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Letwin: Sustainability and society

Speech to the Adam Smith Institute

Society and the State

Conservatives are sometimes accused of lacking ideas. But like London buses two Conservative ideas are arriving in a pair this evening. Tonight I want to present and unpack two ultimately inseparable ideas. The ideas of sustainability and society.

My essential argument is the only way that we can sustain our way of life is through a renewal of society.

Society has, of course, been a word that has been difficult for Conservatives in recent times. A famous interview given by Mrs Thatcher in 1988 was grotesquely misrepresented. But I do not believe that what I am going to say tonight is in any way inconsistent with Mrs Thatcher's values and philosophy.

In that misrepresented interview Margaret Thatcher suggested that - and I quote:

"We've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant'. 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problems on society. And you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations."

In these remarks Mrs Thatcher was attacking the Left's constant and unthinking call for 'society' to rush in and solve every ill. And when the Left say 'society' - then and still today - they inevitably mean the state. In the part of the quotation that the Left never repeat, Mrs Thatcher points to a more enduring vision of society - a society composed of active citizens, strong families and of neighbours who look out for each other.

Tonight I want to focus on this central distinction between the Conservative party and the parties of the Left.

Conservatives understand society as existing and flourishing on a human scale - in hugely varied people-sized institutions that are connected by a complex web of mutually-supporting relationships. The institutions and relationships of society provide each of us with a sense of identity and belonging. They are multidimensional in character and purpose. They have evolved organically and have stood the test of time.

Conservatives still envisage an important role for government but we believe that its main role is to support the institutions of society and the complex, infinitely varied relationships between those institutions. The state's role should never be to supplant or nationalise society.

This state-society distinction is absent from Labour's worldview. It is true to say that for New Labour there is no such thing as society, only the state.

Free enterprise and the state

During the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's governments freed the economy from an attempted takeover by the state. The state was interfering in every nook and cranny of our economic life. The command economies of eastern Europe demonstrated most clearly the inability of the state to manage supply and demand. Whenever the state suppressed the price mechanism - as British governments often did before 1979 - they blocked out the information that is the basis of a properly functioning market economy. By heavy taxation and regulation, the same governments supplanted the entrepreneurs and small businesses who act as the essential interpreters of market signals and ensure that consumers' infinitely varied demands are heard and heeded. In ignoring the complexity and sophistication of relations between market players the state produced the catastrophic economic mess of 1979.

That was the reality that faced the new Conservative government of 4th May 1979. It boldly began a programme of reform that freed people to make their own economic decisions. That Conservative government trusted entrepreneurs, businesses, and trade union members to make economic decisions and power was taken away from politicians, monopolies and trade union barons.

This was not to say that the state did not have any role. The state still had a vital responsibility to maintain a hospitable environment for free enterprise. The market was naturally self-sustaining if it was protected from external shocks and the sometimes dangerous tendencies - identified by Adam Smith more than two centuries ago - to monopolistic practices against consumers' interest. That is why Conservative governments of the 1980s waged war on inflation, renewed competition policy, liberalised the financial sector and reduced high marginal rates of tax and other government controls.

Today the Conservative focus is different but similar philosophical issues are at stake. Margaret Thatcher would, I believe, strongly approve of this new agenda. Our belief is that the expansion of the centralised state threatens society as much today as it once threatened free enterprise. The state still has a vital set of roles to play but it must redirect its energies and become the servant and protector of society and its institutions and relationships.

In understanding how the free market economy and ecological systems process complex information and how they are essentially self-regenerating we begin to understand how the state-society relationship might be rebalanced.

I intend to use these two key ideas of sustainability and society to show how the Conservative party's principal themes of recent months intimately relate to each other. Those themes being public service reform, decentralisation and help for vulnerable people.

And over the next few weeks Iain Duncan Smith and other shadow cabinet colleagues will also be using speeches to focus on the Conservative vision for a sustainable society. As we do so the coherence of the Conservative message - our Helping the Vulnerable campaign - will be become very clear - as will the fundamental importance we attach to the three major themes of high quality public services, localisation and effective compassion for disadvantaged people and their communities.

But, first, having examined how free enterprise was damaged by ham-fisted systems of intervention I would like to emphasise the analysis by focusing on how natural ecological systems have also been destabilised by unthinking intervention.

Sustainability and the natural environment

There are, I believe, four key warnings from environmental science's understanding of the damage done to freely evolved systems by crude human interventions:

· One - the real world is irreducibly complex;

· Two - simplistic targets can be exceptionally destructive;

· Three - crude intervention damages natural regeneration; and

· Four - systems can absorb a limited amount of disruption before suddenly deteriorating irreversibly.

Let me expand upon each of these lessons in turn.

First, the real world is irreducibly complex. When people work against the grain of nature it is because they think they know nature backwards. They interfere with natural systems confident that they can predict all the consequences of doing so. It's as if they could reduce nature to a simplified model governed by a few ground rules to be manipulated at will, just as socialist governments thought they could do the same with the economy. But increasingly scientists realise that natural systems are irreducibly complex and that we can never reliably predict the consequence of human interference. For instance, because scientists have mapped out the human genome many people imagine that we now have a working model of what our genes do. But that assumes that there is one function for every gene, and one gene for every function. With 30,000 genes that seems quite complicated enough. The truth is that our genes interact with one another in countless different combinations for countless different functions. This is irreducable complexity that we are only just begining to understand. So while we can start modifying DNA, putting in a gene here, taking one out there -- we have no way of being sure of all the consequences of doing so. But if the human genome is complicated, what about human society? In this country alone it consists of sixty million elements called human beings. Yet while we express concerns about modifying so much as a tomato, that state thinks it can change human nature. Perhaps we should be as concerned about social engineering as we are about genetic engineering.

Secondly, simplistic targets can be exceptionally destructive. In 1958 Mao's communists launched the Great Leap Forward. Part of this programme was the so-called 'War Against the Four Pests'. Chief among the pests was the sparrow, which Mao wanted wiped out. The authorities ordered China's peasants to kill the birds by all available means - principally by running around and scaring them so that they would drop from the skies, dead from exhaustion. It 'worked' insofar as millions of sparrows were killed. And that year the China did record a bumper harvest. But while sparrows eat some grain, they also eat insects. The next year northern China experienced an unprecedented plague of locusts that stripped the fields bare. Between 1959 and 1961 it is estimated that over 30 million people starved to death as a result of the centralising arrogance of the Great Leap Forward. This is an extreme example of what happens when we intervene in a complex system we don't understand. But that doesn't mean that top-down targets can't kill -- even in Britain. By targeting waiting lists for hospital operations, without distinguishing between minor ailments and serious conditions, it is likely that government policy has resulted in the loss of life. A target is simple, it makes for good headlines, but it is no substitute for the judgement of those that shoulder responsibility for others be they doctors, nurses, teachers or parents.

Thirdly, crude intervention damages natural regeneration. Tropical rainforest is the richest and most complex habitat on Earth. The biomass produced per acre of forest greatly exceeds anything that human agriculture can achieve. But it is not the 'right' kind of biomass, so it was assumed that we could do better by planting crops on what was thought to be very rich soil. That assumption is wrong. Tropical rainforests tend to grow on poor soil. The incredible diversity of the system is maintained by the diversity itself - by a complex web of interactions between different species that recycles the limited amounts of nutrients available. Replacing the complexity of the forest with the monoculture of our crops, reduces once fertile land to little more than desert incapable of supporting either forest or crops. In our own society we speak of the importance of diversity, but we have progressively destroyed it where it matters most of all. No one would deny that family relationships are complicated. By weakening family bonds first of all within the extended family and then within the nuclear family, we may have thought we would make life simpler. But in breaking these links we have made our society less stable and our neighbourhoods a poorer place to raise our children. Thus in many places we are failing to pass on the values of a neighbourly society to the new generation.

Fourthly, there is the idea of 'tipping points'; systems can absorb a limited amount of disruption before suddenly deteriorating irreversibly. When, for example, trees are cleared away from hillsides the result is sometimes soil erosion - an effect which begins more or less immediately and progresses gradually. But this is not always the case. Sometimes we think we can get away with destroying the self-sustaining features of a natural environment. Either there is no erosion or we think it is manageable. But then we reach a 'tipping point' where the ground becomes soaked with water and the result is a landslide. In the Himalayas whole villages have been wiped out in this way. And one tipping point can trigger others. With Himalayan mountains denuded of trees and soil, monsoon rains result in flash floods that kill thousands of people as far downstream as Bangladesh.

Clearly the lessons from the management of our natural ecology can be applied to social policy. I want to argue that the local, holistic and infinitely varied institutions of society should be the starting point of public policy. Only these institutions - such as the great professions and covenantal institutions like the family - can absorb and process the complexity of the challenges we face. That does not, let me repeat, mean that there is no role for the state. The state should be supporting and protecting society - not least from the excesses of the market economy. But that is not the role Labour has given the state. Labour has invested all of its energies in massive centralised control of health, education and other public services. Such an approach is unsustainable.

Centralised approaches to public service reform are unsustainable

Huge, centralised bureaucracies are simply unable to handle the complexity of life and information that exists in society. Centralised schemes lack the subtlety to respond to the infinitely varied needs of patients and pupils. They increasingly undermine the independence and judgement of the highly-qualified professionals struggling to deliver public services.

When centralised schemes go wrong it takes a long time for Whitehall to notice. Information about results travels slowly up the chain of command. Messages are often confused because a programme can appear to work well - at least for a time - in some localities but not in others. When it is increasingly obvious that a programme is failing politicians often take great steps to hide the fact. Whereas the chief executive of a company would cut his or her losses and divert resources into profitable projects, a politician will often redouble the effort to make a signature initiative work. This may lead to the diversion of even more resources to the initial misplaced scheme and still greater centralised monitoring.

A vicious circle of intervention is underway. The failure to deliver is unfairly blamed on already disempowered professions and local structures. Desperate bureaucrats shout their orders more loudly at nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers. Patients and parents and victims of crime watching this sorry saga wonder if any they will ever get better public services.

Conservatives will trust the people

The Conservative response is to decentralise - or localise - power. Conservatives trust people and in our public services that means trusting doctors to treat patients, teachers to educate pupils and police officers to catch criminals. The natural inclination of every professional is enthusiasm for their vocation and a commitment to serve. Many leave their training college or university with hope and expectation but find these qualities suffocated by the dead hand of central control. They find that their professionalism is neither trusted nor respected. Instead they are ordered about by a remote bureaucratic apparatus that impatiently pursues artificial targets and is largely ignorant of local needs. That is why Conservatives pair respect for professionalism with local forms of accountability.

The Conservative approach will ensure patterns of accountability operate on a human scale. Real accountability means less central control and stronger relationships between service providers and the people who depend upon those services. When doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers are rooted in local communities they are best placed to understand and manage those diverse communities' needs. The local community is in the best position to hold them responsible for results but currently lacks opportunities to exercise any real influence on public services.

Localisation creates space for relationships - other than the otherwise dominant relationship between frontline providers and the central bureaucracy - to flourish. Because localisation reduces the distance between public service providers and the people intended to benefit from them, it gives parents, patients and local people the opportunity to be involved in shaping the way local services are run. Localisation gives professions the opportunity to be free from remote and often inappropriate centralised regimes and to develop relations with each other. Problems of crime and poor health are, for example, closely linked. GPs in one medical centre in the Midlands have invited police officers into the surgery to regularly listen to patients' worries about crime and for there to be an exchange of intelligence and crime prevention advice. These sorts of pioneering arrangements are a product of the space for initiative that localisation represents. Localisation establishes far more effective and immediate mechanisms for correcting failure because good relations between service providers and the community ensure a ready interchange of information.

A Rowntree report on hard-pressed housing estates identified the localisation of public services as a vital component of neighbourhood renewal. An active and visible police presence on one particular estate has laid the foundation for a wider improvement in public services - delivered by caretakers and repair staff who, based in the locality, can provide an immediate response to a broken lift or a badly-lit walkway. The author of the Rowntree report identified service level improvements as a 'tipping point issue' for many families deciding whether or not to stay on an increasingly disadvantaged estate.

In Birmingham, neighbourhood wardens regularly escort councillors and public service officials around Balsall Heath. The wardens point out an accident blackspot or the youth club's leaking roof. And they point these things out again - if necessary - on the next escorted tour. Action rates have improved dramatically since this face-to-face form of accountability replaced an often unanswered flow of letters.

Or take the example of Groundwork in Southwark. Groundwork's declared mission - since its 1981 inception - is "to build sustainable communities through joint environmental action". Groundwork ensures that the regeneration of a disadvantaged neighbourhood's environment is undertaken by local people. This approach requires patience but delivers sustainability. Local people receive focused training and support so that they are fully equipped to contribute to the formulation of regeneration projects. Local people are then employed to deliver these projects - developing a range of intermediate skills in the process of, for example, reclaiming contaminated land for a play area or a sports facility. At the same time local schoolchildren are taught about what's going on. Through a diverse range of educational, sports and arts activities, they are invited to develop a full understanding of the interaction between their community and the environment. In a recent Groundwork report, Lord Best wrote: "if improvements are to be sustainable, they must be led and owned by local residents".

Centralised, unsustainable policy hurts the poor most

Britain's poorest estates vividly illustrate the destination of centralisation. No communities have become more dependent upon the state than many of our country's most deprived inner-city and peripheral housing estates. Many of them have gone over 'tipping points' into serious lawlessness and environmental degradation. The weakness of societal links and the retreat of a police presence has left them vulnerable to malign and oppressive gang cultures.

Shiny new buildings may be built and a little more cash fill people's pockets when - through centralised allocations of public money and bureaucratic intervention - the state forces it way into a hard-pressed community. But because this type of intervention does nothing to rebuild the self-sustaining relationships within the community the products of interventions are easily reversed.

But, sadly, it's much worse than that. Interventions by the centralised state often damage multidimensional relationships and distort a community's sense of values by seeming to reward behaviour that is unsustainable. One principle that guided welfare pioneers was to avoid doing anything that would damage the bonds between people in need and their families and communities. These bonds were correctly recognised as more durable than help from a private or public benefactor. Sometimes these bonds were weak - and sometimes even malign - but the priority was to restore or mend them - rather than disregard them. At their best, these bonds also represented holistic - or 3D - care. One-dimensional state benefits can make up for part of the wage that an absent father would otherwise provide his children. But the state cannot also be a role model for the child or a source of emotional support for the child's mother.

Centralised, one-dimensional approaches to tackling child poverty, for example, can in trampling unthinkingly upon the social ecology be as destructive as an unethical multinational invading the natural ecology. Supporters of big government have learnt nothing from the damage done to the environment by the insensitive application of technology. Over-intensive chemical applications in the 'Third World' can raise crop yields but only at the expense of the long-term degradation of the soil. Insensitive social policy interventions display exactly the same kind of short-term insensitivity. Instead of a patient commitment to help people attain dignity through independent living, centralised initiatives tend only to complicate the bureaucracy around them. The ugly circle of deprivation soon reasserts itself. Graffiti and broken windows disfigure the new buildings and welfare dependency intensifies the demoralisation and erosion of relationships.

Only the building or rebuilding community institutions offers a sustainable possibility of escaping from the cycle of deprivation and renewing the neighbourly society. In a recent report the National Federation of Community Organisations noted how traditional community life had been damaged by "wildly fluctuating housing policies, successive waves of area based regeneration programmes, the growth of single person households [and] changing work patterns". One member of a London Community Association said: "We are in a culture which increasingly moves people away from community values…. What you end up with is lonely people, violence, danger, fear". The NFCO represents 4,000 community organisations and 50,000 volunteers in some of Britain's hardest-pressed estates. This quote illustrates their capacity for survival: "Many associations began several decades ago and over the years they have quietly carried on their work, weathering the changes in priority and cuts in funding of successive Governments, to emerge as a strong network and a stable, mature force for change in the 21st century." The enormous possible contribution of community organisations and a thousand-and-one other local faith and people-sized projects has been ignored for too long. Labour may pay them lip-service but has done nothing serious to support and develop them. For New Labour, I remind you, there is no such thing as society, only the state.

Society is the basis of sustainability

In his Leader's speech to the Scottish Party Conference Iain Duncan Smith got to the heart of this state-society distinction between the Labour and Conservative parties. "While Labour trusts the state, Conservatives trust people," he said. "When Labour thinks of community - it thinks of politicians, committees and taskforces. When Conservatives think of community we think of the family, local schools, charities, and places of worship."

The communities referred to by Iain include a wider society. -- a society that encompasses the professions, trade unions and universities. These are associations and institutions that flourish when they enjoy independence from the state. Society is characterised by a complex network of professional, voluntary and involuntary relationships. Professional relationships like a GP's relationship with his or her patients. Voluntary relationships like a mentor's care of an at-risk youth. And then involuntary - or covenantal - relationships like a mother's love for her son.

Society - and the relationships that hold society together - can be sustained by the state or they can be ignored and undermined by the state.

To sustain means to support from below. That is the Conservative vision: government helping to sustain a society that is a rich tapestry of active citizens, families, places of worships, dedicated professions and independent associations. Government must again become the servant of society. Only then will we be able to realise the mission that Iain Duncan Smith has given the Conservative party: the renewal of society.

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