Solidarity vs charity
This is something that I've been pondering for a while in relation to the politics of public services. There seem to be two modes of thinking:
- solidarity-based: "We all need education and health services, and the need for these is inherently universal and equal. Therefore we're going to fund them univerally from public funds."
- charity-based: "There's a moral obligation to help people less well off than yourself, and we're going to do this by funding services for those who can't afford to pay for them on an individual basis."
While these are very similar and can produce similar sorts of results, I feel that the original Bevanist welfare state was much more solidarity-based, and that over time we've drifted from solidarity to charity since then. The problem with the charity approach is that it very easily ends up either patronising its recipients, or giving them the wrong things; it's also very vulnerable to having its funding cut off when people no longer feel rich. Hence what's happening at the moment.
We've already seen higher education taken from universal to private, with a strange charitable fudge on the way student loans are repaid. But by structuring it as loans, we say that the student's obligation to society is *financial*, whereas in the old model there would be an understood obligation to pay one's education forward by being useful to the public. The public service ethos is gradually being eroded in favour of not giving the public any more service than the person in front of you has personally paid for.
Charity-based thinking is also very, very easily undermined by the "donors" feeling that they are being exploited, lied to, given insufficient gratitude, or that the recipients are engaging in immoral lifestyles. This is why the cuts to DLA have happened so easily: people question whether all those people are "really disabled". Or consider the endless Mail stories about people given housing benefit for houses that would be unaffordable on average middle class incomes.
Solidarity is not something that can be centrally ordered, wished or bought into existence. It requires continuous political construction. And I think that the only party in the UK that really understands this and has made it work is the SNP. They've spent at least the past 30 years if not longer working on making Scotland a "solidarity unit", something that people feel a civic pride in and a sense of mutual obligation. And this shows up in the way they handle issues like higher education and care for the elderly: they assume universality (among Scots) from the start, rather than immediately bogging the discussion down in trying to account for the costs on an individual basis.
England, meanwhile, is not a solidarity unit in anything like that sense; if someone makes a point of their English national identity, there's a very high chance they're going to use it to bash Scotland and accuse Scotland of not paying their fair share. (If someone makes a point of their English "ethnicity", it's very likely they're going to say something about Islam next).
The United Kingdom? People on the mainland seem to forget about Northern Ireland, which has its own problem of two violently opposed identity groups. There's quite high solidarity *within* those groups - solidarity is easier when you have a common enemy, sadly. Lots of people there would dearly love to be in two different countries but are too geographically mingled for that to be possible. Currently a truce holds; will it last the century? NI's unionists have a strong idea of what the UK should be, not necessarily one shared by many people on the mainland, and what will happen to them if Scotland leaves the Union?
"British" seems to be the default choice for most people, but as a "solidarity unit" it's fairly weak. Standing up and declaring pride in one's Britishness is Not Done, and attempts to bring Britishness into politics range from the embarrasing ("Cool Britannia") to the problematic ("British jobs for British workers") to the thwarted (attempts to keep train procurement in the UK abandoned due to EU competition law). There is too much problematic history attached to the British Empire for progressive people to embrace Britishness wholeheartedly; Scotland doesn't have that baggage.
Where to go from here? Europe? I note that the current European financial crisis is entirely down to the same issue of not wanting to pay for those who are percieved to be "cheating the system", in this case Germany not willing to fund Greece. European solidarity is strong among a very small group of elites and weak otherwise.
The "99%" people have the right idea, but are arguably too far in the other direction of not being specific enough. It'll be interesting to see if that's still going in 10 years time.