“The corollary of the big society is the smaller state.”
If the tone of the coalition government was set by David Cameron's Big Society launch
, the substance was set by George Osborne's “progressive budget
.” These are the defining features of the coalition at 100 days and, like David Davis, many believe that these are two sides of the same coin.
They are, to an extent, right. Growing civil society both requires and allows a rolling back of the state. A society with stronger social norms, where people know and watch out for their neighbours, intervene when they see a crime and resolve disputes without engaging authorities will have less crime and require less formal policing, fewer courts, fewer prisons. A society where more people live with their immediate families, take care of their extended families, help their neighbours and volunteer in their community will be healthier and happier, and need fewer formal social workers. A society where more people participate and associate in groups, both formally and informally, will be less alienated and more democratic, needing fewer central auditors, middle managers, etc. This vision of the Big Society was always going to be an awkward policy platform because it is first and foremost about cultural change; a vision of associated individuals and empowered civic associations – churches, unions
, neighbourhood groups, social campaigns, mutuals and cooperatives – capable of effectively negotiating common goods, be they civil liberties or fair economic treatment.
Of course, it's the fewer
s in that vision of society that have been the focus of a growing campaign of objections from the many who defend Keynesian
monetary policy. Fewer police, fewer courts, fewer social workers and fewer auditors means fewer jobs. The stakes were underlined by the almost immediate collapse of consumer confidence following the budget announcement and, with it, high street spending
. This has surely bolstered the case against a huge reduction in public sector employment (notwithstanding the popular
and socially just case
that the housing market is still too expensive to sustain mass ownership) and has Nick Clegg pleading “Judge us on five years, not 100 days
Those advancing this anti-cuts agenda need to exercise caution, as it can quickly become a slippery slope to defending all public spending qua
public spending. The disparity between public expenditure and revenue that can be raised through taxation has to decrease, and progressives should be first in line to attack spending that is either wasteful or harmful to social justice. For example, unlike its Welsh and Scottish counterparts, the Audit Commission has promoted central compliance and standardisation rather than social innovation across England's public services. The £200 million it cost to operate paled in comparison to the costs in audit preparation and service standardisation passed on to the public sector. Similarly, many have railed against “secret cuts” to the NHS, which will soon carry the burden of social care costs inherited from local government, but Cameron never should have offered shelter to its huge managerial class, which alone costs over £700m annually. The ratio of beds to managers in the NHS has decreased from 12:1 in 1997 to 5:1 in 2007, as the number of managers doubled to 40,000 and the number of beds dropped by a quarter to 170,000. And that doesn't include the 3000 administrators employed by the Department of Health. Housing benefits are another truly enormous and unfocused cost to the state, which need to be addressed by deeper reforms
than are currently being mooted. Trident, Titans, ID cards – the list goes on.
These are surely the cuts to which Cameron was referring when he responded to a public sector employee's request that he pledge to restore cut services when the books have been balanced
by saying: “Should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later? I think we should be trying to avoid that approach.”
That may be fine for cuts that improve efficiency and refocus spending on those in need, but the Prime Minister needs to clarify whether state spending on early intervention services (particularly Sure Start), asset-building devices (the Savings Gateway and Child Trust Funds
and regional development
is, in principle, bad or good – and therefore if these particular cuts are, in principle, permanent or temporary. If he won't take pledge the latter, the next Labour leader should.
In its first hundred days, the Coalition government has laid out a wildly ambitious vision for a Big Society and smaller state, the contours of which have yet to be defined. While this vision may allow and require citizens to do more and the state less, it is perfectly compatible with a state that spends on public goods and redistributes between regions and income brackets.