What Happens When You Shrink The State?

The Conservatives under Cameron and Osborne have been shamelessly inconsistent. From “Greenest government in history”, to “ditch all this green crap”; from “compassionate Conservatism” to benefits sanctions on people on chemotherapy, this is a party which will happily say one thing one day and the opposite the next, all apparently without any concern to explain the U turn, the back track, the volte face. It’s a neat trick, if you have the confidence to do it.

All this has been most apparent when it comes to the economy.  For all the bluster about a “long term economic plan”, the most reliable guide to what Osborne will do in practice turns out to be to look to whatever Labour has been saying.  In 2010, Osborne trashed Alistair Darling’s plan to halve the deficit by 2015, and claimed that he, in contrast, would eliminate it altogether.  In reality, though with more pain and ineptitude, he’s basically delivered the Darling plan by halving the deficit.  And this week’s Autumn Statement is essentially a version of the Ed Balls plan, but with more handouts to the wealthy.  Osborne is a man who loves to wear a hi-vis jacket to hide the flames coming from the seat of his pants.

But there is something that the Tories have been consistent about.  The size of the state.  They say they want to ‘shrink the state’, and they are actively doing that.

So what is this ‘state’ that they want to shrink?

The state is a system of administration covering most of the things necessary for civilisation.  And that’s what they want to shrink.

The British state has a form that has evolved, grown, sometimes even been planned over centuries, but the form of the modern state owes much to the 19th Century. Before then, the institutions of the central state were essentially about organising and financing wars.  There was a legal system to resolve disputes and dispense justice.  Other bits tended to be done by the CofE – births, deaths, marriages.

But with the Industrial Revolution the populations grew, cities grew, and the requirements of society became more complex.  The Civil Service was created to train a class of administrators to manage this complexity.  Local government grew more important, particularly in the big industrial cities. The state – local and national, all linked together, but with areas of relative autonomy – took charge of such things as sanitation, education, the maintenance of public order.  Things we tend to take for granted today, but without institutions and administrators none of it would happen.

When the state disappears, other things fill the space it once occupied. In Parliament yesterday, David Cameron made his case for chucking a few more Union Jack-badged bombs on to Syria.  He acknowledged that the disaster in Iraq had been caused by removing the institutions of the state too quickly.  The chaos that followed was filled by alternative structures to those of the Baathist state – kinship networks, criminal gangs, but above all, religious and sectarian organisation.

This is the pattern when the state is weakened without alternatives in place to rebuild it.  In Egypt after Mubarak only the Muslim Brotherhood, which was organised on the ground, had the national networks capable of successfully contesting an election.  People here don’t realise it, but the Muslim Brotherhood is a bit like The Trussell Trust which runs food banks here – a religiously informed network which does practical work with people in need.  The same’s true of Hezbollah, which can equally well be translated as “The Salvation Army”.

Just as we, even if we are not religious, or Christian, usually feel no animosity towards the do-gooders of the Sally Army or the food bankers, and often commend them as they hand out soup to the homeless, or bag up baked beans for the working poor, so in other countries there are analogous institutions which are seen as socially useful in areas where the state has retreated.  My point is that what might be seen by the Tories as the ‘Big Society’ in action might also be something less benign.

See how the Tories have tried to remove ‘the state’ from state education.  Academy chains, free schools?  Often these are led by religious outfits, or established by moneyed individuals with religious motivations.  When you replace the secular state, in the form of democratically elected local government, with private institutions, whether commercial or religious, the result is a locally coloured variant of what we see elsewhere.  Sectarianism, communalism, social division, the breakdown in social cohesion.

Many years ago I met someone who had worked for the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone.  This person told me how they’d been criticised in the media for giving small grants to black community groups. He explained that they’d discovered that by offering money, the groups, previously informal, had to organise in proper, legal ways.  Charismatic individuals had to submit to having committees, treasurers, AGMs, agenda and minutes, and to become accountable for their actions.  They also had to learn to engage with the local state (in this case the GLC), which meant attending meetings, presenting their case, public speaking.  These became transferable skills, and so previously isolated groups became integrated into society.  The state as the agent of social cohesion.

So looking around the world, and well as here at home, I see the institutions of the state not as a remote bureaucracy of pen pushers – the “back office” that Tories deride.  The state, central, devolved and local, is fundamental to social decency, social cohesion, and a civilised life.

And ‘shrinking the state’ is the opposite.

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