It is surely no coincidence that this weekend’s collapse of Bradford & Bingley signals the final death-knell of those who converted from the Building Societies of yesteryear to the Banks of today. Of all those who de-mutualised, none now remains independent - either purchased by bigger Banks or by the Government. Of the original major players, only the Nationwide has clung to its Society status – its stability (or so it seems) offering confirmation that ‘mutual’ may be a preferable system to ‘capital’ in its purest sense. A return to Mutuals, Trusts and Co-Operatives is a point we champion in Citizen Renaissance.
The obvious failure of the privatisation goldrush of the ’80s and ’90s, so beloved of Thatcherite economics, contains a delicious irony – as private ownership of homes (and especially those belonging to the poorer in society) effectively passes back, at a grand sweep, into ultimate State ownership. Gordon and Alistair are our Freeholders now, never mind the local Council. It is almost as though Maggie failed to spot the emergent sub-Soviet nightmare consequence of her actions.
In last week’s New Statesman, David Marquand mourned the lack of an ‘inspiring new political idea’ in the face of the challenges we face today. The article summarised the thrust of his new book (‘Britain Since 1918; the Strange Career of British Democracy’), which looks well worth a read. He, too, speaks of a new age of austerity being upon us – and clearly understands that ‘the environmental crisis stemming from climate change is no longer a distant threat’. He links the boom and bust of over-consumption with the impending destruction of the planet.
‘We now live in a society where everyone believes that they have a divine right to ever-rising living standards; that we have finally reached the sunlit uplands of ever-increasing consumption, and that, if the good times come to an end, our leaders must be to blame’, writes Marquand.
He argues that this contradicts 250 years of capitalist history – boom and bust swings being systemically embedded within our market economies. Furthermore, just as Rowan Williams has articulated that the ecomony is a sub-set of the environment, so Marquand points out that ‘the rising costs of food and energy are not acts of God… like the vast pool of debt that helped power the boom and now exacerbates the bust, they are the poisoned fruit of the age of abundance’.
Citizen Renaissance is about establishing a proper historical perspective; about understanding that The Citizen and Citizen Behaviour (Mutuals and Trusts, for starters) are more enduring than The Consumer and un-checked Consumerism. In this sense, Citizen Republicanism is the inspiring political idea, if only we can properly grapple it.
Marquand would, it appears, agree with the central tenet of the Citizen Renaissance work: ‘The choice (now) lies between a gradual, controlled but still painful transition to a new age of austerity, and an infinitely more painful and destructive transition at a somehwat later date’.
The real choices are ours to make. Consumerism or Citizenship? Consumption or the Environment? We could start with a return to a Banking System that is more Quaker than Gordon Gekko in its construction, its temprament and its approach.