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‘Public interest’ – whose interest is it anyway?

4 March 2013

As we teeter on the brink of a triple-dip recession and the Bank of England considers introducing negative interest rates, budget cuts will inevitably be on the mind of every government department, local authority and UK household. Scaling back public spending is an unfortunate but necessary evil, and means that we need to establish and focus on our priorities more than ever before.

But this raises two questions – where do our priorities lie, and whose priorities are they anyway?

Journalist Dominic Lawson asked a pertinent question this week: What do you imagine would be an easier subsidy to defend at a time of straitened national finances – free swimming in public baths for children and pensioners; or free entry for all into metropolitan museums of fine art?

As a nation, we have always been proud of our commitment to offering free admission to some of the best collections of art from around the world – and rightly so. But with the obesity crisis back on the news agenda this week, it would not have been too surprising to see schools, health professionals and families rallying against a decision to take away free swimming for children – yet this was one of the first acts of the Coalition government, and was met with very little opposition.

If public spending cuts continue, government bodies will continue to push their own agenda to protect their dwindling budgets; tough decisions will need to be made and initiatives scrapped, all in the name of ‘public interest’. But when it comes to protecting public interest, should the decisions that affect the many be in the hands of the few?

The fact is that different people have different priorities, and agendas will differ across the country, across age groups and even within households. Some may question at what point free swimming for children across the country becomes a dispensable luxury, when free museums in Knightsbridge are a sacred subsidy that cannot even be questioned. Others will argue that free access to art is an inherent cultural right and anything that attracts foreign investment (40 per cent of visitors are foreign tourists) is a good thing.

With this balancing act in mind, campaigning communities such as 38 Degrees will become increasingly important. The organisation’s one million members are united by a set of shared, if ambitious, values: to defend fairness, protect rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy.

Campaigning and lobbying can put the power back into people’s hands and make sure their voices are heard – after all, having your say is the only way to make sure that what happens in the public interest (or increasingly, what doesn’t), is also in your interest.