what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, April 25, 2011

The state of the state - part II

I've been silent the last couple of days simply because I have been surfing on the subject of state-building which I realised I had not mentioned in my paper on how the European expert system is supporting the development of institutional capacity in transition countries. I was started on the trail by an interesting article by the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama which caught my attention because it used the phrase "intellectual silos" - a hobby-horse of mine as my regular readers will know. I haven't read his 2004 book on "state building" but was able to read some of the interesting and critical articles he has produced on various aspects of governance assistance - and have suitably referenced them in my Varna paper, a final version of which I will shortly put on my website. But the matrix he has developed (with "scope"and "strength" as the 2 axes)is a useful framework for thinking. And complements Colin Talbot's blog which, serendipidously, appeared at the same time.
We live not in one state, but five. Our modern British state has evolved over time, adding new layers of activity. As each layer is added, the old ones are retained but become part of a larger whole. In this case, the five layers are: the security state; the judicial state; the fiscal state; the economic state; and, finally, the welfare state. Let’s use these five to compare the coalition government with its predecessors.
The security state encompasses the basic organs that allow the government to exercise a monopoly of force at home and abroad, and maintain the peace – the armed forces, intelligence services, police, and so forth. The security state prospered under both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, if for very different reasons. For Thatcher it was principally ‘the enemy within’ that had to be fought; for Blair it was terror and crime. Both continued to expand the security state and extend its powers, and did relatively little to reform them. Neither took much notice of civil libertarian objections.
The coalition, in contrast, has set about cutting back the security state, radically reducing its funding and launching widespread reforms to the armed forces, police and prisons. This is the opposite of what Thatcher did as she squared up to the unions, especially the miners. It is either a very brave, or very stupid, approach to weaken the security state just when a government might need it most.
The picture on the judicial state is rather more mixed. Thatcher tried to weaken it in most areas but strengthened it in others (trade union laws). Blair somewhat strengthened it, especially through the Human Rights Act and the creation of the Supreme Court. The coalition seems bent on rolling back some of these reforms.
We all know what is happening to the fiscal state. For the first time a government is seriously trying to do what Mrs T never really tried and Mr B never even attempted – a permanent rolling back of fiscal expenditure. For an excellent picture on this see here.
The economic state, meanwhile, was significantly rolled back by Thatcher, and only very partially reinvented under Labour, through regulatory extension, until the financial crisis of 2008. Suddenly the economic role of the state moved centre stage again, in a very big way, to save the banks and re-stabilise the economy. But even flagship projects such as high-speed rail cannot hide the fact that the coalition is trying to erode the economic state again, through re-privatising the banks, avoiding major bank re-regulation, scaling back supply-side labour market interventions, abolishing regional development agencies and the like. They also want to carry out the biggest privatisation of all – turning the NHS into a provider marketplace.

And, finally, the welfare state. Thatcher tried to curtail it, but largely failed. New Labour expanded it – though not by as much as is often supposed. The coalition is clearly trying to roll back what it sees as the dependency state. It is doing this by marketising the NHS, reducing benefits, ‘freeing’ schools, and cutting welfare services across the board. Moreover, it sees these cuts as permanent. It is clear that the aim is to reduce taxes before a 2015 election in such a way that, like the privatisations under Thatcher, the cuts become politically impossible to reverse.
The coalition – or at least David Cameron – offers the alternative of the Big Society. But this is merely a post-modern version of Victorian do-gooding – charity and philanthropy dressed up in ‘crowd-sourced’ clothing.
So across the board this is a government seemingly intent on rolling back the frontiers of the state in virtually every area – a far more ambitious agenda than even the fabled Thatcher ever attempted
I'm not sure about the distinction between the fiscal and economic states - but, given what the UK Coalition Government seems to be attempting in the way of a shrinking of the state (and how the UK always seems to be blazing fashionable governance trails), this is clearly a space worth watching!

The town of Sliven on the Thracian plain has produced (and inspired) quite a few good painters (home town of Dobre Dobrev). This is a painting of the area by one of the other artists I admire - Vladimir Manski.

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