Monday, June 13, 2011

The 'enemy within' has a new face

With official opposition to the government’s policies virtually non-existent, the only significant criticism of the Coalition is coming from areas of the establishment usually seen as traditional supporters.

People like the leader of the Church of England and institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have taken up the cudgels against unbridled market capitalism while Labour leader Ed Miliband is happy to attack the poor who depend on state benefits.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, as a guest editor of the New Statesman, wrote that “with remarkable speed we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted” and that “at the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context”, the government had to respond quickly and with all guns blazing.

The archbishop did more than expose the cruelty of a few cuts; he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the government and with it the charade of bourgeois democracy. And the holy man went on to declare that the big society was viewed with “widespread suspicion”, that the coalition was facing “bafflement” and “indignation” over its plans to reform the health service and education, and so on.

This is a challenge to the fundamentals that underpin the system itself and is not so easily brushed off. A further instance of government policies stirring up its own people to rebellion took place at Oxford University where academics and tutors voted for a motion of no confidence in the higher education minister David Willetts by a landslide majority (283-5).

At the meeting they lined up to attack plans to instigate a market in universities. Willetts, in his annual speech to vice chancellors ten days before, had said the government’s ambition was to make the new higher education framework “as de-regulatory as we can”, with the emphasis on increasing competition.

Bernard Sufrin, computing scientist, conjured up “the spectre of the private, for-profit university” at the Oxford gathering. Professor of English David Norbrook argued that academics were being forced to speak a language “that we all know doesn’t honestly represent what we do and what we believe in but which we speak because it is the price of funding”.

Adbel Takriti, a tutor at St Edmund Hall, called the plans “ill-articulated and incoherent”. The unity between academics and students (who were demonstrating outside) was evident when David Barclay, president of the student union, said that “the marketised core of the government’s plans is rotten, and will turn our successors into those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Other university academics will hold their own meetings, and they are not likely to be much different. Thousands are signing the no-confidence web-sites

What is most remarkable about this revolt-from-within is the emphasis on the “loss of community” and “collective life” that the commercialisation/privatisation plans imply. A growing opposition turning everything into a commodity for sale is becoming more articulate, more focused on the ideas behind the policies.

Even more scary for the government is the fact this opposition does not come from within Parliament or from the trade unions. Ministers are forced to turn and face a growing number of jabs in the back from unexpected quarters, from people who would normally refrain from direct criticism, from those who do not respect the rules of the parliamentary game.

In a newspaper article, Barclay and two academics wrote: “The model of organising resistance to this degradation of collective life can already be seen, honeycombed throughout the country”. Indeed it can, amongst doctors, teachers, nurses, civil servants and many other groups of professional workers facing cuts, job losses and the destruction of services.

The creation of People’s Assemblies, to bring together all sections of the community into united opposition to government plans, is a natural next step. Building a network of assemblies around a strategy of transferring political and economic power into the hands of the majority would offer a real alternative to the status quo.

Peter Arkell

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