Richard Reeves writes an article in the Telegraph called It’s not about the size of the state – it’s what David Cameron does with it that not only falls at the first fence (the title pretty much alerted me to the fact this was going to be filled ‘advice from the enemy’), it is overflowing with analysis that encapsulates the intellectual failing that underpin BlueLabour. Let me do a fisk-lette:
This week Cameron strayed further still, using the Hugo Young memorial lecture to attack Labour’s record on poverty and inequality. He said that a “re-imagination in the role, as well as size” of the state was needed to build what he called “The Big Society”. It is audacious stuff. Cameron has adopted Labour’s goals of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, reducing child poverty and promoting social mobility, and then damns Labour for failing to achieve them.
What is audacious about conceding the choice of battleground entirely to the nominal enemy? I say ‘nominal’ because in truth the philosophical/ideological differences between New Labour and the Tory Party (BlueLabour) are not that significant.
It is a bit like the ‘audacious’ plans by the allies in World War II to area bomb German cities to break morale by slaughtering enemy workers even though earlier German attempts to do that to Britain had been an abject failure. If “London can take it”, it did not seem to occur to the ‘audacious’ RAF and USAAF that, chances are, Hamburg and Berlin probably can “take it” too.
And so Cameron’s audacious stuff is to try and do what Labour tried, just ‘do it better’. Far from being audacious, this is just more of the same heard-it-all-before by-the-numbers political droning, tailored slightly to appeal to whoever he is talking to at the moment and which way the weathervane is pointing today. Audacious would require an actual meta-contextual shift and Cameron has made it clear he represents continuity, not radical change.
Labour’s response has been to accuse Cameron of advocating “Thatcherism or 19th-century liberalism”. Wrong on both counts. Mrs Thatcher was more likely to join the National Union of Mineworkers than to say, as Cameron did, that “strong and concerted government action” was needed to “remake society.
So if government action (i.e. the welfare state) has hollowed out civil society, it seems remarkable that the notion that more government action might far from “remake society” but rather just continue its unravelling. The brutal truth is that David Cameron (and I suspect Richard Reeves) do not really understand that society may be something governments can weaken and destroy but they is not something that states can “remake” because societies are not “things” in the same way states are, they are emergent collective properties produced by countless several interactions.
But for much of the 20th century, politics was defined by attitudes to the state: the Right against, the Left in favour. And in one area Cameron remains instinctively opposed to state action, which is financial redistribution to reduce poverty. Cameron claims that inequality has worsened under Labour. Actually, the picture is complex: on some measures the gap has narrowed. The fairest assessment is that income inequality today is roughly the same as it was in 1997.
The ‘right’ (a sloppy term really) is against the state? Like Ted Heath maybe? And just how many ‘right’ leaders in the 20th century actually shrunk back the size of the state, as opposed to just growing it a bit more gradually? Never mind that ‘inequality’ per se should not even be an issue (someone else getting richer does not make me poorer), the size of the state is the issue. The larger the state, the more civil society is circumscribed. The larger the state, the more wealth and opportunity is sucked out of productive sectors by confiscation and regulation.
The only think we need more of from government is inaction… we need less across the board, not more… Richard Reeves cannot see that because he is a regulatory statist who sees government in terms of the parties being competing ‘management teams’ rather like Soviet design bureaus… offering creative options within essentially the same ideological system and meta-contextual framework. But in truth we do not need ‘better’ government action, we need ‘less’ government action… dramatically less. We also need actual intellectual opposition, not a difference of management theories. In short we need a far less powerful and intrusive state vis a vis civil society.
It is very much about the size of the state.