Monday 13 September 2010

Should the Coalition admit it wants to "smash the state" by choice, not necessity?

Guardian commentator Julian Glover is a well connected centre-right insider and pro-Coalition voice. He has probably spent more time than almost any other political commentator talking to the "true believers" in the Cameron inner circle about what they think that their project is really about. (He produced a long Prospect essay last Autumn "not intended either to recommend or dismiss, but to report — in the forceful terms in which they have been described to me—the picture of policy that Cameron’s band of brothers believe they see").

In Monday's Guardian, Glover sets out the case for the Coalition coming clean about its state-shrinking agenda being a matter of choice not necessity.

Why be spooked by social democrat squawking? The coalition should shrug its shoulders and confess: the charge its enemies lay at its door is broadly correct. This is an ideological government with a plan for a smaller, less centralised and more liberal state. The left dreads the obvious fact that spending cuts are central to this plan – and they are. The left senses that the government is staging a cultural revolution against social democracy – and it is. The coalition does not want to make mild adjustments to the old order. It intends to smash it.

There is an element of mad Maoism to it all: the re-creation of a country fired by a spending review that will feel like a fetishistic exercise in the application of extreme pain. To say that cuts are being forced by necessity and nothing more, is to imply that when fatter times return ministers will reverse them. Nobody who knows the leaderships of this coalition believes that. Much of what the government must do to balance the books it would have wanted to do even if they were in balance.

Yet ministers, by and large, hesitate before admitting this. Liberal Democrats worry about scaring their voters. Conservatives aren't sure the country will understand their big idea.

No minister would ever put it in these terms, which partly captures the difference between eye-catching journalism and politics. But Glover argues that this is also a strategic problem for the government, since failing to make the case for why the Coalition is doing what it is doing leaves them without a public argument. The "misery of cuts" will grind them down if they can not win the argument for a radical ideological break.

Even those keenest on the ideological direction might query this political advice. (Note that Daniel Hannan has noted that the public case for a smaller state will not be won without foregrounding the necessity argument, acknowledging that the principled case for less government has only minority appeal).

Beyond this public relations issue, there are two central substantive problems with Glover's argument - especially from either a 'progressive Conservative', LibDem centrist or social liberal perspective. The government may want to smash social democracy, but maintains that this should be done because it will therefore achieve social democratic ends.

Firstly, there is no evidence base for the Cameron/Clegg hope that the route to less inequality is to roll back the state and so roll forward society: the Big Society means to this, while an interesting area to experiment with, remain opaque. If the goal of "less state" was "more freedom", with freedom defined in terms of the size of the state, then the outcome of the project meets a right-of-centre libertarian test by definition. But the Cameron/Clegg dilemma is that they have set themselves a different test - a social democratic one, while ditching social democratic means. The point of less state is less inequality.

The problem was put pithily by Richard Reeves, now Clegg's Downing Street advisor, while Director of Demos, in his Prospect article [paywall] with Phil Collins A Big Unequal Society?, covered by Next Left at the time.

Reeves wrote that:

It makes literally no sense to argue that inequality needs to be reduced and then to call for a reduction in state benefits. The issue is not ideology; its not politics; its just arithmetic ... Labour's record shows that cash transfers can work to reduce basic income inequality. It also shows that even a broadly centre-left government did not feel able to transfer money on the scale needed truly to make society more equal. So inequality has been checked, not reversed ...

At present, he is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap and trotting gamely towards it".

Secondly, there is mounting evidence that the discretionary choices being made on public spending make the Coalition's own "progressive austerity" goal all but impossible to meet. (The issue here is the scale and speed of deficit reduction, so as to eliminate the structural deficit in one Parliament. The claim that this is essential to avoid sovereign default is not credible).

The TUC has a useful summary of the detailed findings of Tim Horton and Howard Reed's research on the distribution of current spending, and the impact of cuts. Because public spending is heavily pro-poor, a decision to have, say, double the cuts that would be necessary dials up the austerity and stretches the "progressive" claim beyond breaking point.

If Julian Glover is right about what Coalition advisers and ministers say in private - at least, those who believe that there is a coherent argument and project - then perhaps Cameron and Clegg should take his advice and admit the smaller state motivation behind their government.

But, to do that credibly, they may well have to ditch their current (shared) public account of what the government expects to achieve.


T.N.T. said...

Great article, except that there is nothing "centre" about Julian Glover.
He's basically a UK version of the Tea Party - about as far right on the 'liberal' spectrum as they come.

Nonetheless, I think if Cameron and Clegg were being honest with the electorate about what they're trying to do, Glover's got it about right. Of course the consequences for ordinary people in the UK will be utterly disastrous.

Leo said...

Caution, caution, caution! I agree with giroscoper - yet another brilliant post (they've been the best commentary around these last few weeks!), which makes explicit the amputation-not-cure intent towards the welfare state that many in the the Government are embarking upon.

The first simple observation - that there was nothing even close to a public mandate for permanent reductions in state-led welfare provision at the last election (recall that the Tories had to radically groovify their brand, centre-left their smile; recall too that the LDs remain as much a social democratic grouping as an economic liberal one).

The second observation is to recall how the advocacy of an overt smaller state argument by many in the Coalition would, quite apart from polarising British politics like nothing since '83, risk seeing the Left falling once again into a framing trap that pushes the centre of gravity in political discourse even further to the right. If the Tories do rear their 'true' head & claim that the cuts will (& should) be permanent, then the debate will be between amputation vs cure in how to deal with the deficit, breaking what patina of consensus still remains between political parties over the necessity of the welfare state. Julian Glover's assumption that senior Tories might well benefit from improved clarity as to their intentions might result in an ideological war that Labour may think it can capitalise on (by taking the Coalition's necessity argument at face value, Labour will be able to uphold the seemingly reasonable position - that there are no social democratic ends by stateless means.)

I would caution against this. We have seen from America how right-wing anti-state sentiment can take hold & gain wide traction. Labour should be in the business of framing most of current welfare provision as something like the 'basic needs' of most British people, & pushing for innovative tax & legal reforms that enable the deficit to be closed with minimum civic disturbance.

Giroscoper is right to raise the spectre of the Tea Party. With the continued expansion of the Murdoch media empire projected for the coming years, the likelihood of further media liberalisation towards Fox news-style political discourse in the UK & the likes of Dan Hannan waiting in the wings, the Left should be cautious in welcoming such arguments to the mainstream political conversation so soon. (am I over-bleak in thinking such arguments could slip quite easily into mainstream discourse?)

The new leader (esp if Ed Miliband) will have a fantastic opportunity to portray the government as two-faced over the cuts in the coming months & years, & in doing so, holding the centre ground firm against any move to the right. We shall see if the Tories & LDs can continue to sing from the same sheet for much longer, but there may come a point (preferably after the AV referendum) that Labour's best strategy for avoiding another welfare-smashing lockout in opposition is to not take another state retrenchment (after Thatcher) lying down, & to agitate for the collapse of the Coalition, for a new Parliament, & a chance to reduce the deficit in a much cleverer, & less crude manner. My fear, & hence my caution, is they can only do this if the public conversation identifies Labour as a politics of the centre, & the clear & urgent voice of reason &c &c..

Leo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunder Katwala said...

Thank you giroscoper and Leo, I was previously unaware that positive comments are allowed on the internet!

The "mandate" point is an important one. Labour's argument was rejected - or failed to get across (partly because it all seemed about £6 billion this year) - but against opponents who said cutting waste was important, but in David Cameron's case that he would reject any ministerial plan to cut public services.