Scotland's leading public intellectual Gerry Hassan invites us to go beyond the big society.
I’m going to talk about the future and also about the Big Society and I’m going to draw particularly on two projects I’ve had the pleasure of creating and leading. First two were both with Demos, UK think tank. First one’s called Scotland 2020, eleven project partners and about a story in the future, and the second one is this one, this is the website even though the project ended Glasgow 2020 who produced a book, The Dreaming City, Glasgow 2020, who invented the phase master we think, well, your think tanks clearly didn’t invent everything, and we even did, from stories, a music album – ‘The Dreaming City’. Just because we loved the stories, we decided to give nine music artists choices of tracks to create music landscapes. It’s jazz, it’s ambient – I ended up MCing at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, something I had never done in my life before. It was great fun, and obviously horrible fearfulness in an attempt to introduce seven acts musically. Just like mini Live Aid, you know.
Journey into their future. Obviously everything I’m going to say is short, full of holes and simplifications, because I’m going to summarise very very complicated things, that I’m sometimes going to say, ‘Did I actually say that?’ When I type up my notes from this that I’ll give to the organisers, I’ll put some links and suggestive reading, just if there’s anybody here who wants to explore that. Things about your knowledge of economy, the carnage neo liberals in terms of the world. So I’m going to address, try to address anyway, three things. How government and institutions increasingly see the future, and why that’s a problem. Look at the ideas of the world they’re suggesting, and a change implicit in that. Examine within that a little bit about the relationship to this term ‘Big Society’, the context of the public spending cuts and the uncertainty that we all live in and face.
So firstly, again very briefly and simply, apologies for this – the idea of the Big Society. Clearly it’s a problem term. It’s confused and it’s window dressing. This confusion is why we are having it? Is it because of the cuts or because it’s a good idea? What’s the inter-relationship? Yet, there is still something in it, I think. It draws from traditional conservative pre-Thatcher-ite thinking. The little platoons, the conservative deep sense of localism, Pre-Thatcher or maybe even going back as far as Pre-Heath. And it also draws from post-Thatcher-ism, this concept of red Tory-ism, which I think again is an absolute kind of mushy set of ideas and filled with contradictions. Phillip Blond, again a strange kind of character I think in lots of ways, has hit something here when he talks about being sceptical of state and markets, and talks about things like the perils of monopoly capitals. When did you last hear someone mainstream talking about the perils of monopoly capitals and the damage of Thatcher-ism? Along with, you’d argue, sixties liberalism did to lots of values and traditions.
I think the Big Society also draws on what is a pretty consensus of a critique of new labour’s command and control. To my mind, new labour took command and control to the point of grotesque caricature, and that’s despite the fact, coming from Scotland obviously, we got devolution, the Welsh got it, Northern Ireland and London. Within that, these were kind of by-products of a profound command and control that existed, also there were Scotch and Welsh versions of that as well, in Labour. And I want to turn to this thing, the official future, which is a term we came up with in Scotland 2020, which is the way governments and institutional opinion increasingly sees the world. It’s their version of the future. And what we argued was, it’s increasingly become more and more narrow, inflexible, dogmatic; a profoundly ideological view of the world. It’s jargonistic, it’s a kind of soulless world, its language is once increasingly filled with terrible words, you know like step change, and drilling down, and things like Team Scotland and Team Manchester. We’ve all got to be pointing the same way in a cause that we never actually debated we wanted to be a part of, or given our choice. There’s terms like modernisation, a word I used to use when I briefly thought of myself as a moderniser. I think absolutely one of the fundamental problems here; intolerant about the old, but not just that – embracing a very very narrow certain sense of the new, a very narrow instrumental new. Modernising the conservatives is the new project, along with detoxing, modernising volunteering people talk about. And often, as is in the case of an ideology, not even realising they’re talking from an ideological position.
A version of the economy, Britain open for business, is Cameron’s mantra. Scotland open for business is Alex Salmond’s as he pals up to Donald Trump. It’s knowledge economy, again another problem term, a term that confuses knowledge and information. You’re not a knowledge worker if you work in Starbucks – sorry if anyone here is working in Starbucks. Making that special latte isn’t actually knowledge, you’re following ingredients that were created in Seattle. Knowledge economy to me seems the reverse of the Morning Star version of the proletariat that everyone but Rupert Murdoch was a member of the proletariat. These are meaningless terms when they include everyone. The creative class, creative nation. A land of opportunity, a nation of classes, a way of saying we are all middle class now, once, famously.
And underneath this, a vision of globalisation that I think, and this is a contentious point, that globalisation I think took the language of a liberation movement. It says to the world, we took the Chinese rural people, when we pulled them out of their houses practically out of poverty, we’ve taken millions out of Indian poverty. It poses as a movement freedom, fluidity , and usurped a language that the central Left thought was theirs. And you get Blair talking about this lots of times, when he says, ‘The world is unforgiving of frailty,’ he says. ‘No respecter of past reputations, it has no custom in practice.’ Now he’s saying that, unbelievably, as a good thing, because he’s talking the language of the winners, of the metropolitan classes of the world, the Richard Florida guff. Maybe some of you have read Richard Florida, ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, as far as I’m concerned a dreadful book about winners, and you can be lesbian, gay, but as long as you’ve got spare cash to be an active gay consumer. And a book adopted by regional development agencies all over the world. So you get Newcastle gay quarter designed by the Council, you get everyone working on how many visible lesbian and gay groups they’ve got on pavement in a city and things like that. Demos, bless them, did an index of forty British cities based on just aggregating some figures with Florida, which Scotch story was with Edinburgh heading above Glasgow, and that was it, that was what we were interested in.
This official future, how do you challenge it? You don’t challenge it through facts. You don’t challenge it through evidence based policy, they’re not interested. UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world – only the United States, Portugal and Singapore are more unequal. This has happened to us in the last thirty or forty years and been done to us. They’re not interested in that. London is the most unequal city in the developed world. That’s good, isn’t it? London, a world city, which has a wonderful story underneath it, also has that undercurrent of something terrible in it. And the official future is a dogma. One way we defeat it, I think, one way we can subvert it is, I think funnily enough, and again this is slightly and maybe we can bat this about, is humour. New liberal is an earnest fanatical view of the world. It’s in a sense a kind of revolutionary movement, its inheritor in its styled tradition, even some of its beliefs of the worst of the radical left. You can see the link between new liberals and new conservatives and earnest ex Marxists in Britain and America. And where it has some similarity more in content is the sense neo liberalism, the market, fundamentalism, is the last modernist utopia standing. It’s about people as playthings, it’s about human nature as pliable, we are all consumers, the only way we are visible is through shopping or through our purchasing power. That’s how we see ourselves. And even, I think in many ways, there’s an element, some element at play in that. I don’t want to think all shopping is bad, I like shopping, but it’s not a lifestyle that can be everything.
And two quick points here, I think in terms of humour; the caricature of the left as you know Dave Spar, I don’t know how many of you remember Dave Spar and how many of you don’t remember Dave. Dave Spar was invented in the 1970s, he still lives in the pages of Private Eye. And what it did was, it took the mickey out of the earnest lefty revolution, where revolutionary, and it still has resonance to this day, unbelievably, despite what we’ve been through, because people know those characters. I have been guilty of Dave Spartism with friends, by being over earnest and lecturing them at points, you know? And my dad was a – well, he was a Dave Spar before Dave Spar. And I think one of the things we need to do, is we need to create caricatures, characters, names and stereotypes of the neo liberal age. These people are right for taking the mickey out of, you know? The people that talk the jargon, the consultants that don’t believe in anything, the people who have kind of a world view, they would do business at any dictatorship in the world. People go on too much about Chinese human rights abuse, or China getting more open to the West, those sort of things. And secondly, again coming from Scotland we’ve produced a whole pile of books on Scotland in the decade. I’m guilty of about half of them, you know. So you call them a kind of devolution industry. And I’ve increasingly begun to realise that books that influence me in the last ten years aren’t any books about politics, history, socialism, they’re not the serious books. The books that influence me are books about and that are written about play, humour, surrealism and subverse subversiveness. And one of them is this guy called, he’s this singer songwriter from Paisley, who now lives in Berlin called Momas. He wrote a book, published by an obscure German publisher last year called the book of Scotland. And the book of Scotland has one hundred and fifty, well, over a hundred and fifty parallel Scotlands in it. Past, present and future. Some of them are literal and believable, Alan Lomax who collected world music comes to Scotland in the fifties, that sort of thing, and since the war the Scotch health education campaign on him. In fact, the Scots are masturbating too much, it’s highly possible, highly possible! But other ones, absolutely utterly magical that take you into another dimension. There’s one where the black swan – you know, the story of the black swan, this do black swans exist? A huge black swan comes and decides to habit and live over South Ayrshire. So the South Ayrshire people hate it at first because it smells, then they decide to tie it to them so it doesn’t go because there’s a tourist industry based on it, and then the whole thing dies and suffocates South Ayrshire. I mean, what a story is that? I’ve no idea what it’s about, truly, something not of the mainstream; and yet it’s got some connection to Scotland at this moment and where we are.
Challenging official future, I think, if it’s not through facts, partly through humour. The main way to explore it is through story. Now, the official future is a story, especially the one we had in Scotland 2020 was the official future story. I should say, this project, which was a crazy project, every single public agency in the city, in Scotland, twenty public agencies, because this is one way we challenge the systems. We don’t build a barricade, we generally touch their toes and say, ‘Let’s do something different,’ and then you go and do something crazy once you get the money. We had a great relationship with the City Council on that, with the leader Steven Purcell before he blew up in a drugs scandal etc. It even got UK coverage. We had a great relationship with Council which also are part of the problem, part of the solution. The official future is a story, and also people in the system, some of those deep recesses in the system even use innovative processes like storytelling, all sorts of participant of things, so you can’t just use story as a good, you can’t just use innovative processes as a good, the people insist on an up to forward, what you’re up to, what we’re all up to. They aren’t smart, that’s why they’ve brought power and privilege around them. So you need to explore ways of telling a different story, of how to use that to democratise and remake and retake the future. Story is fundamental to being human, and at the moment in a way, there is only official future as a story. And where does this take us? I think in the climate today, we face personal challenges, economic and social challenges, we face institutional challenges, and we profoundly face political challenges.
So I want to move to this final bit by asking you some challenges and questions I think. How do we respond to the cuts agenda that’s coming? You know, I think there’s one response that is going to be very very risk averse. There’s going to be another one that just tries to get through this in a conservative status quo approach. There’s going to be people which we see in the government that are going to use this for restoration, for getting things back on track with fantasy island Britain bubble that existed under Blair and Brown. You can feel that, the UK Government figures, on stamp duty projected at the future, show that basically the recovery isn’t based on exports, it’s based on the return of the property bubble. And another way is what surely have been more imaginative and challenging, what got us in this mess, what made us the fourth most unequal country in the developed world. How do we think about ‘public sector’ reform? Clearly reform is going to happen, it’s been happening, there’s a KPMG Price Waterhouse management consultancy version. How can a different version be made and lead by workers and consumers who already are examples of this happening all over the UK. I know particularly of the example in Newcastle City Council where they were getting in management consultants to run their IT services, and the Unison branch let us bid for this, creating a bid, created by workers, and we won that bid. And lots of other examples. I think particularly the search of John Clarke, I think he’s at Open University, I think it’s pivotal, where he – it’s a project called Citizen Consumer Project, where he took thousands of people’s views on public services and thousands of workers, and what he found after thirty years of new public management claptrap is that people hate the term, I think it’s wonderful, people hate the terms ‘customer’ and ‘consumer’, they absolutely detest them. And people want to be what is specific, they want to be a passenger, they want to be a patient, because they understand the context of those relationships, and I think, we notice intuitively, the whole efficiency, model public services, people want a model. We have this a little bit in Scotland, having problems with our public services, we have an equity model in health, an equity model in education. We’ve all sorts of things about trade union conservatism and all sorts. We have those values still instilled, well of course having the sharks circling us basically. How do we cope with short term-ism? We have the heaviest snow for twelve years in the winter, and local government gets it in the neck, the country is going to the dogs. We rightly blame the city and financial services for short term-ism, they are profoundly short term-ist. It seems life is increasingly becoming short term-ist. You see this from funding, to media, to football managers even, to public sector and public expectations and a media that bray at wanting to find failure and show people up. I mean, the story of the last thirteen years, I think, as someone who detests new Labour, is actually a richly complicated one of, in a way, what we have to look at as we leave is, is that the best we can do? Because there were achievements, particularly in child poverty and pensioner poverty, there were achievements in terms of public investment but also eroding the public good. Is that the best we can do? How sustainable are some of those gains as we go through recession?
How do we challenge the business model of organisations, or maybe even more of a business mindset, you know, the quasi business model we all have to produce for funding. One of the nice things that happened in Glasgow 2020 was the whole pile of, thirty events all across the city, five thousand people, but one of the nice things that happened was, also other spontaneous events and things just happened because of that, so several projects decided to absolutely just dump doing normal annual reports or evaluations and do storytelling exercises about what the future was, who were the kind of people they were engaging with, and I thought that was a particularly nice thing, apart from we had lots of things like people build cardboard cities of the future and various kids groups built one where a nuclear power station was right in the centre of the city, because they bought the Stalimist myth that nuclear power to save science, which was rather nice of them I thought. They had obviously studied the previous version of the future that we thought we’d discredited. But how do we challenge, I think this is one of the things that we are really only beginning to understand, the last thirty years and the last thirteen particularly have seen a real fundamental shift in how we understand intelligence and knowledge, or how it is understood in institutions and public discourse. The last decade has seen the merges of an in class, sorry, an in language, that is part of the new class talk. People who know how to talk the talk, people who define what success is, that’s the right way to talk. There’s a wonderful word here I did not invent, that is the word Blowvator. Blowvator is unbelievably a 1920s American word. What it means is people who regard themselves as the centre of the universe, the master of the universe, that blow their own trumpet. And I think this is again something I came to late, like being a bit of a moderniser earlier on, is that this age is absolutely shaped by shameless blowvators who are absolutely talking superficial claptrap, you know. Sometimes these people have some worth in them, Malcolm Gladwell is a typical point. Three people once told me after we brought Malcolm Gladwell to Scotland he was the greatest thinker of our time. I said, ‘He’s not a real thinker. He’s not bad, he’s a populariser, he’s a plagiariser.’ People have told me that, what’s his name, I’ve forgotten his name, the guy that did ‘A Man in Boy’ with Julie Burchill. Tony Parsons, another set of people, not the same set of people, told me that Tony Parsons is the greatest British novelist of our times. I said, ‘I don’t read much fiction, but I know that’s not true!’
So the Malcolm Gladwells, Anthony Giddons who did start as a serious sociologist and ended up as Blair’s courtier. And in a way – not in a way, completely – think tankery. I mean, I’ve worked with Demos, not worked in their offices, think tankery is part of the problem, in that it’s a model about access, it’s a model about power, it’s a model about who you know and playing up to, often, your corporate sponsors. And part of the answer, I think, apart from it lying in story and how we explore that, is the difficult job of the creation of vessels, institutions and even just spaces. Now, if you take America, the conservative movement in the US is profoundly powerful. We thought, with the election of Obama, and the crisis that Bush had managed to get, I mean the conservative movement into, that we maybe managed to marginalise them, but no, they’re back, toxifying everything, making Obama look like, you know, making it difficult to govern in what I think looks like a decent presidency, trying his best with all its flaws. It’s a powerful movement of institutions’ opinion, influence think tanks, faith groups etc. And I think, not in the same ballpark at all, but there is a movement emerging in this country, a fledgling conservative movement. Tax payers alliance, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail spectator, and that group, the point is both in Britain and US there’s not really countervailing forces, the Obama lot thought they’d done it with daily course and move on, but they were never about policy and ideas, they were about organisation. But in the UK there’s nothing, and what that lot are doing, I think, tax payers alliance and so on, is they’re absolutely doing what people do, is they’re making use of this crisis, you should never lose the opportunity of a crisis as the Obama team said, and they never delivered on. And what they’re doing is, they’re pushing through the second stage of the en liberal revolution. I was speaking to someone senior in the Scottish government last week, I was speaking to the Senior Civil Servants in Number 10. The Number 10 team are taking on every single thing in the United Kingdom, and particularly, sadly, for you in England, looking at how to sell it. They’re talking about selling the entire English road network, they’re talking about selling the entire English canal system. This is a firestorm, this is a fire sale, basically. It’s awful in every single level, and it’s awful in the sense of, who do we have to trust to challenge this. It’s a small hesitant start, but creating institutions, projects and spaces that the system doesn’t own, the people can call their own is the way to begin a start. Things that are not beholden to, corporate group thinking, and the official future. These can be temporary, and time like Glasgow 2020, we ran for two years. Some of the funders thought we were going to run forever, and actually when we finished it the regional development agency said, ‘What are you going to be doing now?’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s it. We’ll do a report for you, but we’re not running it for the rest of our lives on twenty project funders with the money we have.’ We had basically half a new bus basically, not a budget of billions. And they can be engaging the system, I think we managed this very well, and I think it’s a good model that others have done as well. Engaging the system but sitting outside it, trying not to be a frontal assault on them, but trying to push them because as you know, in the system not everyone actually is a monster, and people, at some of the most challenging places, are looking at how they can think differently. There’s local examples, the examples London citizens talk about, Birmingham citizens, and there’s national examples where thinks like Compass I think has done its best trying to challenge en localism in policy class, and isn’t a think tank, is kind of a quasi campaigning group.
So I think there is optimism in the sense, in that this is a point we found fundamentally in Glasgow 2020, for all its reach, money and resources, the official future didn’t capture hearts and minds, and I think thank god for that! What we found is that in the whole city, the whole city spoke in the way of “step change”, “drilling down”, modernising this that and the next thing. The head of the marketing guru said, ‘I thrash, I thrash,’ he said this on an interview, ‘I thrash and thrash, Bratislava and Warsaw, every opportunity I get, and Prague because it’s a war to the death.’ Obviously his KPI report means he has to do that, he said, ‘I don’t thrash Edinburgh because we’re in the same game together, if we can get the visitors to Edinburgh we can get them, we’re in the same game together.’ And I think he, maybe, was the only one believer in the official future that we found. Everyone else, and he’s well known for that, put it this way: he’s one of only two people in the world that’s done a one to one PowerPoint with me, you know that experience. You meet someone for coffee and they show you a PowerPoint, it’s not good! I’m not like someone working at the World Bank. So I think that people have felt they have no option but to embrace that language, that jargon, that set of values. I’ve talked about modernising things in the past, and I’ve known lots of people who have done that, and then those people generally talk a different language personally. It’s a shame, all the jargon they use in their work situation, it’s not how they talk to their kids, ‘How are you modernising your homework?’ Talking about, can we talk in an authentic way, can we talk the same way we do in private as we do in public, or with the same words, and the same kind of sentiment. That would be a good start. And Scotland comes from, it’s particularly pronounced in Scotland because we had at one point, not that long ago, a kind of socialist culture, which has long since disappeared despite what others might like building, long since weakened. And yet, people, the memory of that, and so people acutely carry, I think, a personal kind of schizophrenia about facing two ways at the same time, and I think it’s something lots of us all over the world navigate all the time. So I think it’s wonderful that despite all propaganda, people don’t believe the model on public services, they hanker after a different set of values, and it didn’t capture hearts and minds. We’re kind of living in a system, it must be like the Soviet Union in something like the early sixties or something when it seemed all powerful, or maybe the early eighties before it all collapsed. And just a couple of quick final points. Politics of resistance and defence are not, you know, getting back into the bunker, getting back into the barricade is not the answer. A rerun of the 1980s where we have less troops and foot soldiers on what passes for the left is not, it’ll be like a bad film remake, it’ll be like Police Academy 2 instead of Police Academy 1, that classic. It’s time for imagination, it’s time for play, it’s time for story. I’m obviously from the Left, belong to the Left, I think and write on Left issues, but I think it’s maybe time for thinking beyond the Left. The Left is the story of humanity, it’s a tribal thing. It’s a time for maybe even ditching things like modernism and thinking about humanity because some of the challenges we face are so profound. The official future version is like, we have to have nine planets to live on. Price Cooper’s Waterhouse version of the world has an India in 2050, four times the size of the GDP today, it’s just not possible! And I think on some way big society is window dressing, all those things, but it’s an opening into, politics isn’t necessarily about the state and the free market. In Scotland what we’re exploring a little bit is about, we have got self government politically, but how do we move on to the idea of self determination as a society, and the stuff around very interesting American psychological search on self determination, terms like individuals, what kind of social and environmental and economic environment people need to basically flourish and prosper, and it’s about a decent society, it’s about a meaningful life. And that’s what I think could be the potential of a different version of the big society.
More about Lunchworks
We all need to get out for lunch more. That’s why we started Lunchworks – a series of thought provoking talks for socially motivated organisations at lunchtime. It’s food for thought and, well, just great food too.
If you’d like to come along or just find out more then visit the Lunchworks website. You’ll find details of the next talk, and videos and write ups of all the interesting, challenging and sometimes unusual speakers we’ve had before.
Places are limited, and there’s only one event a month, so get booking now.
Lunchworks was created by Dovetail and Reason Digital – two social enterprises in Manchester’s Northern Quarter working exclusively with socially motivated organisations.
Dovetail grow projects and organisations by engaging people, developing audiences and building partnerships. Our clients benefit from collaborations with some of the most talented, well placed and creative people and organisations in the North West.
Reason Digital works in partnership with organisations to develop outcomes-focussed, user-centric digital media to magnify their social impact.