One year on: the five states we're in

20 Apr 11
Colin Talbot

The Cameron-Clegg coalition seems determined to roll back the frontiers of the state even more than Margaret Thatcher

As the coalition government approaches its first anniversary, it is time to step back and try to figure out what they are all about. It has not been easy keeping up with the pace of change as the Big Cuts coalition has morphed into the Big Change coalition, with a dose of the Big Society thrown in for good measure.

So, here’s one way of looking at it. We live not in one state, but five. Our modern British state has evolved over time, adding new layers of activity, rather like the triune theory of the human brain (reptilian-mammalian-human). As each layer is added, the old ones are retained but become part of a larger whole.

In this case, the five layers are: the security state; the judicial state; the fiscal state; the economic state; and, finally, the welfare state. Let’s use these five to compare the coalition government with its predecessors.

The security state encompasses the basic organs that allow the government to exercise a monopoly of force at home and abroad, and maintain the peace – the armed forces, intelligence services, police, and so forth. The security state prospered under both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, if for very different reasons.

For Thatcher it was principally ‘the enemy within’ that had to be fought; for Blair it was terror and crime. Both continued to expand the security state and extend its powers, and did relatively little to reform them. Neither took much notice of civil libertarian objections.

The coalition, in contrast, has set about cutting back the security state, radically reducing its funding and launching widespread reforms to the armed forces, police and prisons. This is the opposite of what Thatcher did as she squared up to the unions, especially the miners. It is either a very brave, or very stupid, approach to weaken the security state just when a government might need it most.

The picture on the judicial state is rather more mixed. Thatcher tried to weaken it in most areas but strengthened it in others (trade union laws). Blair somewhat strengthened it, especially through the Human Rights Act and the creation of the Supreme Court. The coalition seems bent on rolling back some of these reforms.

We all know what is happening to the fiscal state. For the first time a government is seriously trying to do what Mrs T never really tried and Mr B never even attempted – a permanent rolling back of fiscal expenditure.

The economic state, meanwhile, was significantly rolled back by Thatcher, and only very partially reinvented under Labour, through regulatory extension, until the financial crisis of 2008. Suddenly the economic role of the state moved centre stage again, in a very big way, to save the banks and re-stabilise the economy. But even flagship projects such as high-speed rail cannot hide the fact that the coalition is trying to erode the economic state again, through re-privatising the banks, avoiding major bank re-regulation, scaling back supply-side labour market interventions, abolishing regional development agencies and the like. They also want to carry out the biggest privatisation of all – turning the NHS into a provider marketplace.

And, finally, the welfare state. Thatcher tried to curtail it, but largely failed. New Labour expanded it – though not by as much as is often supposed. The coalition is clearly trying to roll back what it sees as the dependency state. It is doing this by marketising the NHS, reducing benefits, ‘freeing’ schools, and cutting welfare services across the board. Moreover, it sees these cuts as permanent. It is clear that the aim is to reduce taxes before a 2015 election in such a way that, like the privatisations under Thatcher, the cuts become politically impossible to reverse.

The coalition – or at least David Cameron – offers the alternative of the Big Society. But this is merely a post-modern version of Victorian do-gooding – charity and philanthropy dressed up in ‘crowd-sourced’ clothing.

So across the board this is a government seemingly intent on rolling back the frontiers of the state in virtually every area – a far more ambitious agenda than even the fabled Thatcher ever attempted.

It is early days yet and what we mostly have are plans rather than implementation. There have been significant wobbles already – most notably on the NHS. The next few years really are going to be ‘interesting times’, but perhaps we should remember that in China the saying ‘may you live in…’ is a curse, not a blessing.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at Manchester Business School

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