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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'