There’s much talk currently, heightened by the victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, of big government. The state’s share of UK GDP is now 52%, the result of public investment, bail-outs and stimulus packages. Demographic changes are pushing up welfare and pensions. Along with taxation quangos multiply, as does regulation…
How to respond? The Economist backs its prejudice in favour of a smaller state, and suggests it could be achieved by a 10% cut in public sector pay, and cuts in public sector pensions… We’ve had task forces looking at better regulation, and war is promised on quangos.
But there’s something else much deeper, much more visceral out there, by comparison with which the Economist’s relatively pragmatic approach is feeble. Take the Tea Party movement in the USA. According to its website it espouses a mission ‘to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets’.
I’ll give this my own interpretation. Fiscal responsibility: yes to current entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid, agricultural subsidies, no to extending health care and stimulus packages … Constitutionally limited government: no to anything that boosts the Federal budget, and yes to protectionist measures. Free markets: a throwback to pre-globalisation days, when America exported and didn’t import…
Is this where our own new Right is headed ? In the UK that instinct to devolve power can’t have the same focus, in the absence of states, constitution, founding fathers, tea parties. We’ve no Main Street pitching in against Wall Street and stimulus packages. But limiting government is the mood of the moment, devolving power to parents and classroom teachers, disillusionment with Westminster politicians and arguments for reform, referenda and local empowerment, more reliance on patient pressure and less on top-down targets for keeping the NHS in order.
There’s also a more marked producerist focus: producers are sanctified as adding value to the economy, as opposed to unproductive elites, in our time notably bankers, on the one hand, and the likes of the unemployed and benefit claimants on the other. It doesn’t show itself here with the same virulence as the USA – but is it where we’re headed?
As for free markets, we could be more radical: act (with the USA and Europe) against all those cheap goods we love to buy from China, and reduce the massive levels of Chinese investment and indebtedness to sovereign wealth funds. Leave industry to take care of climate change (it probably won’t bother). Exit the EU, hunker down, and soldier on alone, with all sorts of specifically negotiated deals and treaties which the rest of the world would be only too happy to enter into with us.
We had the MPs’ expenses scandal, America has had the health care debate – crystallising anti-opinion, making the process of government more difficult. America has just had its Scott Brown moment. What awaits us, I wonder?