Image via the BBC

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.


  1. MJ Maccabee

    Hi, Kenan,

    I’m always happy to see a new piece by you, but I’m curious as to why in recent months I’m receiving them stacked three at a time. I’d prefer to get them weekly as you write them, if that’s still possible.

    Rattle the cage, Mara Math

    • My apologies. It’s not a case of posts being “stacked three at a time”, it’s just that I’ve been so busy with my forthcoming book that my posting has become highly irregular. Hopefully it will return to normal soon as the book is completed and proofed, and I may even get back in time to twice-weekly posts.

  2. I suggest you educate yourself about current account deficit, current account deficit and wage price inflation.

    This analysis seems to ignore basic macroeconomic fundamentals.

    Regarding the burgeoning current account deficit, are you willing to pay up to 10% more income tax to pay for your ideals of a welfare state.

    Are you willing to pay more taxes to pay for the necessary borrowing to fund the increasing import dependencies needed to provide the basics for migration led population growth.

    Are you willing to pay more taxes to deflate the inflationary pressures of a wage price spiral.

    The leftwing silence regarding sharp tax increases on the richest half is truly deafening.

    • You ask the same question again and again, so let me again give you my usual answer. Most of the left (and most of the British public) supports a higher and fairer tax system to properly fund public services. It’s the right whose ideology is rooted to low taxation and a small state. It may be because you are so much more educated than me that you can hear the “leftwing silence” that few others can (who, I wonder, do conservatives keep insisting want “higher taxation”?), while seemingly not being able to hear the rightwing calls for lower taxes.

      • So how much more income tax are you willing to pay in order to reduce the budget deficit, to pay for the required borrowing to pay for the current account deficit and to avoid further inflation as a result of demands for higher wages through strike action.

        You can calculate this by costing the required improvements to public services.

        Note, Labour has both supported income tax reductions and condoned spending cuts with a view of reforming capital gains taxes but with no costings.

        • So, first you claim (again) that the left doesn’t support higher taxation to fund public services. When I pointed out (again) that that’s not true, you ignore it, and want to know instead how much taxation I would personally be willing to pay. I hate to tell you, but taxation (just like public spending) is a social not an individual issue, and can only be collectively decided as part of a broader package about public spending, welfare benefits, etc. It’s worth adding that in international terms, Britain has both a relatively low tax burden and a relatively low level of public spending. Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Holland, Finland, Italy, Ireland, etc all have as a percentage of GDP both higher taxation and higher government spending. And, given the argument for low taxes as a driver of growth, most also have higher productivity rates than Britain. Meanwhile, I assume you will be publicly calling for fewer teachers, longer hospital waiting times, fewer public libraries, cutbacks to public transport, even more squeezed council services, no youth services, and an even greater reduction in the disposable income of the poorest sections of the population, particularly those dependant upon benefits, as the preferred outcome of your “educated” stance?

        • Actually I was just interested to know how much more income tax you were prepared to pay in order to improve public services and provide adequate benefit payments.

        • Nandy said she would not reveal what Labour’s policy would be on income tax, the triple lock on pensions or a “wealth tax” if the party wins the next election

          Labour does not support the increase to National Insurance Contributions – known as the Health and Social Care Levy – that was introduced by Rishi Sunak to fund an additional £12 billion of spending.

          But one of the things we are very attracted to actually is not just looking at how we can tax people more, because the tax burden is already incredibly high – it’s risen several times over the last few years under this Tory Government.”

          Labour sources indicated any wealth tax was unlikely to take the form of a flat tax on assets, but could involve higher taxes levied on transactions, investments or capital gains.

          Are you reading the same memo as the Labour Party?

        • Thank you, but I think I already realised that. And as I’ve already pointed out, it is a meaningless way of posing the question. As meaningless as me asking you how many teachers do you want sacked or how many people do you want to die of hypothermia because benefit cuts means they can’t afford to heat their flats? Useful for trolling but not for serious discussion. But, then, I guess, that’s really what you’re about isn’t it?

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