Ideology is an amazing thing. Take the examples of France and the USA. Both liberal democracies which permit their citizens to express their views by voting, organising, demonstrating, discussing and publishing. Both states up to their eyeballs in debt. And both polar opposites in the way in which those views are being expressed and that debt addressed.
France has been living beyond its means for decades, providing an enviable state-subsidised lifestyle for its citizens that has simply been unaffordable. President Sarkozy’s determination to change this situation and bring the state finances under control, most famously by raising the retirement and state pension ages, has been met with widespread protest as French citizens seek to protect their privileges regardless of the reality of the situation.
The USA, on the other hand, is dealing with a financial crisis of much more recent gestation, but which has nonetheless placed the state under enormous strain. President Obama’s determination to deal with the situation by spending more rather than less, and to provide a better level of public service and welfare to a wider section of the US public than ever before, has also met with widespread protest, most famously through the Tea Party movement in the Republican party and the recent shift from blue to red in the mid-term elections.
What both divides and unites these two nations and their citizens’ and politicians’ attitudes to state services and welfare is ideology. France and the USA may be guided by two very different concepts of state responsibility: they are about as divided as they can be on the question of how far a democratic state should support/intrude into (delete as appropriate) the lives of their citizens. But the passion that underlines these beliefs, these ideologies, is also what unites them: their citizens have in common the fact that they know what they like and want, and they are prepared to get active and organised to protect and achieve it.
How different we are in the UK. Until the student demonstration of last week, the British public has been accepting its government’s handling of its own financial problems with barely a murmur. Indeed, the student demonstration, which focussed on a single aspect of the government’s plans, only serves to highlight the lack of public reaction to the rest of the package. I find this rather worrying, not because I think we should all be out on the streets or setting up radical political movements, but because it shows how socially and politically apathetic we are, or can be made to be, and how unwilling or unused we are to organising ourselves for our own good.
The combination of spending cuts and moves towards a Big Society means that many people in the UK will find life harder and/or have to play a more active role in their communities and local services. I can imagine citizens in France, once they had made their feelings about the change felt, channelling their passion and organising zeal and coming together to accept and work with such a new reality. But will citizens in the UK do likewise?
I have argued elsewhere on this blog that this convergence of spending cuts and the Big Society agenda is unfortunate. I still think the current confusion of the two issues, which allows the Big Society to be portrayed as a ‘fig leaf’ for cuts, threatens to undermine public support for what could be a great opportunity to foster and encourage pro-social behaviour and attitudes, with all the benefits around social capital and quality of life that that would bring. But, nevertheless, might the cuts actually be needed to inject some life into the Big Society idea?
At the moment, it looks as though we are sleepwalking towards a world with fewer services and less public support than what we have come to expect and rely on, without taking the initiative needed to strengthen communities and fill in the gaps left by a shrinking state. That’s partly because as a nation and as a collection of localities we have never in recent memory needed to do this before, and unlike France and the USA we have no recent track record of doing anything similar. Perhaps the cuts, when they start to bite, will be what’s needed to spur us into action, and give us some of that organising zeal and ideological determination to look out for ourselves that we’ve seen across the Channel and the Atlantic.