The State and Leisure Policy


I want to focus on different theories of the State, which might reflect the British State at different stages in its development, and there is one major practical problem raised by these discussions too. The theories turn on different models of representation or of what 'the people' want -- and this raises the important practical problem of how politicians might be subjected to democratic control, or, alternatively, how we might make our own interests and wishes known to politicians. What follows is a general discussion, but I also hope it's clear how it comes to bear on issues of leisure provision specifically: the State is a big player in this of course both providing and regulating leisure.

Classical Notions of the State

Conservative theories

I do not mean, necessarily, those theories actually held by the current British political party called the Conservative Party -- not to be too confusing, we might eventually come to see them as liberals! I take to be central to a conservative theory (small 'c') one which assumes that the State represents the nation itself, our society in a general sense, the British people. It is clear that these terms do not refer to the actual society that we see in front of us, but to some ideal version of it, to the best of Britain, to the great traditions of Britain, to what we are really like, at our best. It is not surprising that the group that becomes closest to representing these ideal qualities tend to be social elites, above all the British Royal Family, or sometimes the aristocracy. Such elites specialise in the magical representation of British culture at its best. The role of government is to attempt to preserve these precious elite qualities, the best of our cultural traditions, and to safeguard those elites, particularly against the threats offered by modernization and massification.

It might be possible to see these notions in the preservation of particular traditions and of traditional institutions, ranging from the defence of the Civil List (the money paid to the royal family from the State), the preservation of grammar schools, or, in leisure, the defence of traditional field sports or British games such as cricket. As I have indicated above, both major parties in Britain have turned away from this traditionalism in recent years in their eagerness to modernise, although conservatives can be found in both parties as well.

Marxist theories

These have never been terribly popular in British politics, as positive solutions, but they to serve as a rich source of criticisms. Indeed, many of the criticisms in McGuigan's (1996) book are derived from Marxist traditions. This work provides us with some backing for a very common suspicion -- that the State is really on the side of ruling class groups, that it somehow represents the powerful groups against the rest of us.

In fact, there are some technicalities here for marxists -- the State may not represent the ruling class as such, but rather defend and modernise the entire capitalist system. Sometimes, an actual ruling class will want to prevent this, and the State will have to take them on (as when the new industrialist class had to be promoted against the old aristocratic ruling class during the Industrial Revolution). To take another issue of political importance, marxists have long argued that it may not be enough to replace the existing personnel who run the State, since whoever runs the State will be defending capitalism -- what might be needed instead is to completely replace the State.

However, and what most marxists seem to agree about is that the State pursues its own agendas most of the time, but simply needs our consent now and then (an election every four years or so, or even a referendum). In between times, the State uses a whole range of their organs and apparatuses, using both force and persuasion, to gain our consent to its policies (see file for a famous marxist account of these ideological State apparatuses). Policies of leisure, or more generally culture, can be seen as part of this attempt to gain consent, perhaps most obviously in the Victorian policies of 'rational recreation'.

Liberal theories

These are probably the dominant ones in policy debates, and it is possible to see party political differences as arguments about different aspects of liberal views. These views were developed first by some classical early Victorian liberal theorists such as Bentham and Mill. I have more detailed files on both, if you are interested. 

Bentham favoured a fairly minimal State, whose main role was a military or a civil regulatory one. The institutions of most importance where those found in 'civil society'. These were the new emerging forms of organisations such as market forces, where rational individuals could meet freely to pursue their own individual happiness. Since individuals were the best judge of their own happiness, there was not much need for a the State to do anything more than administer and defend civil society. Where it did act Bentham believed that the State should be subjected to periodic evaluation -- things like annual elections, or the right to determine the salaries of civil servants according to their performance.

As a result, I could not find a policy for leisure in Bentham at all, apart from a general belief in using one's free time to improve one's standards and become a more civilised person. I suppose that any Benthamite liberals might well be inclined to keep the State away from leisure policy and to leave it as a matter for private enterprise -- some of the reforming Conservative governments seem to have also believed that individuals are the ones who should decide for themselves how to spend their leisure time.

Later liberal theorists took quite a different view, however, and we are going to take J S Mill as an example. Mill was writing some 60 or 70 years after Bentham, and by that time, it was obvious that substantial inequalities had emerged in British society, as a result of unrestrained trade and industry. Markets may be good at encouraging innovation, and following trends, but there were no good at ensuring social inequality. They had become rapidly dominated by powerful enterprises who were unable to act in their own interests, against the interests of both workers and consumers. There had already been some legislation to prevent such abuses -- such as various Factory Acts to prevent the exploitation of child workers, or Acts designed to prevent manufacturers from adulterating bread (with a range of substances which included lead and arsenic -- can't see what's wrong with that myself - if people want to buy it, they must know best).

Mill was able to see an expanded role for the State in such legislation to protect us against powerful interests. He was able to argue that the State was the only organ that was genuinely capable of responding to social needs and social interests, unlike markets. Mill advocated, in effect, the beginnings of the welfare state -- the legalisation and support of trade unions, the growth of consumer protection, and a whole range of new functions such as public health, or education. These new functions represented genuine social interests, and yet they could not be efficiently provided by markets -- the State had to provide them for all, irrespective of ability to pay.

I suppose the classic example is the one of public health. In Victorian England, the rise in population, and the insanitary conditions in cities had produced a series of epidemics, including a number of nasty cholera epidemics. One in particular had spread from the poorer parts of London up the Thames to threaten even Westminster, and politicians in the House of Commons. It was clear that there was a social need for proper sewage, one that spread to all social classes. In this sense, neglecting the poor ran against the self-interest of the rich, since the poor's cholera would spread unchecked. In this spirit, Parliament facilitated the first public health schemes, including major sewage works for London, paid at State expense.

Now similar arguments might well be made for education, of course, as Mill did -- it is in the interests of everyone to have a well educated population. The State has a duty and obligation to run a national education system, it could be argued. What about leisure? Is there any similar duty or obligation, in the interests of everyone, to have a leisured society, in which everyone can participate regardless of their ability to pay? You may know some policies, such as the recent policy initiative Sport for All, which argue something rather like that, and similar arguments lay behind the advocates of a 'leisure society' in the 1980s (incidentally, these advocates went on to suggest that there should be college courses in leisure or recreation studies and new professionals such as recreation managers).

Of course, any organised pressure group can insist that these social interests will be best served by financing their particular interests. What if, say, a particular pressure group persuaded the Government to erect a huge and monstrous pleasure Dome in a run-down suburb of London, and to fund this with enormous amounts of public money, by arguing that it would represent something really important about Britain in the new millennium? Such an obvious scam could not possibly succeed, of course, but there is an interesting issue of principle here. How could we tell if policies really were in the social interest or not?

Well, a Benthamite might argue that policies like this should be put to some popular vote. However, are the ordinary people able to solve difficult questions like where their real long-term social interests actually lie? Mill and liberals like him thought not. Decisions like this had to be left to 'the wise', and the wise were to be informed in turn by the advances of new social sciences -- new social surveys of social conditions, new subjects like Sociology, or something Mill called 'ethology'.

There was one final problem with popular votes as well -- if we were not careful, we would simply perpetuate the rule of the majority. What about important minorities, who could never expect to out-vote the dominant groups? Mill had in mind some important 'minority groups' here such as women, who could never rely on a majority of men giving them the vote. These days we might think of ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, were even those interested in minority sports or leisure pursuits -- and we shall come to such groups when we consider matters such as whether the State should censor or protect the rights of minority groups such as consenting homosexuals, or those who wish to consume pornography in the privacy of their own homes.

Applying these theories

I hope we will be able to refer to these theories when considering a number of specific policy debates, as suggested above: the general theories provide us with some kind of agenda, as it were.

Staying on the general level of leisure policy for a moment, it is clear that McGuigan's review offers a number of points of contact. Let us take his review of the stages through which the British State has passed, for example. They are four main ones which we can summarise quickly:

(a) Social control. Here the State pursued a number of policies to regulate dangerous forms of leisure (usually involving the risk of public disorder) and to encourage 'rational' alternatives instead. This phase is nearly always seen in Marxist terms, as indicating the rise of a dominant group -- the respectable bourgeoisie -- who were able to mobilise the opinion', the Church, industrialists and a number of local respectables to regulate the activities of the dangerous classes, partly to protect their property, and partly to help produce a disciplined workforce.

(b) National prestige. This one is still around, of course, but gained its strength from a recognition after the Second World War, that national prestige was associated with sporting attainment. This led to a great interest in national involvement in the Olympics, the establishment of national sports schools and so on.

(c) Access to sporting activity became a big issue from the 1950s to the 1970s -- it was felt that market forces alone simply would not provide the nation with the athletic talent that it needed, so the State decided to play a role. It often did so speaking in the name of all of us, in the national interest. A number of experts advised State policy here, by predicting the social benefits of sporting involvement -- lower crime rates, or a a healthier population. Eventually, State provision had to justify itself in terms of offering value for money

(d) Value for money. This policy is associated with the period of Conservative dominance 1979 - 96. A turn towards Conservatism of this kind (really a kind of early liberalism, I would argue) affected policies not only in Britain but in America and Germany too. It was associated with problems arising from a maximal State. The State had become a huge and expensive collection of mechanisms. It proved to be not very good at regulating the economy, especially since the emergence of multinational capitalism, and the decline of international regulation of things like exchange rates. The State was not very sensitive to new or individual needs, and social science had proved itself incapable of offering sound advice. A huge State like this provided an enormous burden for taxpayers, and it tended to simply take people's initiative and enterprise away. The answer was to release market forces again (to turn back to the other option offered by liberalism, in my terms). Managers and entrepreneurs were consulted about the national interest rather than social scientists and other experts; the market, or a simulation of it, were to replace the bureaucratic mechanisms of the State.

In Britain, we saw detailed policies such as CCT (compulsory competitive tendering) which had to be applied to leisure provision -- the State, or its local variant, had to show that it could compete in markets. We also saw privatisation and commercialisation, shown very well in the pros and cons of commercial sponsorship or ownership of major football clubs are. We saw the great growth in commercial and private leisure -- indicated best, perhaps, in the growth of electronic games, or in commercial sportswear for the under 15s.

Of course, with New Labour, we have changed policies again. In leisure policy, CCT has been replaced with 'value for money', which is allegedly less favourable to commercial entrepreneurs. However, New Labour shows few signs of wanting to return to the maximal State of the 1970s. Its critics say it has no new solution, but can only carry on with milder versions of Conservative policies, including private finance initiatives, the inclusion of corporate management as the only experts, and so on.


There are two main points to consider at the end:

(a) Policies never offer complete solutions -- politicians are not theorists, and are not interested in consistency. Policies offer strange mixtures of ideas and plans as a result, never pure examples of a theory applied to practice. Some of the more specific topics in this series illustrate this -- for example, the State regulates us tightly in some areas, while pursuing a laxer regime in others. Certain markets are still heavily controlled, for example, especially those for recreational drugs and sex. In these areas, politicians seem to be much more pragmatic, mixing and matching policies probably to meet the demands of various constituencies, rather than attempting to define and meet 'the national interest'. Sometimes, the activities of theorists will be important, but more often, the activities of pressure groups, or the need to win an election will come to the front.

(b) In the real world, every solution has its problems as well. This is clear by looking at the past -- market-driven solutions seemed appropriate at an early stage of development, but they then produced substantial social divisions and inequalities; State driven solutions seemed able to regulate the worst excesses of markets, but soon ran into problems of their own, involving stagnation, bureaucracy, and inefficiency. In the interests of even-handedness, we should say of course these arguments apply to Marxist solutions too -- marxist criticisms are useful and potent, but there is an embarrassing silence about alternatives, and we know now that one apparently Marxist regime in the Soviet Union exhibited all the bad features of totalitarianism, from staggering inefficiency to local corruption, and even to State-organised terror.

Given these problems, it is not surprising, perhaps, to find lots of apathy and disinterest in politics among the young. Politicians just do not seem interested in representing the views of young people. So, whose views do you think they do get to represent?

Finally, to turn things round for a moment, how should they represent your interests? What mechanisms would put them in touch with those views? How have you tried to interest politicians in your views -- have you used your vote? Have you written to a politician? Have you visited the public sessions run by your Member of Parliament? Are you interested in extra-parliamentary politics? Are you a member of a pressure group? Have you ever been on a demonstration? Signed a petition? Discussed politics with anyone?


McGuigan J (1996) Culture and the Public Sphere, London: Routledge