We can help ourselves

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The Independent Online
Do you remember the debate about "community"? From 1993 onwards there was a steady trickle of arguments coming from all parts of the political spectrum about the need for a richer civic culture, one that focused on rebuilding families and communit ies, as distinct from the crafty individualism of the Eighties.

It was part of the national trauma following the killing of James Bulger, but it cropped up everywhere. It seemed to signal a change in national mood, a rethinking of values, and it culminated in penitent articles from former Thatcherite ideologues last summer. At the time I chirped optimistically that some big ideological shift seemed to be happening: "The wind freshens."

But was this true? Has anything of note happened since? Or was it just another gurgle of metropolitan self-importance, a fad?

It is too early to announce any dramatic upheaval in the political landscape, but something is changing and, as it happens, more straws have been blowing in that wind during the past week or two. First, Peter Lilley, one of the purest Thatcherites left in politics, suggested that it was time to consider whether or not parts of the welfare system should be devolved from Whitehall. He cited the existing powers of local authorities over community care and new proposals to give them power to vary the rate of housing benefit.

Mr Lilley, after thinking long and hard during his Christmas break in Normandy, went on to ask whether there could not be some variation in local benefit levels. In future, he said, wherever he was looking at welfare reform he would "consider carefully whether some greater degree of localisation could bring improvements".

That, of course, runs counter to the trend of centralism and nationalisation of policy that has been the hallmark of the Tory years. But this was no sudden outburst of damp liberalism from a Social Services Secretary. Lilley had been driven to speak by problems he has encountered at the department over the past few years.

First, he was frustrated that he was unable to try out any new ideas in welfare without going national. How can you modify and adapt a system when it is all-or-nothing every time? Second, he had become increasingly aware that rules which are logical at national level can work illogically and unfairly when applied locally. As a professional national manager, he had run up against the limits of centralism.

Finally, although he was cagey about this aspect, there is the question of local peer pressure. Lilley was clearly much impressed by the fact that Switzerland, which deals with welfare at the smallest communal level, has high levels of benefit but low levels of dependency. Why? Is it something to do with the fact that it is harder to con your local community than to con a vast, unfeeling and faceless state bureaucracy?

Now let us scroll across to the other side of the political spectrum. Hear this: "What central government can do for people is limited, but there is no limit to what people and communities can be enabled to do for themselves."

That comes from the final report of the Labour-sponsored Social Justice Commission, whose secretary, David Miliband, has moved across to Tony Blair's office. It is quoted approvingly in a report published yesterday by that beacon of leftish thinking, theInstitute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), on the extraordinary expansion of local self-help groups across the country.

The IPPR's Building Social Capital lists and describes the growth of groups of all kinds, from cancer sufferers' networks to disablement groups, credit unions and addicts' organisations. There are tens of thousands of such organisations, mostly formed byand for people who have been failed by the traditional welfare state.

The IPPR is describing a world that the radical right has long mourned as dead, the vigorous self-help bodies of working and middle-class Britain, allegedly destroyed by the arrival of a bureaucratic and nationalised welfare state. Yet here they are again, like the earliest friendly societies, vigorously alive after all.

This is something the traditional left would deplore. Is it not evidence of the failure of the welfare state to expand into new areas? Is it not evidence of the need to do more through the central state bureaucracy, spreading it more strongly and vigorously into the lives of the poor and unaided? The IPPR draws almost the opposite conclusion. Although self-help groups "cannot provide health and social services to the public at large", the institute applauds them and argues that they must become "a core part" of the welfare system. "Self-help groups of all kinds invigorate civil society ... Formal and institutional solutions need not be imposed where families, relatives and communities - through self-help groups and other means - are willing and

able to invent and manage their own."

Hear the rumble of change in those words. For the traditional left, they represent an iconoclasm as dramatic as the decision to demolish Clause IV. This kind of nationalisation has survived the other one, but isn't in very good shape either.

The thought that the Great Paternal might stand back a bit is as subversive of post-war Labour centralism as Lilley's localism is of recent Tory centralism. Both are part of a big current in Western thought that runs from management thinking to such political movements as "communitarianism" - a mix of old-fashioned moralism and radical hostility to the big state. (Not for the first time, Liberal Democrats have cause to ponder the hardship and thanklessness of being pioneers.)

There are sound practical reasons to suppose that this new interest in localism and community-level action will not blow away. For one thing, though the so-called "communitarian" agenda has been an intellectuals' and moralists' movement, imported from America, it merely provides one ideological description of things that are already happening across Britain.

Not only self-help groups, but devolved local authorities, community groups, self-managed schools, housing associations and campaigning charities have been slowly filling in the gaps left by a retreating state. And because of changing work patterns and technologies, there are more people at home to take part.

This is not to suggest that we are witnessing a new movement that is somehow outside politics - still less "above" politics. "Communitarianism" has been described as a third ideology, beyond both socialism and liberalism, a genuine, new-minted idea. Yet politicians as diverse as John Smith and Douglas Hurd were talking about the need to focus more on rebuilding communities years ago, and meaning rather different things by it, and wanting to go about it in different ways. Nor have the instincts and motivations of the IPPR and Peter Lilley converged; it is simply that they have both sought out for themselves the same battleground on which to fight.

Because this is a new agenda, it is full of ambiguities and unresolved thinking. Are real communities liberating - or are they bound to become stifling, censorious and illiberal? (I think they are not, because of the pervasiveness of the surrounding liberal culture, but there is a serious argument to be had about this.)

How can there be such a thing as state-aided self-help, as the IPPR suggests? And would we really like the results of a localised welfare system?

Nor can anyone agree what the proper role of local authorities in this regeneration should be. Dick Atkinson of Birmingham, who has worked with the city's Balsall Heath community groups, has argued in a pamphlet for the think-tank Demos that "in place ofthe old model of a local authority as a monopolist of power, we can build networks and clusters of institutions - collaborating groups of self-governing institutions - that can help communities cohere, and give them fresh purpose and pride."

He is highly critical of local parties and local councils; the very agents that other localists pin their hopes on. So we are not heralding the end of old arguments, still less the death of traditional politics.

But we are seeing something new, and real, which is growing in importance. This is one of the big changes in British politics, however hard to define, however vague. The wind isn't merely freshening: it is starting to gust.