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Reform versus Revolution

September 13, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case you hadn’t noticed, I love social reform. I’m just not so sure about social (or political) revolution.

The amazing thing about this country is that despite having gone through two dramatic technological and economic shifts over the past few centuries (agricultural and industrial) and now as we experience a third (information) – all of which invariably tend to widen the gap between those that have and those that do not – we have a track record of finding ways to reform our society and politics, rather than resorting to physical and bloody revolutions. In other countries around the world, and still today, this was not always possible. Somehow the anger and sense of injustice here was channelled into solutions that more people could benefit from: electoral reform in the past, the rise of the free press, of steam power, education for all and the welfare state.

Great reformers, whether Wilberforce, Shaftesbury (my favourite), Gladstone and more recently Beveridge, knew that to effect long term change and achieve social justice, they needed to widen the net of support beyond their base of activists, and include among them the general public and those with the skills and resources to not only win the argument, but also to implement a different future. So anger about slavery was directed towards enlisting public support through reasoning and ultimately legal and economic measures to move the country away from dependence on slaving as a source of growth, which paved the way for its eventual abolishment. So anger about about illiteracy was turned into a desire to establish the first non-governmental schools for the poor. So anger about the crippling poverty from unemployment and depression led via the war to the welfare state in its original, enabling form. All without the scale of unrest and bloodshed that dogged countries overseas.

So the real question is not whether I or others are prepared to engage with and accept anger at the coming cuts and the speed of them, but how we deal with the situation together. How we deal with it not just in government, but also at the level of affected and unaffected institutions working in partnership with those that have alternative resources to government whether from philanthropy, business, or direct from citizens. And how we ultimately figure out how to channel our anger into real local (and sometimes national) solutions.

I’m angry as well. I’m angry that the previous government led so many social organisations down the garden path which meant that when the inevitable reductions in public expenditure arrive, they have been left exposed and vulnerable – a result of Big Government style funding. I’m angry that the process has to be done so quickly because to not act now would mean things would be worse later when the country is forced overnight to act as it did in the past – but that it suits those who no longer have to make these painful decisions to cast blame rather than to share responsibility. I’m angry because what is happening affects my family too, with a number of local services we use being potentially affected here in Shoreditch.

But I choose to harness that anger and direct it to finding solutions. To looking in government at how we can smooth the transition where possible, encouraging philanthropy to support organisations at risk and bring in new skills so they can diversify their income away from government, and to finding ways longer term to join up budgets and make them more locally-led by citizens, reducing the waste and overheads that comes from overcentralisation and allowing funds to flow to social enterprises and other providers so long as they can convince people rather than Ministers that they can genuinely help them achieve their aspirations for their neighbourhood. That’s why I and others are working to build a long-term social investment sector that harnesses the tremendous wealth we create as a country and directs some of it towards helping to scale what works, so that sustainable funding is no longer totally subject to the vagaries of politics or elections or the IMF. And that’s why I’m engaged in thinking through with other citizens how we can save our local services innovatively, such as by co-locating services and raising local funds to run them more autonomously, and by going back to local government funders and landlords with alternative business plans and proposals that make sense and which allow more to be done for less.

To do all of this requires more than just anger and angry people. It requires a joined up movement at all levels first to get the angry and the “not particularly angry” to work together by showing the latter what life is like for those on the margins; second to team up those with resources with those that do not have any and harness not just their money but also their skills and networks; and third to recognise that we can aim higher and not just tackle the economic and financial challenges that this once-in-a-lifetime generational shift poses, but also build real prosperity which is not just about money but also about social connection and the poverty of isolation – which affects people of all classes and backgrounds. To just be angry (at government) and have no solutions is divisive and can alienate those in the mainstream who might otherwise get involved and help. To turn that anger to constructive reform is to follow a noble tradition which will invariably help lead us out of the crisis which we all face – a crisis which otherwise threatens to turn into a bitter, unforgiving, bloody revolution that will once again set community against community.

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