The public must help restore society11 November 2009
The twin fiscal and democratic deficits facing the UK must be urgently addressed if we are to return to a path of growth - but government cannot succeed alone. Citizens must step up to the plate. Government, public services and society all rely on the willingness of citizens to participate. What will this mean?
People will have to get more involved with government and the democratic process. Would a "localism revolution", as the Conservatives seem to be proposing, help to re-engage citizens with government? It could, but there is a danger that if the devolution of power to local communities is only superficial it could further disengage people from what could be perceived as yet another layer of bureaucracy. New media could help; initiatives like mySociety, the group behind the successful TheyWorkForYou website, are already starting to make an impact. Speaking at the Reform conference, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell argued for a new balance of political power, tipped towards the voter and away from MPs and government. Like Labour MP David Lammy, he called for open primaries. He also argued that voters should have a right of recall to unseat MPs who have acted improperly, and the ability to submit legislation.
Information will make all the difference. In his presentation, Paul Staines (writer of the Guido Fawkes blog) envisaged citizens pulling down raw data on public services via the internet to create their own league tables and inform their choices. Information is democratising. One member of the audience complained to Staines that he had middle-class choice overload; Staines told him that the moment to question choice is when everyone in society, including the poorest and most disenfranchised, is bored of it too.
Given the severity of the fiscal crisis, individuals will need to play their part in tackling the public debt. People need to realise that public services cost money - their money - and accordingly start using services more responsibly. People taking better care of their own health could help to ease the burden on the NHS. And there is a need to accept that there are occasions when they will have to pay for the services they receive - for GP visits, for example.
Society has grown more and more reliant on government to fill the gaps left as individuals and communities have retreated. As Reform's report, The lawful society, showed, the British public have become "passive bystanders", expecting the police to deal with every low-level public order problem and blaming politicians for every burglary. More responsible individuals will mean a more responsible society.