This essay, on the myths of the “small state”, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 9 October 2022, under the headline “Libertarians will let you live life as you wish – as long as you’re rich and powerful”.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do or what to think or how to live your life,” Liz Truss told the Conservative party conference last week. “When the government plays too big a role, people feel smaller.”
Conservatives have long made the argument for a “small state”, a less intrusive government and greater individual freedom. But proponents of the small state are usually highly selective about who should benefit from a hands-off government. The pleas of bankers wanting to uncap their bonuses or businessmen desiring fewer health and safety regulations are likely to be heard. But an ordinary person battling for better wages, or wondering how to eke out their pitiful level of universal credit, is likely to find that the government is in their face.
Summer saw a wave of strikes by many groups of workers fed up with a decade of austerity and wage stagnation and worried about declining real pay at a time of soaring inflation. This autumn and winter, we are likely to see even more.
The Tories have made much play in recent years about being the party supporting working-class people. But only if workers play the role allotted to them of being pliant, individualistic and socially conservative. The moment workers begin taking collective action to defend their rights and living standards or to challenge government policy, they become the enemy. The government’s immediate response to this year’s strike wave has been to threaten even greater restrictions on union activity.
Britain already has the most restrictive trade union laws of any advanced democratic nation. Between 1979 and 1998, the Tories introduced seven major anti-union laws. Measures included banning secondary picketing, outlawing political strikes, imposing onerous restrictions before strike action could be taken, removing union immunities, so allowing employers to bring injunctions, and legalising the sacking of strikers taking unofficial action.
Since 2010, there has been another series of laws restricting workers’ rights, such as the introduction of fees for those bringing claims to an employment tribunal. Such fees have, in the words of the Institute of Employment Rights, “priced tens of thousands of people out of justice”, leading by 2017 (when it was scrapped after a court challenge by Unison) to an 80% fall in sex discrimination cases.
Forty years of legislation have seen the imposition of the state into working-class lives to undermine collective bargaining and the possibilities both of strike action and of expressions of solidarity. And while the Conservatives have introduced most of this legislation, Labour has largely gone along with it, Tony Blair insisting in 1997 that “the essential elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will remain”. And so they have.
Successive governments have intervened equally ferociously into the lives of the poor and of welfare claimants, the state treating them more and more as undeserving even of the pittance they receive. Over the past four decades, benefits have become more tightly means tested, and many tied to increasingly arduous “availability for work” demands, pushing tens of thousands into abysmally paid jobs with terrible conditions, part of the drive to create a more “flexible” labour market.
Welfare to work policies, from New Labour’s New Deal programmes to George Osborne’s “tough love” mandatory work activity schemes, were influenced by “workfare” plans pioneered in America and especially by the ideas of the political scientist Lawrence Mead. According to Mead, the real problem facing the poor and the unemployed was not a lack of job opportunities but, rather, their own behaviour, a lack of basic civic virtues and a desire to find solutions to their own problems.
It’s the attitude that underlies Tory chair Jake Berry’s recent claim that those facing higher energy bills should get a “new job” or a “higher salary”. And chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s insistence that benefit claimants will have their payments cut if they are deemed not to be working long enough hours or looking hard enough for a job. For a claimant, a “small state” means shocking falls in real-term benefits, through measures such as the benefit freeze and the two-child limit, but also a very large state dismantling your life.
Or look at government immigration policy. There can hardly have been a more intrusive government programme than the “hostile environment” launched by Theresa May in 2012, which turned doctors, teachers, landlords and public sector workers into an arm of the state, to police and pressure anyone viewed as a possible “illegal immigrant”, denying them jobs, housing, healthcare, bank accounts and benefits. The result, as barrister Colin Yeo has observed, was “an all-out assault” in which “not just migrants but lawfully resident and even British citizen ethnic minorities became collateral damage”. As the Windrush scandal revealed, many British citizens not only lost their jobs or were denied health treatment but were also deported and barred from the country where they had spent virtually their whole lives. New home secretary Suella Braverman’s “dream” and “obsession” to see “a plane taking off to Rwanda” stuffed with deportees sums up the cruelty and coercion of the small-state conservative.
And then there was Covid. Unprecedented levels of policing and surveillance were imposed throughout the pandemic. It gave the state a taste of what may be possible and reset the dial of what the public in a democracy may be willing to accept.
In the wake of the pandemic, the government that will not “tell you what to do or what to think or how to live your life” crafted in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, one of the most ferociously illiberal laws of recent years. The police can now prevent demonstrations they deem too noisy or causing “serious disruption”, the definition of which is in the gift of the home secretary. The authorities can proscribe protesters from attaching themselves to another person or to an object and impose “serious disruption prevention orders”, banning individuals from protesting.
The so-called small state is also, inevitably, a highly coercive state, bringing its weight down on those battling for livelihoods and rights and those deemed not to belong or to be lacking in “civic virtue”.
The real debate is not about a big state v a small state. It is, rather, about whom the state will coerce and whom it will support. The answer from Liz Truss seems clear enough.