Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Ask not what your NHS can do for you - ask what you can do for your NHS

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

The late, great Tony Gibson, the pioneer of UK community development, who I knew a little, used to talk about the origins of his vision in Stepney in 1940 – abandoned by the government during the Blitz, their town hall bombed out, when local people managed to organise basic services for themselves to help cope with almost infinite need.

His autobiography Streetwide Worldwide describes how, at the age of 21, in charge of a ten-strong Pacifist Service Unit there – with one steel helmet between them – he managed to find a tie and his father’s briefcase to walk past the queues at the People’s Palace theatre in Commercial Road in to talk to the town clerk .

The overwhelmed council officials had gone there when their office and filing systems had been bombed. Tony found the town clerk desperate to talk to someone and armed him with some of the resources he needed.

This is how I described it in my recent Counterweight pamphlet for the Local Trust:

“One of those who were there, who broke into the locked and shuttered council offices in Stepney borough, and who witnessed the way that the neighbourhood regrouped and organised makeshift police and social services for themselves out of the chaos, was a young Quaker ambulance driver called Tony Gibson. It was his memory of this, and the right people have – when they feel abandoned by those who administer them – to take matters into their own hands, which led to the launch of the ground-breaking unit at Nottingham University, Education for Neighbourhood Change, his influential 1978 Pelican book People Power, and other projects which led to community development, community technical aid, and all the rest…”

I still feel a sense of inspiration from that. Not that I am claiming that people have been abandoned to their fates during the current crisis. But governments have to remember that not only do people have the right to intervene as volunteers, but that – if the need is obvious – they will do.

They also need to know that this community response is absolutely critical to tackling any kind of disaster – as it was when floods overwhelmed the east of England, during a storm in January 1953, which also claimed the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria and over 300 lives.

In fact, the demise of the old voluntary sector since then – often informal and church-based – has in some ways been echoed in recent years by the austerity-driven demise of its successor, formal and lottery-funded.

What we have seen in the last few weeks is not just the recreation of a neighbourhood support structure – including the Lib Dems which have put their local government campaign at the disposal of local communities, chaired by former NCVO director Stuart Etherington – but the building of a new infrastructure which will be there with a bit of luck ready for the next crisis too.

It is also a reminder of the political roots of the radical centre. If the business owners tend to be represented by conservatives, and their workforces by socialists, then the radical centre aspires to represent this other, neglected and forgotten group – the self-employed, sole operators of small businesses and the volunteers.

In fact, it may have been that the Lib Dems never grasped this and went off on a quite different search for a ‘core vote’ that sealed their fate.

But let’s leave that on one side for a moment. By the end of this virus, with a bit of luck, we should have a cadre of volunteers that are integrated into the warp and weft of services, yet out of reach of their hopeless, dysfunctional tickbox systems.

We might then be a little closer to the classic statement of the radical centre that John Kennedy never quite said: “Ask not what your NHS can do for you; ask what you can do for the NHS.”


Blissex2 said...

«If the business owners tend to be represented by conservatives, and their workforces by socialists, then the radical centre aspires to represent this other, neglected and forgotten group – the self-employed, sole operators of small businesses and the volunteers.»

That seems a grave misunderstanding of politics: small-business owners, whether self-employed in the trades or professions or employing a few people, are the core constituency of the Conservatives, and are usually pretty far-right and authoritarian, and are obsessed with property speculation; they are the classic affluent "Middle England" classes that are quintessentially tory. Also: the volunteers are a core constituency of the left.

The radical centre, the "liberals" or "socialdemocrats" (in the UK sense) actually represent the interests of big businesses and commercial finance, and therefore they want "steady as she goes" centrism but also the ability to be radical in eliminating traditions and other legacies of the past when they impede the ability of big business and finance to do what they will.

Thus the problem with the "radical centre" is that they are a small constituency numerically, while there are several millions of tory small businesspeople and even more labourist employees, so the realists among the "radical centre" have infiltrated the Conservative party and largely taken over its top (they have done the same to the Labour party), leaving behind in the "radical centre" parties a small minority of pure "hobbyist" whigs.

When there was no universal suffrage but only rich tories and very rich whigs could vote, the two dominant parties were the Conservatives and Liberals, because those rich and very rich voters were a relatively small number and were and are indeed evenly split between toryism and whiggism; but with universal suffrage a lot more tory very small businesspeople joined the tories, and a lot more labourist employees joined labour.

Blissex said...

As to actual politics, consider also your earlier blog post "How might we go about enacting a no #tickbox policy?" in which I think you effectively lamented that the tory/whig plan is to have distinct 1st (gold), 2nd (silver), 3rd (bronze) and steerage (copper) class health services, with the NHS doing 3rd class in lower middle class areas and steerage in working class areas and 1st and 2nd class being private.

That plan is quintessentially liberal and "radical centre", because it is all about giving citizens a wide choice of what kind of health plan they want, and letting them freely choose which one looks best for them. Your aim instead seems to me that of a "silver" plan for everybody and that would be pure "far left" "socialism", of the "from everybody what they can contribute, to everybody what they need".

To me the "radical centre" interpreted correctly is in effect a rejection of "butskellite" socialdemocracy and it is in essence the thatcherism of M Thatcher but with a smile and talk of "civil society" (cameronism/cleggism) instead of a frown and "there is no such thing as society".

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