Since it came to office last year, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster has been pushing up against one seemingly unexpected – and some might say archaic – wall of public resistance.
This resistance was most striking back in February, as mounting hostility… to the government’s plan to sell off England’s publicly-owned forests came to a head.
There was no evidence that Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, had ever anticipated much opposition to these proposals. But when half a million people signed a petition in protest, and polls showed more than 80 per cent were against the policy, David Cameron stepped in and declared the idea dead.
The Prime Minister must have wondered what had happened. After all, the proposal made perfect economic sense, particularly in a time of tightening budgets. Sell off the forests and hand over the responsibility for their upkeep; hundreds of millions of pounds would be saved. So why on earth had people got so worked up about a load of trees?
Labour leader Ed Miliband thought he knew. “This government doesn’t seem to understand the things we value,” he said, “which we hold in common. Just as people are angry about the threat to the forests, so too the threat to local libraries, children’s centres [and] other common institutions.”
And there it is, creeping up as though from the forgotten depths of history, that rare and precious word: “common”.
It’s a concept that doesn’t get much of a mention these days, but it seems that the idea of the commons is still just about alive. To the government, these forests were merely state-owned trees – a commodity to be sold like any other. But the public saw it differently. The forests were not really the property of the state at all; they were being held in common, for the use and enjoyment of the people. To sell them would be a kind of modern day enclosure.
And, as Ed Miliband pointed out, it’s not just forests that have invoked this sense of outrage. Moves to close community libraries have prompted similar, localised protests, and attempts to introduce more “competition” within the NHS and in schools and universities have also proved highly controversial. To an outsider this controversy might look odd; after all, there have been private schools and private healthcare in the UK for a long time, and few would dispute that the public sector can be bloated and inefficient. But there remains a strong feeling, even today, that there are some things – and the nation’s health and education are two – from which profit should not be derived. They are part of the commonweal: the shared well-being of every person.
This is an important distinction, but it is also an ambiguous one; for the matter of where we draw this line – between commons and commodity – is cultural, and subject always to change. It also shapes the way we understand society and our place within it.
Consider, for example, the United States, where healthcare is viewed very differently. There it is seen as a private, consumer matter – a relationship between citizen and insurance company. Barack Obama’s recent efforts to boost public healthcare were met with a degree of suspicion and hostility that was utterly baffling to most Britons, for this very reason.
And then, on the other side of the spectrum, there is the example of private land ownership, which here in the UK we take entirely for granted. In Greenland, however, there is no such thing; all land is held in common by the state. For Greenlanders, the idea of land ownership does not even make sense in the way it does to us. Land cannot be bought and sold (in the same way that air cannot). Land belongs to the people who use it – a place to live, a place to hunt, etc – and they, in turn, belong to that land. It is a way of thinking far removed from our own.
There are some who believe that everything in the world (in the universe, even) should be owned by someone – by a person or an institution. Every piece of land, every drop of water, every single resource should have an owner. And that owner, by extension, should be able to sell or to make profit from their possessions. Healthcare, education and all other services would be no different.
This is an extreme (and to my mind terrifying) view, but it is the direction in which we in the West have been heading, and in which we continue to head. The ever-increasing individualisation of our culture encourages us to think this way – to see ourselves not as members of a community but as consumers. And no amount of flimsy waffle about “the Big Society” can disguise this trend.
It is heartening then to see that there is still resistance. It is a relief to be reminded that we are not there yet. The sale of forests was halted after public protest, and the creeping privatisation of the NHS has been slowed down at least by pressures from within. There are things for which the public are apparently not yet ready.
If we wish to find real hope for the future, for our way of life and for our environment, it is surely not to the markets that we must look. Hope resides in the things that cannot be bought and sold, in the things that we share and care for together. Hope, I think, is held in common.