ONLY THE STATE, and states working together, can make the decisions needed to combat climate change. Only the state has the power to significantly redistribute wealth and enforce the rights needed to tackle inequality and injustice.
But at a time when the biggest problems we face require bold and progressive state actions, we have a government which seems unconvinced of the state’s responsibilities to people and planet, and more inclined to serve the interests of the one per cent.
After the Chancellor’s mini-budget, Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie tweeted: “A massive moment for @iealondon. They’ve been advocating these policies for years. They incubated Truss and Kwarteng during their early years as MPs. Britain is now their laboratory.”
IEA is of course the Institute of Economic Affairs, a mysteriously-funded free market think tank led by Mark Littlewood, who appeared on Sky News praising the budget, whilst agreeing that: “You’re not going to like this package if you care more about the poor”.
If, as Tim Montgomerie suggested, Truss and Kwarteng were ‘incubated’ by the IEA in their early years as MPs, it seems safe to assume that an IEA policy document from 2011, the year after they both entered Parliament, provides an insight into that incubation process.
Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big Steps to a Smaller State “examines every aspect of government spending and offers a fundamental rethink of the role and scope of the state, providing solutions which would see increased economic growth and radically reduced spending levels.” This economic vision sees massive cuts to public spending as a highly desirable policy option, not a regrettable necessity forced on a government by economic circumstances – something to bear in mind when we hear pained talk of “difficult decisions”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this philosophy is how far it rejects many of the features of a modern state and looks to the past for inspiration. Most of the developments of the twentieth century, like the NHS, social security, health and safety regulations and workers’ rights, usually seen as progress, are regarded as a hindrance, an obstacle in the way of personal freedom and business enterprise.
Take proposals for health, for instance. In Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes, the aspiration is, “to develop a radically new health policy based on Health Savings Accounts. This would lead to better health outcomes and restore consumer sovereignty, innovation and competition – which were, before the creation of the NHS, widely admired aspects of UK health provision”. The good old days, before the NHS.
On education they go further back in time, saying “An even more fundamental reform would be to move back towards a system where all parents (except the very poor) made a financial contribution to schooling, as they did in the nineteenth century.” This would seem to appeal to the, ‘I don’t have children so why should I pay for education?’ audience, which fails to grasp that an educated population is in all our interests.
As for the social security system, in 2011 the IEA advocated workfare, saying: “welfare claimants without jobs and who are of working age should be required to undertake work as a condition of receiving benefits”. This is portrayed as fairness, but as Kenan Malik has written: “It is a policy that makes low paid, non-unionised jobs socially acceptable and declares those who refuse to take such jobs to be ‘immoral’. Its real impact is not in creating jobs…but in shifting the blame for poverty and unemployment on to the poor and the unemployed themselves.”
The Chancellor has already shown that he is sympathetic to this approach, by announcing that he would tighten Universal Credit sanctions for claimants working part time. Thus. people struggling to combine work and caring responsibilities may be made to pay the price for labour shortages caused by Brexit and Long Covid.
Another publication which might give us an insight into current thinking is not from the IEA, but shares this Conservative belief that in many ways, society was better in the past. In The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan write with approval of an approach to social security which enables a distinction to be made between the deserving and undeserving poor.
They look back to a time when: “Britain traditionally sought to address poverty at the local level. The Poor Law, and associated vagrancy acts, emphasised local management of the poor”. They like this ‘local management of the poor’ because it is easier to spot the ‘sturdy beggar’, the person who claims to be in need but isn’t. Of course, the flip side of this for the person in need is stigma and humiliation as they go cap in hand to be judged by their community. But Carswell and Hannan lament the fact that “local welfare was destroyed in 1911 by the National Insurance Act.” Rights and entitlements to a basic safety net are not seen as a good thing, by these wealthy, privileged men.
Daniel Hannan is now Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party and a member of the UK Board of Trade. Earlier this year he called for greater cuts to public services, writing: “The greatest savings will, by definition, be in the areas that have received the largest recent increases, especially healthcare and social security.” In the midst of an NHS crisis and a cost of living crisis, a Conservative Vice-Chair is seriously advocating cuts to the NHS and social security.
Thomas Hobbes argued that life without a government would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” We have a government, but Liz Truss’s government, with its particular view of the role of the state, may not feel obliged or inclined to provide the services, security and protections we expect in a modern developed country. This will inevitably leave those on the lowest incomes increasingly reliant on charity for basic needs – and in the philosophy of the people now running the country, this regression may not only be acceptable, but desirable. Jacob Rees-Mogg famously finds foodbanks ‘uplifting’.
The UK may be embarking on a journey to a dystopian future which in many ways resembles the past.
© 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. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden