Recasting the UK social contract after the riots?

Thinking about the riots I have been struck by the statements that some parts of the society are broke and others are sick.

As the debate to rebuild or reshape the social contract within the country intensifies, we need to consider three strands.

First, what is the relationship between the society and the state and the politics that bind them?  In the US, such a statement is an indictment of the body politic because it is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In particular the 10th amendment reserves powers to the people, to exercise, if they are not bein sed by the states or the federal government.  In other words, if the government is sick then the people are sick.

In the UK there is something different. The government is not of the people, by the people, and for the people in the same way. The government will represent the people, but there is a stronger danger, in the UK, than in the US, that the government will act as an independent agent separate from, and potentially opposed to, the people.  After all, parliamentary sovereignty suggests that there is no law or institution higher than parliament.

Click to access mr-speech-weedon-lecture-110406.pdf

In the United States, the government is limited by the constitution. Indeed the President’s first obligation is not to the people or to security, but to uphold the Constitution.  Thus, Lincoln had to go to war to save the constitution because without it there would be no united states.

In the UK, we face a situation where there are calls to recast the politics, to revision the relationship between the individual and the state. However, where is this going to lead? Is it simply reshaping the political process, first past the post or lowering the voting age? Is it reshaping the role and power of the government (the state) to shape and define society?  If so, what role for government? Can it shape and define society as it does less for it or through it?

If we reduce public spending and we seek to have private spending take up the difference, or the big society, what is the future of the state? If we seek to shrink it, how do we deliver what only the state can deliver, ie intervening in market failures?  Underpinning all of that, are we on the cusp of rewriting the underlying social contract set out in 1945 so that fairness or equality are not the underlying elements of the relationship between the state and society?

Can the UK change itself to adapt to the recommendations of the Lyons report?

If the UK is to change fundamentally, it has to find a way to move away from equalization, post 1945 promise, to a new form of redistribution while still delivering the promise, at least during the transition to the new arrangements, that the fundamental support will not be diminished.  In other words, if we all become republicans overnight, working on our own merits, pursuing education as social mobility, and reaping the rewards of our hard work and paying our taxes equitably, then there has to be a way to support those who need help to make that transition.

As it stands, we seem to have a small number able to make that transition, a larger number wanting to make that transition but hindered by the state (taxation (not only)) and society (not the done thing) and a larger number unable to get access to that without direct involvement of the state.

If we are to take the steps to a social democracy, à la Scandinavia, then there is much to do. If we are to take a step towards American entrepreneurial republicanism, there is even more work to be done. Both of these are described as archetypes that show a different relationship between citizen and state. If we cannot sketch this way forward, then we will face more of the same.

Second, we still have to answer the question: what is our society and what is its relationship to the state? David Cameron has talked of the Big Society, but what is British society?  What is that society’s relationship to the state? Can such a society exist without the role played by the state for the past 66 years?  Can it emerge out that ongoing relationship or has it grown dependent upon it to the extent that it needs to be regrown from seedlings?  Therein lies the second strand of the debate that must be had.

The third strand, which sets the context for this issue is the tax issue.  How can the tax system be rewritten and structured to supports the changes? If we are to have a changed social relationship so a lower state, then the tax system has to be changed accordingly. Can the government live with less money, if that money which is kept by individuals leads to problems (such as health or education) which require a greater state involvement?  If the state is going to change its political relationship with the citizen it will also have to change its financial relationship.  However, can it overcome that problem, without fundamentally harming society?  In other words, can it soften or ease the harm from the immediate inequality within the Council tax system as ameliorated by the gearing of taxes and the Barnet formula for redistribution?

None of these strands are easy on their own. Together, they represent a challenge of a generation. Will the riots give birth to a new era of equality and harmony, or will we slide back to a default position of control and coercion.  The choice is ours, the stakes are our future.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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