Which party wants a modern state?

I want to scrap the BBC, expand the military, phase out the NHS and the rest of the Welfare State, empower Whitehall. What is this unholy muddle? And how does affect politics? Do the Tories get it? 

At this moment, it seems that Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics (as I called them in my latest book) have made all the worst of the mistakes I identified as possible. I hope I’m wrong and that the Cameroons do believe in something and that it is about good government for modern Britain. Mind you, I don’t much mind. Most modern young politicians probably recognise and accept most of the direction of travel I describe, though I express a slightly extreme and eccentric expression of the ideal.  This agenda will get delivered almost by osmosis, whoever gains power.

I suspect modern retail politics is becoming more cowardly – more fearful of all sorts of no-go areas – and yet there are real, tempting opportunities to do the kind of thing I approve of, and they may happen in very piecemeal, crab-wise sort of progress.

I very much believe in the British state. Crown, Parliament, Whitehall, the justice system, the armed forces: I think of them as the essential institutional legacies of our nation. However, I believe in the state as a Hobbesian enterprise in which The People agree to license almost all society’s compulsion and violence to a set of institutions whose primacy and legitimacy are very visible and even glorious.

In short, the state is forceful and glamorous. (I don’t think of it as ossified: it has always evolved and presumably allways will.)

I believe that the state is very good when it is very strong and very limited.

It is easy for me to go on to argue that when the state attempts to do good it is likely to overwhelm and weaken society’s own capacity to produce good. In essence, the state can only do good by introducing lots of coercion, because that’s its USP. Besides, the more the state does, the more there’s a political class – and a politicised workforce – longing to get their hands on all that loot and authority. It’s a corrupting process. 

I am as much a fan of Erasmus as of Hobbes. So I am a reformer, not a revolutionary. I think we should put the state back into its box, with maybe a tax-take of 20 percent of GDP (not the 40 or 50 percent of Western Europe and Scandinavia). But I think that is the work of generations.

Right now, I can argue for the expansion of the British military because it does its work so well and can be put at the profitable service of the world. Besides, it’s a core state activity. I have done work on a New Military Covenant, and you can check it out at this site.

I think Whitehall ought to be braver, more vocal and more independent of the government of the day as it serves The People by serving the Crown. Naturally, what the state does, it ought to do well and Whitehall is crucial to that, not least as bit by bit we reduce the reach of the state. I have done work on Making Better Government. By the way, I believe in The Archipelago State of quangoes, and agencies spawned from the centre: arm’s length power.

 I think we should scrap the BBC because it’s so easy to do and will serve as a model for dismantling the NHS and the Welfare State.

I think within a generation or so, the NHS, education and pensions will be transformed. The market and volunteerism (more of the former than the latter) will ensure that firms and trusts of one sort or another will own nearly all the infrastructure and pay for nearly all the human welfare services.

Rightly, the talk now is of allowing parents to mandate that firms or trusts take over schools, or set them up. Nowadays, you can buy a hotel bed within the NHS, or buy a private insurance for privileged access to its services. There’s talk of old people insuring against needing access to private residential care. “Nudge economics” will soon be used to get young people save for pensions.

Eventually, the state’s role will be to mandate some redistributive taxation and some compulsory saving and investment.

I think the Tories should start describing something like the above as their long-term goal. Right now, they should promise to maintain the existing welfare state whilst gradually allowing private entities to present parallel alternatives. This is happening now, and it is interesting that Labour and Tories are neck and neck in their approaches. As I argued in my book on Tony Blair’s government, Mr Blair’s Messiah Politics badly bodged this sort of reform by never bothering to understand how British institutions worked.

The point is that the Tories can say that their long term goal is a gradual move to a small state, along the lines promised by New Labour. Labour can do as they like,  but presumably will want a world with more redistribution and a larger state than the Tories believe in.

Would my post-Welfare State world, as above, be “modern, radical and progressive”? It would look radical by our present standards (but not achieved in a remotely revolutionary way). It would be progress (but not perhaps progressive by the standards of normal leftish language). It would be modern.

I have no idea what the Cameroons actually want, and I don’t really care. I think the sort of state I have in mind is very British, and which if any of the existing parties get into the swing of this stuff is their business. Someone will, I think.

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Publication date

02 March 2010