David Miliband writing in the Telegraph today, setting out his political beliefs.
His theory can be summarised thus:
- In the years after 1945, the people of Great Britain said ‘I need’, and the Labour Government stepped forward to meet that need (NHS, education etc).
- In the 1980s, people said ‘I want’, and the Thatcher Government, in trying to meet those aspirations, ended up leaving behind the weaker citizens.
- Since 1997, the people have been saying ‘I can’, so it is now up to the Government to empower citizens, by devolving power to the people etc.
In summary, we have passed through three phases in the last 60 years, I need, I want, and I can.
A bit seductive at first glance, but under proper scrutiny, the whole thing falls apart.
David Miliband’s first error is to assume that society is speaking with one voice, and it is saying only one thing at a time, ’I need’, ‘I want’ or ‘I can’. I put it to him that it is not. During what he termed the ‘I need’ generation (ie post-1945), does he really believe that there were not as many ‘I want’ or ‘I can’ voices even then?
There have always been people with needs (I need), aspirations (I want), and ambition and ability (I can); the only difference is that at different times in the political life of this nation, one group of people was being listened to more than the others. I submit that it is not, as Miliband would put it, a question of citizens changing their status (from ‘I want’ to ‘I can’, for example). Rather, it is a question of politicians changing their focus. It is the politicians who have switched their focus from one group of people to another, depending on their own interests.
Perhaps in 1945, the Labour Government was more attuned to the desires of its natural constituency (ie the ‘I needs’). Similarly, by furthering conservative ideals of personal responsibility, individual enterprise, and limited State control, the Conservative Government of the 1980s was suited to the ‘I want’ group. It is therefore not a question of different time phases, rather it is a question of political focus. These three groups have been with us from time immemorial, and to pretend otherwise is simply naive. The ‘I needs’ and ‘I wants’ were there in 1945, and they are still here today. Similarly, there has been a clamour by the ‘I cans’ ever since 1945. Why is David Miliband only hearing them today?
There are reasons why one particular group’s voice may be louder than the others at any given time. These reasons could be socio-economic, cultural, etc. Politicians simply respond to the loudest voice they hear.
This puts me in mind of Perelman’s concept of justice. Perelman was a philosopher of law who contributed much to the theory of justice. He believed that there were six criteria for determining justice, and that once a society has decided on which criterion to use, it must ‘treat like with like’ within that criterion. His six criteria were as follows:
- to each according to his works
- to each according to his needs
- to each according to his merits
- to each according to his rank
- to each according to his legal entitlement
- to each the same thing
To analyse Miliband’s theory using Perelman (loosely), I would submit that the 1940s concept of justice was as in (2) above. The Labour Government focussed on distributing social goods etc according to the needs of the people. That was their definition of justice for that time. In the same way (and note, I am doing no more than extending Miliband’s theory), the Conservative Government of the 1980s would have chosen (1) or (3) above as their starting-point. Far, therefore, from being a phase, ie a shift among the citizens in their status or priority, it is instead a shift in political focus. As far as the ‘I can’ generation of the 1990s is concerned, what has now happened is that politicians have sensed the urgency coming from the hardworking, aspirational part of society, and have conveniently changed their language (if not their acts) to garner the support of that constituency.
At this point, I should note another weakness in his theory. By Miliband’s reasoning, we have come out of the ’I want’ phase and are now in the ’I can’ phase. I submit that ‘I can’ cannot possibly be a phase, in the sense that he says. Far from being a phase on its own, it is no more than a means by which one satisfies either a ‘want’ or a ‘need’. For example, ’I want’ alludes to desire to acquire, but says nothing about how to meet this desire. It could be by private enterprise (’I can’), or even just as valid, it could be by social security payments. I think it is therefore misleading to claim, even if his theory stood up by other means, that there is a valid ‘I can’ phase.
But even if I were to accept wholesale every word in his article, I have difficulty seeing what this Government (with which Miliband dines at high table) has done to address the desires of the so-called ‘I can’ generation. Is it the torrent of legislation pouring out daily from the pen of our ministers, or the acres upon acres of red tape? Is it the high tax burden that has stifled private enterprise, and led to the fall in disposable income? Is it the attempts to control what we say and think, and to regulate our every move? Or perhaps it’s the growing information-gathering powers that this Government accords to itself at every stage.
Whichever way I look at it, the message from this Government is clear and unambiguous: ‘you can’t’.