the following terms:
“A program of national service would instill the American ethic of service to country as a ritual of attaining adulthood … From the sons and daughters of truck drivers and tycoons, all would serve. We would all benefit both personally and as a country.”
While these sons and daughters are likely to enjoy more trust than their mothers and fathers, and this argument applies as much to the UK as the US, not all of the new institutions and trust that we seek in the UK should be built upon compulsion. Some should be built on incentives.
Policy could be used much more imaginatively and widely to reward pro-social behaviour. For example, carbon taxation would tax the environmentally responsible less than others; water meters would discourage wasteful water use; and fatty foods could be taxed more heavily than healthy foods.
Such incentives would not be the stuff of passive equality. Citizens would need to respond to these incentives for their social benefit to be generated. But these responses would, of course, be conditioned by the social benefit sought by the policy. More purely active equality is more spontaneous and open-ended than this.
Active equality does not, though, play out in a vacuum. It must be encouraged by the right institutional settings. Where the present government engaged in Maoist desecration and hoped the Big Society would somehow emerge, the next Labour government should carefully design and build institutional contexts that will allow active equality to flower.
These institutions won’t fall from the sky. Building them will be the stuff of rebuilding Britain. But only certain flora and fauna can possibly take root in this climate: well summarised by David Miliband as being characterised by an over powerful central state and underpowered communities. While active equality would be supported by much greater devolution of power, the devolutions sought should reflect the traditions and instincts of people and localities to which we seek to devolve power.
The nature of this devolution is the question to which I turn next.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist