Will Middle England rise again?

David Walker asks whether Oxfordshire's middle classes have caught the animal rights bug
Domestically, the British state is weak and knows it. A decade ago ministers, even Margaret Thatcher, were haunted by the dandified shade of Derek Hatton. They did not fear Militant Derek himself by default. It was the possibility that Whitehall might be left, with no scapegoat councillors below it, to see to the bins. Policing a bitterly divided coalfield was one thing; it was something else to run Merseyside by the fiat of some civil service Gauleiter with a suite in the Liver Building (which was the fall-back plan of the day). Clay Cross, the Derbyshire district where a commissioner was sent in the early 1970s to collect rents, gave officials nightmares for years after. Collecting rents is not something the Parachute Regiment is good at.

There, in Realpolitik terms, is the threat posed by the irate school governors of Oxfordshire, though they scarcely realise their power. The administration of Britain is decentralised: it depends on umpteen unsung locals doing their bit, some within the municipal system, others self-appointed, on the fringes in PTAs and the like.

Today's fashionable quango debate usually misses the point. The durability of the state has always rested on willing civilian backs. You hear civic deference in county halls as on the various local committees; it assumes those calculating the support grants, the civil servants and their ministers, are ultimately behaving rationally and sincerely. The worm never turns.

Public service has two stout legs. One is dour professionalism. Council chief executives and headteachers keep the show on the road and teachers turn up and teach despite Kenneth Clarke's insults.

The other is that infuriating English policy stoicism which, in education, allowed the Government to remake the finances of the schools with minimal input from people on the ground, who now have to carry the can.

This week the legs seem to be bending. Just before teachers' pay is set with all its knock-on consequences for staff and class sizes, governors in middle England have become vocal. There are threats of illegal budgets and mass resignation.

"I am not by nature radical but I want to preserve the essential fabric of our society." That was not Tony Blair but an Oxfordshire school governor. It captures Blair's hope, in his speech at the weekend, that the (middle-class) custodians of the fabric can be won over.

There is the game, but are the actors credible? Would these governors jeopardise, albeit temporarily, children's education for the sake of the potential effects of the protest? It was the dilemma faced in the 1980s by Labour radicals in Islington, Lambeth and Liverpool who refused, temporarily, to make a rate. A favourite Labour metaphor was the "battered shield": without us, vulnerable people suffer more.

If school governors resigned or budgeted illegally their effect would hinge on whether the county council stepped in. But nothing compels councillors to act. What would upset the system would be their mass resignation. (Together, the Liberal Democrats and Labour form a majority in Oxfordshire.) The refusal of councillors to work the system as it has always been worked would precipitate at the very least a period of political crisis before elections were held. Imagine it: county council elections in Bicester and Abingdon become the cynosure of the nation.

What would follow can only be called a crisis of legitimacy. What in all probability would happen is that council officers, in cahoots with the Department for Education, would take executive decisions on pay and school administration. Would scuffles at the school gate ensue? It starts to sound like an old red fantasy. Middle-class refuseniks - the doctors against Aneurin Bevan, the lawyers against Mrs Thatcher - usually win.

But you may say Britain is not like that. We obey the law. Or did. Does Brightlingsea represent some new spirit; has some linchpin of the public order sheared?

The truth is, Tony Blair cannot be comfortable with any strategy which encompasses service breakdown, that is to say the failure of the state. He wants to mobilise society, but not too much. He needs to keep middle-class revolt within the trammels of conventional party politics.

That is, for him, an electoral calculation. If it were possible to stand back, with patience, a different calculus applies. Meltdown will doubtless be avoided - the Conservatives, after all, bought out Derek Hatton rather than see services disrupted, andmay already have taken fright at the rattling of Oxfordshire sabres. Conventional wisdom hopes for compromise.

Yet service breakdown could do us all a public service. A revolt would be an experiment in the way we govern ourselves of a kind we never had even in the deep, dark days of Thatcherism. Its educational value for constitutional reformers would be immense.

It would be a lesson of primary importance to see, exposed to its bones, the skeleton of the state. Revolt in Oxfordshire would demonstrate the utter, daily dependence of government on the active collaboration of society.

The author is the BBC's urban affairs correspondent.