Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Tony Blair is planning a new 'social contract' in which the public would be expected to meekly obey a whole new set of rules
A raw deal
November 28, 2006 02:15
Hobbes and Rousseau must be spinning in their graves at the news that Tony Blair is planning a "new social contract". The old idea of a social contract was that individuals exist in an implied bargain with the state: they'll play by its rules, and it will guarantee their liberties. What, by contrast, is the flavour of the new contract? Well, according to the new policy review that Blair has initiated, it goes like this. You'll only get a hip replacement if you promise to keep your weight down. Or, as a parent, you'll have to promise to do certain things at home in order to have your child educated at school. If you want stuff, you had better do what they say in return.
We have, of course, already paid for the public services that this newfangled scheme threatens to withdraw, which might previously have been thought "contract" enough. But let's try to imagine how such ludicrous-sounding stipulations might work in practice. If a woman gets a hip replacement and then fails to lose the required number of kilos, will a doctor perform a revenge surgery to remove the hip? Or maybe he'll just say: "Sorry love, you were warned. I'm not treating fatties any more."
This almost comically bad idea shows that, in the decadent coda of his career, Blair has snapped utterly free of the notion that government exists at the sufferance of the people. Not a man ever to have taken seriously the idea that he is a public servant, he has now morphed decisively into a kind of giant inflatable Mary Poppins, minus the joie de vivre, floating untethered in the sky above us all. Tetchily nannyish, he says to himself: all the problems of British society could be solved if the people would just - well, behave.
Blair thus attempts to continue his relentless power grab in the sphere of morality, which only totalitarian governments believe should be identical with the sphere of law. From this have stemmed the various abuses of Asbos, which extend the range of criminality to cover non-criminal behaviour on a lower standard of proof, as well as his fetish for the imposition of mandatory "ID cards" (which, as AC Grayling has pointed out, should instead be called "surveillance cards"), linked to a national database. Citizens must not commit the sins of getting fat or hanging out on street corners; they must be required to give up personal information on the spot to the authorities. They must be meekly obedient, like children.
The public service commission has been asked to consider: "should we be aiming for a more explicit statement of the contract that covers both the service offered by the public sector (what is in and what is not) and what is expected from citizens (beyond paying taxes and obeying the law)". Beyond paying taxes and obeying the law? What government has a right to demand that its citizens do anything else? The idea really is extraordinary. If the government wants to force us to do other things, it can make new laws, about which Blair has hardly been shy. Perhaps the government realises that enforcing such new "contracts" through legal means would indeed appear unreasonably authoritarian to the British public, and so it is driven to investigate the possibilities of extra-legal coercion: the proposals amount to simple blackmail.
The policy review also wonders "whether it is possible to move from an implicit one-way contract based on outputs, to one based on explicit mutually agreed outcomes". Let us take that seriously for a moment. Let us fantasise about a "contract" that would indeed be more "mutually agreed", that would involve more reciprocity. It might say that we agree to abide by laws to the extent that they are not fatuous or robbing us of our liberty. It might even stipulate, to take a notorious example, that we will pay money to the government as long as the prime minister does not secretly agree with the US president, in advance of any public consultation, that he will spend 3bn of our pounds on killing Iraqis or other far-away people argued to be in urgent need of the violent application of "democracy".
It may be accounted premature for Blair to be trying to engineer a "new social contract" when we never got an explicit statement of the old one: that is, a written constitution. In the absence of such a document, the closest the British people actually get to an explicit contract is an election manifesto. We could take that idea seriously, too: if a manifesto pledge is subsequently broken, as effectively was Labour's pledge on university fees (the cynical adjustment of the parliamentary timing notwithstanding), let us announce breach of contract and ask for our money back.
"Rights and responsibilities" is a current catchphrase of Blair's government. The problem lies in its preferred distribution of each: rights accrue to the government, and responsibilities to citizens. That's a dotted line we should refuse to sign on.
Steven Poole writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and other publications. He is the author of Unspeak (2006) and http://www.stevenpoole.net/th.html Trigger Happy (2000), and has written music for numerous short films.