The state as the oppressor of the people, or as the provider of public services?
Paul Mason, now of Channel 4 has blogged about Russell Brand’s piece in his blog here. As has Robin Lustig of the Huffington Post here. Lustig was more critical than Mason in what I thought wasn’t a particularly strong article. Generally I don’t like the mindset that views voting as a single action rather than within the wider context of political engagement. As social media use continues to rise, the opportunities for politicians to interact with citizens grows. Thus in principle there should be far greater scope for politicians to engage, listen and adapt to the concerns of citizens in their local areas. Not that this alone will change anything at a macro-level.
The king as the oppressor
I want to take you back to cartoon medieval England
The very simplified version of history here is that the people of the land worked their feet off and got little back from the powers that taxed them. There was no centralised state of the model recent times. Transport and communications limitations alone made this impossible. If the cartoons are to be believed, sheriffs wandered around town picking the pockets of everyone who walked past, saying ‘taxes’. You can almost see how the negative reputation of the tax collector was formed in the minds of humanity.
The rise of municipal taxes to pay for public services
Another early blog I wrote mentioned Tristram Hunt’s tome on the history of local government. (See here). One of the drivers of public services was the need for decent sanitation. Indeed, Dr John Snow’s map of cholera in London from the mid-1800s (see here) helped shape the public policy response to the outbreaks. (As did the great stink of the Thames outside Parliament too). It was the Metropolis Management Act of 1855 that helped kick things off in London as far as co-ordinating infrastructure construction was concerned. Note too that this Act remained in force until its repeal of all bar two clauses some 110 years later (under this).
The People’s Budget of 1909/10
During the 1800s there was the rapid growth of infrastructure across UK cities. But that didn’t mean poverty went away. Every so often you hear commentators referring to the risks of going back to Edwardian times (1901-10 was the reign of Edward VII) and of the polarisation of wealth of that age. I’ve often stated that we tried Victorian-style philanthropy in the Victorian age, which didn’t work – hence why we developed the welfare state. The first real large-scale attempt at creating this was with David Lloyd George’s People’s Budget. (See here & note the wikiP article here, with the usual precautions). In a nutshell, new social security payments were to be funded by taxes on the wealthy. The first attempt to pass that budget failed when the Lords vetoed it. Being wealthy landowners and likely to be hit by the proposals, they effectively told DLG to go and get a mandate. Which he did. Hence why the House of Lords cannot veto financial bills passed by the House of Commons. (And also why some ministers like to get the Speaker to declare bills as financial, thus reducing the changes that the Lords can make when amending such bills – as happened recently here).
The great nationalisations of Attlee
A much greater programme of public service provision by central government was brought in by Prime Minister Attlee in his reforming 1945-51 government. What I often feel many commentators today forget about what Attlee delivered was the historical context of the time. I’m not thinking in terms of ‘we won the war’, but rather the significant political debates that were happening everywhere in the latter years of the war as people decided what sort of society they wanted after the war, having sacrificed so much in the conflict.
Thus I come back to one of my earliest blogposts looking at what people saw as ‘freedom’. (See here). It wasn’t just freedom of speech and freedom from being thwacked by an unruly police officer at a protest. It was much more than that. Freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from disease, hunger, poverty and squalor. But we don’t hear about these freedoms being debated nearly enough.
Two state structures within the single state structure?
Is it the state’s responsibility to free us from the problems mentioned in the above-paragraph? The libertarians amongst you will probably say no, while the traditional socialists will probably say yes. This makes me ponder about whether we have two state structures within a single state structure. One is that of security – the monopoly of violence and all that goes with it. The second is ‘cradle-to-grave’ provider of public services.
For myself and many of the people I follow and engage with on social media, we don’t like oppressive policing or having our privacy being invaded by state spies. We generally don’t like getting involved in wars and other armed conflicts – especially not without clear UN authorisation. We generally like free at the point of service healthcare and education. It’s almost the reverse of the right-wing US thinking – those that say they like small state while being ‘strong on defence’.
Is it possible to separate the two in public political discourse?
It’s an open question – has it ever been attempted and if so, what were the outcomes? For example did it end up with a different model of public service delivery or on what defence, law and order functions might look like?
In one sense, the local/central government split in the mindset of the public might indicate what one model might look like. But as the years have gone by – not least due to improvements in transport and communications, local government has become increasingly restricted by central government due to additional powers in successive acts of parliament. These have included not just capping council tax rises but imposing duties on local councils on what services they must provide. Furthermore, as a large chunk of financial resources comes from central government, it’s understandable as to why local government may seem to look towards Westminster and Whitehall for policy initiative as much as their local area.
And after all, who would want to become a local councillor given that they are generally unpaid posts, taking with it the flak of delivering (in this political era) public service cuts forced upon you by massive reductions in central government grants?