Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Big State vs Big Society

Is this going to be one of the “defining themes”?

Labour say the (big) State will look after you “cradle to grave” – but our increasing expectations do not match the reality (no matter how much that reality is better than say 30 years ago).

The Tories seem to be saying let “Big Society” do it.  This seems a bit amorphous, but seems to rely on active citizens “doing it themselves”.   I wonder who are these “active citizens” – everyone I know seems to be too knackered and I suspect that the active citizens may be drawn from very narrow demographics (which is probably not a good thing).

There seems to be some level of agreement that the status of most of the existing “public goods” (health, education etc. “free at point of use”) is unchallenged (or that it is politically unacceptable to challenge that status).

Two questions arise:

  1. How to pay for them?
  2. How to ensure that they are effective?

In most cases it is assumed that you pay for these goods through general taxation (even if we maintain the fiction that this is what National Insurance is for).  However at the fringes (e.g. pensions, long-term care, higher education), there is a tendency to say people should “take personal responsibility” for these costs either directly or through some form of insurance scheme.  This leaves the low-income earners (and the feckless) stranded.  In the USA (which seems to both support “survival of the fittest” and a belief in creationism), this might be acceptable.  But perhaps even there, there is now a scepticism about financial services and a lack of trust in investment schemes where you pay now and possibly receive later.  This makes the alternative, state funding (on a pay as you go basis), more attractive.  Whether future generations we pay for us when we are no longer earning, seems to be a question that we either ignore or dare not contemplate.

However, if you have state funding does this necessarily mean state provision?  Just as we distrust private institutions (particularly financial institutions), we also have a distrust of the big state providers (the education “system”, the NHS, etc.).

We have tried putting “market disciplines” into the NHS – which seems to create a bureaucracy (and high salaries for Chief Executives) without increased efficiency.  We have tried franchising with the rail network – which seems to create a complicated fare structure for customers passengers without significant improvement – and franchisees can still wriggle out if it does not work (viz National Express East Coast). The state bears the risk, but the private sector can hoover up any rewards.

Now we seem to be trying to say individuals should have “choice” because they will choose the good and the bad will go to the wall.  This is particularly being applied to Schools and Hospitals. However without more resources (genuine choice should imply a surplus of supply), it will be the educated, the vocal and the digitally connected who will move to the good leaving the uneducated, the digitally excluded, the meek and the sick experiencing the “bog standard” end of the quality spectrum.

Do we crave the security of big state provision, or are we sufficiently confident (and financially comfortable) to trust to big society?  I suspect that varies across the country – and the current electoral map will show big society supporting areas coloured blue and the big state supporting areas coloured red.  I suspect that this is a brutally divisive issue with big state supporters being genuinely frightened of the prospects of big society and the big society supporters being too comfortable to tolerate the fears of the big state supporters.

Which party said “there is no such thing as society“?


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