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David Abbott: It's the state, stupid

David Abbott, an author and journalist, argues that David Cameron may be missing the wood for the trees on the size of the state.

David Cameron’s attempt to modernise the Conservative Party and to wrest the centre ground in British politics from New Labour’s mendacious grasp has had plenty of critics from the right of his party.

They don’t like much of Cameron’s style, but being the old economic right, they are characterised above all by their love of the free market and a touching belief in the need for a minimal, rolled back state.

Cameron has been working hard to keep them at a distance, but he might find it helpful to think harder about the state, for it is the state surely, which is at the heart of contemporary social change.

Sophisticated, yet able to be distilled into a simple, powerful, and clear message; another ingredient which any successful political project requires is a guiding ideological rationale, which can be simply put and will capture the popular imagination.

Cameron has relied so far on the idea of ‘the broken society’. This may represent a considerable improvement on Thatcher’s confident assertion that society was a figment of the left’s imagination, but it is still wide of the mark.

What has been happening in contemporary society is a process of individualisation, as social groups and old solidarities fragment, and it is the state itself which has played a considerable role in this process.  Over the last 25 years or so, successive governments have encouraged a process whereby citizens have become consumers.

This is the business model applied to every aspect of life, the citizen as consumer, the Prime Minister as Chief Executive, the rationale for everything to be defined only in terms of the bottom line.

The welfare state has become part of a managerialist state, operating through a battery of targets, action plans and league tables. True, Cameron has made the some critical swipes at these mechanisms, but usually in the context of reducing police paperwork in order to get the police on the streets, or giving power to head teachers.  But this hardly amounts to a fully thought out and focused strategy.

But if the state is to be seen at the centre of social change and thus, political strategy, it’s important to remind ourselves of the alternatives.  In another time and place, it was ‘the economy, stupid’, that held the key to political change.

In 1997 for Tony Blair, it was the welfare state – in need, he argued of huge investment.  And now – well, as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has observed, there is potential for the Conservatives to give voters a real choice; not over the funding of public services, but over how they are best organised –and that would certainly open up some real political space in current political life.

But in Cameron’s refusal, or inability to think more deeply and creatively about the state, is he neglecting what could be his biggest vote winner? 

Cameron’s approach is surprising for what has happened to the state under New Labour should have any self-respecting Conservative rubbing their hands with glee.  Over the last decade we have witnessed the continued growth of a bureaucratic and managerialist state.  When the state touches everyday life, targets, and action plans and league tables are the first point of contact.

This approach has had important consequences. Firstly there has been the creation of a target culture.  Market principles now seem to extend ever more pervasively to every corner of private life.

Choice is all and it is deemed that we all have the right to choice. It is choice which seems to be held up as the key value and ultimate social good. Quality in general, and in the public services in particular, has been reduced to ‘value-added’, and these are the criteria which now matter most.

Put all this together and you get a spreadsheet politics and in an individualised society this translates into what can best be described as a crackpot utilitarianism.  Parties position themselves in the same space, each trying to out do the other in promising much the same thing.

Our political life has at the same time, not coincidentally come to be obsessed with well-being, but this is primarily a centralised, forced and narrowly defined well-being.

But being defined by the greatest good of the greatest number, it is paradoxically, not an easy time to be an individual if you happen to belong to a marginalised minority. Just think about smokers, the overweight, or those who are told that they cannot see their MP if they are wearing a hijab or burka.

New Toryism and the state?

Cameron is surely spurning his chances here. Focussing a political project on the state does not necessarily have to deliver him as a hostage to the ‘old’ economic right of his party.

A ‘new’ Tory approach to the state could enable him to both carve out a distinctive space and attract a considerable amount of public opinion to his side of the argument.

The left have always failed to grasp how attractive the liberty ticket is. Conversely, the Tories have always understood that there is, in the popular imagination, no contradiction between nationalism and freedom.

So why not revive the individual liberty element of the Tory tradition in the new context of a managerialist state?  On the left, it will be argued that the current structures are necessary to deliver improvements in quality and choice. Welfare consumerism is good and requires choice.

Those on the right may argue that the best and the most Conservative way forward, is to provide quality through competition in a market; and that, they claim, is what the public want.  But recent research by John Clarke of the Open University has found a majority of the public saying that they just want access to good public services; not competing schools, hospitals and a myriad of private providers; not, that is, choice. And surely, one might wonder whether they really want the bureaucracy that goes with this state imposed economic ideology.

Cameron has the chance to talk in plain terms about redrawing the boundary between public and private and to prune back an overgrown and powerful state, which is eroding the boundaries between public and private.

In doing this he could be rekindling long forgotten Tory concepts; not just liberty, but trust, organic solidarity, tradition, localism, autonomy.  It’s not difficult to imagine what a Tory Tony Blair (surely no such creature exists?) would do with this; ‘old certainties in a new world’ etc, etc.

For Cameron, or any Tory leader wanting to reconstruct a fresh centre ground, the burgeoning growth of the state offers an ideal starting point for such a program. In Cameron’s case, in order to reconstruct that ground, he has to identify and nurture these signs of a vaguely articulated, but nevertheless, real discontent and bring it to the surface.

There is then a latent Tory agenda, which Cameron could be tapping into. Nor need this be the move to the right so desired by both Labour and the old right. It would be a construction of a Conservative centre ground project to roll back the managerial state and re-organise the welfare state.

Such a project would of course, have to be resolutely new rather than old Tory.  New Toryism would have to give more freedom and recognise individuality; that would mean more localism and an English Parliament.

It would also mean careful skirting around the issues of immigration and economics.  On the former, Cameron can stress the need for controls, but he needs to be as inclusive as possible; a delicate trick to pull off in the face of contradictory tensions.

On the later, paradoxically, a new Conservative ethos would have to be built away from the economic mantras of the right, not focussing slavishly on choice, but around older and more modest notions of fairness and trust.

It’s not the economy

Paradoxically it is economics that gives Cameron his biggest obstacle and is the reason why he probably won’t make the state the centre of his project, but it is a self-imposed obstacle.

The economic old right want radical free market economics. But their ideological baggage means that when it comes to welfare, the focus must be on market principles, not organisation.

Cameron may be liberal in all sorts of ways, but since he shares these economic views with the old economic right, welfare state reform under the Conservatives can only mean improving quality through competition.

That economic ideology is a talismanic millstone around the neck for today’s Conservatives, for here is a potential contradiction: how to be the party of low tax without maintaining the bureaucratic machine which administers a complex welfare state?

For most politicians the target culture and the institutional arrangements which sustain it are just too powerful a tool to surrender.

Whether or not the audit and target culture really do give politicians more control over state expenditure, the thought that they do is simply too tempting to enable them – whatever their party - to freely give up the utilitarian machinery which supports them. And even if they did want to do it, the contradictions and problems faced in unravelling the innards of the machine, though not insurmountable, are not to be treated lightly.

Of course, it’s impossible and artificial to conceptualise state and economy as entirely separate entities; they coexist and interact. But Cameron, if he is to have any realistic chance of gaining a place in the centre of British politics, should have a Post-it note on his desk reminding him that in today’s changed conditions ‘It’s the state, stupid’.

It is ironic that it’s in his view of economics that Cameron, frequently chided by the right, seems most wedded to a Thatcherite view of the world.

It could yet prove to be costly at the ballot box.   


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