No Exit

David Runciman

  • The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain edited by S.J.D. Green and R.C. Whiting
    Cambridge, 403 pp, £40.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 521 45537 5

A Thatcherite history of the state in 20th-century Britain is simple: up until 1979 the state got bigger, clumsier, greedier; after 1979 it started to get smaller, nimbler, leaner. It is the story of a steady, seemingly inexorable advance, followed by a sudden and rapid retreat, as the state was determinedly ‘rolled back’. It is a heroic story, with an obvious heroine, and that alone ensures that it has not gone unchallenged. Many people doubted at the time, and continue to doubt, the purity of Margaret Thatcher’s motives, and of her crusade, strewn as it has been with incidental casualties. Many others have questioned whether history is ever this simple, whether the state really did grow as steadily, and contract as rapidly, as the Thatcherites would have us believe. Little attention, however, has been paid to the language in which Mrs Thatcher’s ambitions were expressed. We accept as given the terminology of advance and retreat, of boundaries and frontiers. But we shouldn’t. It didn’t mean anything then, and it doesn’t mean anything now. Thatcher’s ambitions with regard to the state were neither wicked nor unfulfilled; they were simply meaningless.

They were meaningless because they didn’t really concern the state at all. We all talk about the state at some time or other – about what it owes us, what we owe it, about where it does and does not belong in our lives – but we rarely stop to ask what the term actually means. Instead, we try to make sense of it in conjunction with words that may come with it, and which we can understand well enough on their own – words like ‘welfare’, ‘intervention’, ‘sanction’, ‘control’, ‘security’. During the Eighties the key words were ‘interfering’, ‘indifferent’, ‘overbearing’, ‘unresponsive’, and the state was construed as something from which we needed to escape. We all know what it means to be interfered with, bossed about, held back, dealt with arbitrarily. But can we recognise when this is being done to us by the state? What sort of experience is it?

It is the experience of being interfered with by someone solely on account of the position they hold within the state, of being mucked about by politicians and officials. Thatcherite rhetoric was designed to tap into the longstanding tradition which questions whether we should allow other people to make decisions for us, and more particularly to spend our money, just because of their title. The sentiments are familiar; the language, however, is confused. For the experience is one of being summarily treated, not by the state as such but by agents of the government.

The distinction between a state and a government may seem trivial. It isn’t. A government is a group of individuals whose job is indeed to make decisions for the rest of us. The state is the association or organisation in whose name these decisions are made. Rhetorical complaints about unnecessary interference by others should be directed against the government rather than the state because the state is, or ought to be, all of us.

For most of the 19th century the state was identified with government – with the ‘determinate human superiors’ who came to be known as ‘sovereign’. This made it possible to argue that the state should be able to undertake whatever reforms it saw fit, unconstrained by the dead hand of social tradition. It also opened the way to a view of the state as simply one group of individuals lined up against the rest, whether a minority against the majority or the majority against minorities. In the language of the day, sovereignty belonged to a portion of society, so that there had to be a boundary between the state and the rest. Most of us, most of the time, feel more like the rest than we do like the sovereign portion, which explains the appeal of Thatcherite talk about rolling back the state’s boundaries.

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