Rebuild the lost republic

Decline of the Public
September 24, 2004

David Marquand's trenchant critique of the "marketisation" of British public policy is one of the more compelling left-wing evaluations of the Thatcherite and Blairite revolutions published to date.

The most forceful polemic in the book follows a thoughtful historical discussion of the development of a "public sphere" in Britain: a concept that Marquand concludes was manifested in attitudes to public probity and service from the 19th century, although the term itself is more recent. The most successful political ideologies of the past 25 years have, he claims, replaced the values of the public sphere with those of the marketplace - values that favour private interests over the public good.

New Labour's foreign and domestic policy consequently demonstrates, according to Marquand, a "populist centralism" contemptuous of the very citizens it claims to represent. To restore a sense of the public interest, Marquand argues for a renewed debate over the meaning of citizenship based on the values and practices that he associates with republicanism and professional probity. To regain public trust, Marquand advises politicians to create a strong, common republican identity, eschewing corporate notions of society that embody only narrow private interests.

There is much to debate in Marquand's construction of a "public sphere". His notion of "public" identity is based on identification with the state. The "professional" and the "public spirit" that Marquand associates with prewar Britain was fostered by the interests of a militarised imperial state. Even then, the British political thinkers who were most concerned with "public conscience" had more time than Marquand does for a "civil society" built by independent non-state actors. Indeed, much of the academic literature on the "rise of the public sphere" focuses on an active "bourgeois" citizenry with well-defined perceptions of the relationship between the public good and their own distinctive interests.

Would a new "public philosophy" be more faithfully articulated by a new discourse of public sacrifice on the part of private parties to a public dialogue, or by public servants insisting again on the value of their former professional distance from the private sector? Marquand, seeing the magnitude of the task of reversing the Thatcher revolution, argues for a political culture in which the emphatic assertion of public over private interest will restore public trust and the will to participate in political life. His critics will no doubt aver that political culture is too weak a factor to constitute the primary cause of the rise and fall of the public sphere, which was a product of the political, economic and social shifts that Marquand boldly marginalises.

Decline of the Public is an impressive indictment of the limits of a market or private-interest-based political philosophy. It will be useful reading for students of politics and for others interested in current British politics. But a word of caution: before wholly dismissing the role of private interest in public service, the admirer of Marquand would do well to explore the reasons why the politics of privatisation continue to mark post-Thatcherite Britain in ways that new Labour is loath to acknowledge.

George R. Wilkes is director of studies for politics, Homerton College, Cambridge.

Decline of the Public: The Hollowing Out of Citizenship

Author - David Marquand
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 168
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2909 1 and 2910 5

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