The debate should really be framed as: do the redistributive measures required to reduce income inequality (not that Gordon Brown even managed that) depress the economic growth that removes absolute poverty to such an extent that we oughtn’t bother? I don’t think either side has this quite right: we freeborn Britishers are probably prepared to accept more taxation than is often supposed, provided we think we’re getting value for money. (A lot of us, for this reason, arrive at a conservative position by default rather than by choice.) Related to this is the extent to which communities and public space are squeezed by individualism on one side and statism on the other: somehow we have to rescue the community from the failing individual and the failed state, and redefine how we pay for public services in the process.
David Cameron grasps at this with his big society narrative, though very inarticulately. That the phrase has become a synonym for “savage cuts” in the public mind suggests they haven’t thought it through properly; and if there’s no philosophy behind it, it’s hard to disagree with the public mind. But it should be very simple…
We’re governed from the top and bottom of these inwards; what if we were governed from the centre outwards?
Bagehot, earlier, also suggested that David Miliband gets it; if so, he is alone in the Labour Party, bereft of this supposed “moral seriousness”. For Labour, then, I propose an admission that an ever-bigger state won’t work: there has to be an ideal size, and they should tell us what they think it is. They should rediscover their righteous anger about the five giant evils but admit that more and more bureaucracy has failed to solve them. They should revisit the neglected small-c values of mutuals and co-operatives, which worked on the principle of cohesion without coercion. And they should admit that they betrayed Keynes’ name by running a huge structural deficit in the boom times: which has only given their successors cover for the savage cuts. Instead, work should be encouraged and progressive taxes (whatever that means) could be redistributed to aforementioned co-ops, social enterprises and charities, to see if they can do any better: it’s a pity that Labour’s scorched earth legacy means this couldn’t be run as a controlled experiment, even if the new government wanted to. The left also has to stop resenting the idea of charities delivering public services as an attack on the state and the privileges of its workers, and start seeing it as a potential partner in fighting those social ills.
For the LibCons, my advice is to embrace localism and direct democracy, and trust people enough to give power away from Westminster and Whitehall: but don’t forget your roots in pessimism, which is the ultimate guard against utopian idealism. As for the Tories in Scotland… surely it’s time to throw in the towel. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist brand is clearly never going to recover from its status as Thatcher’s angels of death. There’s still a deep strain of self-sufficient, relatively social conservative One Nationism in Scotland – even among many people who vote Labour or SNP – and this is potential fuel for a new centre-right movement. At last this is being discussed openly. The question Adam Smith’s heirs will have to face is whether to stick with the union, or – as probably seems a better route to achieving a competitive, small-state nation eventually – support Scottish independence, or at the very least full fiscal autonomy. The next question is: entryism in the SNP, or a new party that, thanks to proportional representation in the parliament and councils, might just make an impact?