Reclaim the State in 2017

By Bernadette Meaden
January 1, 2017

“David Cameron has been in Leeds preaching to businessmen the virtues of what he calls ‘the smart state’. This seems to be a state that gets away with doing as little as possible for its citizens and shuffling as many responsibilities as it can onto whomever thinks they can make a profit out of them.”

This was Alan Bennett  on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, reading from his diaries. He went on to say, “I’m glad there wasn’t a smart state when I was being brought up in Leeds. The state was unsmart enough to see me and others like me educated free of charge, and sent on at the city’s expense to University, provided with splendid libraries, cheap transport and a terrific art gallery, not to mention the city’s hospitals.”

It has been fashionable for several decades now to regard the state as inherently inefficient and somehow incapable of providing good quality services. People from various political backgrounds -Thatcherites, Blairites, Orange Book Liberals etc. all agreed that the state lacked the dynamism and efficiency of private companies, whilst libertarians were openly hostile, seeing the state, and the taxes used to fund it, as some sort of affront, a threat to both their personal liberty and their personal wealth.

And so we got G4S running prisons, a plethora of companies running railways, hedge funds buying care homes, and people like Richard Branson making ever greater inroads into our NHS. It has been a bonanza for companies and their shareholders, with a guaranteed income stream from a customer that will always pay the bills. And once contracts have been awarded for such vital services, it is nigh on impossible for them to be withdrawn without major disruption, so there is little incentive for companies to perform well. Indeed there seems to be no level of service so bad that a contract would be withdrawn. And when things go badly wrong, as they have done repeatedly, the state has no alternative but to step in and pick up the pieces, leaving private companies to face very little in the way of consequences.

It is difficult to see what if anything has been gained by the disengagement of the state from vital public services. But it is quite clear what has been lost. By putting public services into private hands, we have simply handed power to a far less accountable corporate state. Unlike public bodies, the companies that now run services like prisons, probation, children’s homes and social care are not subject to Freedom of Information requests, and can repulse any enquiry with the defence of ‘commercial confidentiality’. Politicians have become procurement managers, outsourcing their responsibility and turning citizens into customers.

In a long article for the London Review of Books about the ongoing destruction of local government, an article which is simultaneously eye-opening and jaw-dropping, Tom Crewe says,

“People can no longer expect the services they pay for to be run in their interest, rather than the interests of shareholders; and they can’t assume that the companies that operate these services are in any way transparent or accountable to them. Governments can be removed, but ten-year contracts signed by one set of ministers will persist into the next parliament. ..In truth, Britain no longer has a government, but rather a system of governance... This is another way of saying that we live in a half-democracy.” 

Reading Tom Crewe’s excellent article, with its grim vision of the future of local government, it is difficult to see any way back from this hollowed-out state, which seems to be run primarily as a means of transferring money from the poor to the rich. But if we want to avoid our country becoming a nastier, uglier, harsher and increasingly undemocratic place, we need to find a way back.

If we don't, as corporation taxes are repeatedly lowered, as the share of our GDP going to public services is systematically reduced, and as councils get less and less money to run vital services, the result will be an increasingly unequal society, where poor people and poor areas are cast adrift and the prosperous, freed from the ‘burden’ of redistribution or collective responsibility, surge ahead.

In 2017, whatever we may think of the current government, we need to reclaim a belief that the state can be a force for good. It makes democratic control and accountability possible, and given the political will, through progressive taxation and good social policy, has the power to do much to reduce inequality. The state is rather like old age – it certainly has its problems, but it is better than the alternatives.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.