Saturday, 26 February 2011

Two talks and one big society

So the blog has been a bit episodic recently... Pressures of in-semester teaching and of rushing around the country talking to groups of other academics, which has been invigorating but exhausting.

One thing that has become clearer over the last couple of weeks, during which I've spoken at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (above) and at Keele University, is the indistinct nature of the boundaries between 'citizen' and 'consumer'.

The LSHTM conference, Health rights in global historical perspective, saw a series of historians of medicine reflect on the ragged edges between the state and society. Jane Seymour of UCL made clear how rhetorics of health and the state were changing in the early twentieth century under the stresses of New Liberalism and what we used to call 'the rise of labour'. Gayle Davis of Edinburgh was revealing about Scottish doctors, lawyers, administrators and their different relations with the IVF in the 1950s and 1960s. Linda Bryder from the University of Auckland gave a really sensitive and revealing paper about women's rights and maternity care in twentieth century New Zealand.

What these papers had in common - and what my own efforts at the LSHTM and at Keele tried to give voice to as well - is that the line between what is for 'the state', and what is for 'the people', 'the market' or for charities is an ever-shifting one. Even services provided by the Government change all the

That set me thinking about Jesse Norman's The Big Society and Phillip Blond's Red Tory, both influential books on the blue side of the Coalition, and both under my eye at the moment as I try to finish the conclusion to my next book.

Blond's is infinitely the better work - both because it's full of concrete ideas, and (more importantly as regards the state and society) he's clear that this line will continue to move even in the new and 'red Tory' future. Norman is much less clear about this, and seems to think that the decentralisation agenda, giving power 'away' to co-ops and local authorities for instance, will always flow in one direction.

I don't think it'll be like that. The tide will flow back one day, the direction of the flood changed by scandal, policy contradictions and probably a couple of catastrophic failures due to lack of auditing or direction from the centre. It's important to say that as a historian who's very sceptical indeed about post-war 'planning', which basically promised more than it could achieve.

But one day historians will look at Blond and Norman and say, 'ah, that was the "Cameron moment", the neo-libertarian moment, before...' And then they'll talk about the future, still unknown to us, that changed it all again.

We need historians to understand that. It's a job, I suppose.

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