Friday, 22 March 2013

Liberals and civil society 1

James Hargrave, a sometime council candidate from Suffolk, left the Liberal Democrats in January 2012, his resignation letter raised tuition fees, ‘free schools’, and benefits – an all too familiar trio of concerns. 

His blog also details his involvement with the new civil society entity (an Industrial and Provident Society) which now runs the county library service in Suffolk.  This emerged from the campaign to prevent library closures or privatisation, and seems a really interesting, promising, bottom-up, participatory way to provide (not ‘deliver’) public services.  As James puts it:

‘The way libraries are now run in Suffolk may not be what everyone wanted but it has been my view for some time that the IPS offers the best future for Suffolk’s libraries. With a Board able to negotiate as good a deal as possible in funding and independence from some of the more annoying aspects of County Council control the IPS has an opportunity to make the most of the funding available.

My experience as a school governor has shown me the benefits that local autonomy can offer. The relationship with the council becomes more of working together and simply having a cheque book means schools can buy what they need without all the bureaucracy of a large organisation.’

This seems a very appealing project (in accord with the best traditions of British liberalism), which I’ll follow with interest.

There is a wider issue here, too.  Political liberalism has long gone hand in hand with wider civic participation.  (Interestingly, Liberal Party members in the 1980s were much more likely than their SDP counterparts to be involved in other civil society groups).  Almost all the Lib Dem activists I know are also involved in other activities: perhaps this has something to do with the liberal instinct that there are numerous worthwhile facets to life, which can’t be reduced to class conflict or religion or anything else, even liberalism itself.    

But there is also the fact that participation in civil society projects can often provide a much more satisfying sense of agency – of control over one’s own life and immediate environment, often in very small but very tangible ways – than can party politics.  When party activity revolves around winning elections, there is the danger that this ends up passing agency on (to councillors, council officers, Deputy Prime Ministers etc), rather than spreading it around.  And we all know the frustrations that can lead to. 

I’m sure that James Hargrave is one of very many former Liberal Democrat campaigners whose energies are now directed more towards civil society, and the party’s response can’t lie only in the field of policies.

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