Ideas and change

We have heard a lot about ideas and values lately. One of the last acts of Michael Gove as secretary of state for education was to launch an incoherent demand for ‘British’ values to be taught in our schools. You might think that this was fairly uncontroversial until you stop to examine what is meant by both ‘British’ and ‘values’ and, perhaps more importantly, which British values exactly?


Ideas and values change over time and place and there have been major changes over the past three decades or so. These changes affected what is seen as acceptable or the consensus in all sorts of areas, whether it be in social habits like lunchtime drinking, the use of racist remarks in casual speech or what constitutes a commonsense approach to the economy.


The most striking change has been the triumph of neoliberalism – the view that for every problem, there is a market solution; the idea – or at least the claim – that the greatest prosperity for the greatest number comes from allowing markets as much freedom as possible with minimal government intervention


It’s been called the most successful ideology in the history of the world. It has become the common sense of the elites in every party in almost every country – from the American Republican party to the Chinese Communist Party (and all stops in between, including in one form or another the leaders of the British Labour party). But its triumph has not been total


Did you ever think you’d live long enough to hear a black president of the United States quoting the Pope attacking capitalism? I suppose this is an extreme example of how although neoliberal ideas are dominant, they are not the only ideas. Both Obama and the Pope felt the need to reflect the widespread (but mostly undeveloped) dissatisfaction with capitalism.


And counter arguments to neoliberalism stubbornly refuse to die. For example, no matter how many times people in the UK are asked by opinion pollsters about how rail should be run, they keep coming up with the same answer. Public ownership is popular.


Maybe somebody should tell Ed Balls. He thinks nationalisation is so old fashioned and so ‘70s. But actually it’s privatisation that is so ‘70s – the 1870s.


Incidentally, it used to be regarded as highly controversial, scandalous even, that Marx described the state under capitalism (however democratic) as ‘a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie’. An outrageous slur on our democracy, apparently


These days, politicians of all parties compete to prove Marx right by trying to outdo each other to show how pro-business they are and how anti-business the other lot are. It’s a mark of democratic legitimacy in their eyes. Even the cross-bench peer and Keynes expert, Robert Skidelsky (2011, c1359) told the House of Lords: ‘As things stand, the banks are the permanent government of the country, whichever party is in power.’


One particular idea that runs against the dominant market cult of neoliberalism is that of the public service ethos. It’s a bit of a slippery concept and people interpret it in slightly different ways. The point is that, when people talk about the public service ethos, however defined, it involves some notion of the public good and this is what remains distinctive about it. A simpler definition might just be the desire to work for the public interest.


The important thing is that the development of a public service ethos in the UK can only be understood if it is located within the politics of the history of the public sector. The growth of public services and the creation of the welfare state in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were themselves subject to conflicting pressures and goals.


The more far sighted industrialists saw it as a way of providing the infrastructure for capitalism to prosper – whether that meant healthy workers who could read or a rail system or clean water, it was largely seen as geared towards the requirements of capital. They needed roads and rail to transport their raw materials and then their finished goods; they needed to eliminate diseases like typhoid and cholera; they needed healthy, literate and numerate workers; they needed cheap energy to power their factories.


But there was a countervailing trend that ran alongside this and often conflicted with it. This was the idea of a more democratic society, a fairer society.


Those within the Chartists or the early unions who campaigned for school meals or libraries or public health, clean water, electricity etc saw the public provision of all of these things as a link between how things are and how they might be. As Terry Eagleton (2011: 69) puts it, this type of emancipatory politics inserts a wedge of the future into the heart of the present. It was about the creation of a different society


For these people, public services were developed as a means of collective and universal provision: a way of pooling resources, sharing risks and ensuring everyone’s basic needs are met.


As such, they embodied a distinctive ethos, representing the public interest and the common good, against the market principles of profit seeking and individual enrichment


So at the heart of the public sector, is a radical challenge to market philosophy. The democratic values of the public sector run deep


To a large degree these values have been absorbed into the bloodstream of the public sector workforce and are passed from one generation of workers to the next.


The adherence to the notion of a public service ethos among workers reflects their view of the purpose of the service and its place in the community.


It informs their working practice and provides them with a very powerful sense of being public servants providing a public service.


Their work culture which valorises the characteristics associated with the PSE (accountability, access, equity, free provision and so on) represents a rejection of a marketised service.


For many years, governments of all parties went along to a certain degree with some of this. Senior managers in the public sector were brought up in an atmosphere in which there was a certain understanding that the public sector was different from the private sector, that it had different goals, values and methods (I don’t want to over-do the point because there are plenty of examples of bad practices among some public sector employers, but the idea of a public service ethos did have wide currency).


From the 1980s onwards, this changed fairly sharply. Neoliberal policies were progressively adopted and implemented around the mantra of ‘managers, markets and measurement’ and the idea of a public service ethos was increasingly portrayed as out of date and irrelevant. So it should have resulted in the death of the ethos among public service workers.


But it hasn’t. In my own research and that of others, it appears that the ethos is extremely resilient. Public service workers take it seriously and their union reps and stewards take it very seriously


The data reveal that there is a deep commitment to public service and the public service ethos among public service union reps, a more enhanced commitment than exists even among ordinary public service union members.


So, by and large, public service workers have held on to this idea. Even when their political masters and managerial bosses denigrate it by word and deed, it remains a powerful part of how public service workers see themselves and their jobs. They have adopted and adapted the notion of a public service ethos and have created their own version of it through their own experience.


When confronted with the neoliberal public service reform programme, in which workers feel that their organisation – or at least its leadership – ‘no longer stands for the values and principles which originally attracted them to it’ (Hoggett, 2006: 189), then the public service ethos can become part of workers’ language of resistance.


It acts as a statement of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel (2012: 7) described as the belief that there has been an ‘expansion of markets and market values, into spheres where they don’t belong’


The workers then take the public service ethos as theirs and it helps them define who they are – in distinction to the political leadership of the council or the senior managers of the service. It becomes a frame for public service workers in how they make sense of events and a defence strategy in the face of ideological attacks on the public sector.


This is where the ‘so-what’ question kicks in. What difference does any of this make to public service unions? There are several ways.


In many obvious respects, unions are in a relatively weak position today, and public service unions are feeling the pinch now with cuts destroying many jobs and others being out-sourced to union-hostile employers.


Unions have suffered a loss of legitimacy and workplace power as well as a loss of membership.


Unions have also seen the political party that they created act in both government and opposition in conflict with many of the aims and objectives of the unions.


And yet, public service unions in particular need to influence politics because of the effects that it has on members’ working lives.


The question for public service unions is not why they should influence the political process but how; and this leads into a discussion of a strategy of alliances and connects with the public service ethos.


The fact that public service union members are committed to the ethos offers a bridge to coalition building with service user groups. It shows to those groups that although (of course) unions fight hard for good pay and conditions, there is a focus on the quality of service. It brings together the union movement’s two roles as both a vested interest and a ‘sword of justice’.


It highlights to members that they are right to make the connection between the quality of service and their own pay and conditions – they are mutually dependent


There is a connection in the research data between commitment to the public service ethos and commitment to the union. Union advocacy of the importance of the ethos therefore shows the members that the union is in tune with their view of their role and their work and binds them more closely into the union.


It places the union at the front of any debate on the quality of service and acts as a mobiliser among members


It offers an opportunity for the union to extend its power – inside and outside the workplace – and strengthen its influence on the public services agenda


I began by talking about the triumph of neoliberalism – at least among the elite


But in a Sunday Times interview in 1981, Mrs Thatcher explained how far reaching her goals were. She said that she had much greater ambitions than just to change the economy of the country: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’ (Butt, 1981).


But we see the tenacious hold that the public service ethos has on public service workers and their continued commitment to what William Morris called ‘neighbourly common sense’


If part of the objective of the public service reform of the past 30 years was to completely change the values and attitudes of those involved in delivering public services – to capture their souls as Thatcher put it – then it has failed, and that presents the unions with an important opportunity and access to what the Welsh social theorist and socialist, Raymond Williams, called the ‘resources of hope’.




Butt, R (1981) ‘Mrs Thatcher: the first two years’. Sunday Times, 3 May 1981. Accessed Accessed 29 July 2014.

Davies, S (2012) The Public Service Ethos and Union Mobilisation: A Case Study of the Public Library Service. PhD thesis.  Accessed 29 July 2014.

Eagleton, T (2011) Why Marx was right. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hoggett, P (2006) ‘Conflict, ambivalence and the contested purpose of public organisations’. Human Relations, Vol. 59, No. 2, pp. 175-194.

Sandel, M J (2012) What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Skidelsky, R (2011) Economy: Growth debate. House of Lords Hansard, 31 March 2011, c1360. London: House of Lords. Accessed 29 July 2014.

Williams, R (1989) Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, edited by Robin Gable. London: Verso.


[This article is based on a talk given at the 15 July 2014 policy seminar dinner of the UNISON Local Government Service Group Executive].