Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Coalition and the politics of risk

Risk. It's everywhere. You experience it. I experience it - every time we cross the road, drive someone, get on a 'plane, drink alcohol, eat fatty foods. You name it - we're calculating risks and benefits all the time.

It has a theory, too. Ulrich Beck (above), for instance, has always argued that its management and strategies for coping with it were inherent in modernity. We think we're going to live a long time; we have economic gains to protect; we are usually insulated from day-to-day chaos and contingency. So we want to manage it and shelter ourselves from its worst dangers.

And it's a concept that's central to understanding the politics of the UK's Coalition government. Everything it does is designed to separate out risk: to make it more individual, more personal, more episodic. To stop us as citizens pooling so much of it. And - I would argue - that's making our society more dangerous, more lop-sided, and ultimately less happy.

Consider some of these politics. I know they're grisly, but don't look away - it's important you look at the sickly state of British public policy.

Vastly increased university tuition fees. Well, if this agenda ever get sorted out, and Ministers are still mired in the total Horlicks the government has made of the entire scene, it'll thrust risk onto young people under the age of 18. Seeing as they're unlikely to bear that risk for another decade or two, it'll also expose the taxpayer to a lot of uncertainty too - as well as making it more likely that some Higher Education Institutions will fail.

More independence throughout the National Health Service. From some theoretical perspectives, this isn't a priori that bad an idea. France and Sweden, to name but two, have health care systems with a multiplicity of providers 'competing' for business. No-one says those are neo-liberal states governed by crazed ideologues. But putting all commissioning in General Practitioners' hands? Really quickly? Setting up six layers of bureaucracy to monitor all this? Allowing this commissioning to govern specialisms such as physiotherapy and speech and language therapy? There'll be many more 'postcode lotteries'; many more mistakes; much more organisational faffing about. Expect the press to have a field day. Expect the NHS to look silly.

Reduced rail subsidies. Now, I know that this will hit people on middling and higher incomes - people who take the train. But once again a de-merging of risk is involved. 'Consumer pays' is all very well, but increasing congestion, pollution and decreased labour mobility aren't exactly fantastic outcomes, either.

One could go on. And on. Kicking the Dilnot Commission's proposals to put a cap on elderly care spending in England? Increasing personal exposure to massive and unforeseen expenditure. More Free Schools and Academies, 'freed' from the National Curriculum? Increasing the risk of religious division, extermism and poor teaching.

The real irony? This'll have negative political consequences in the end - five, ten, fifteen years down the road. Sooner or later schools, hospitals, universities, rail companies, insurance schemes, private pensions, toll roads... One or more of them will fail. Who will take the blame? Teachers, lecturers, doctors, actuaries, engineers or Ministers?
I'd put my money on Ministers if I were you.

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