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.

Nobody still believes in 19th-century definitions of state and sovereignty, however. The idea that political authority resides in particular individuals is a hopelessly inadequate formulation for late 20th-century Britain, whose political system depends on making the distinction between private individuals and the public positions they occupy. When the Chancellor raises taxes, we don’t expect the money to find its way into his personal bank account, or into the bank accounts of the Members of Parliament who approved the increase or of the civil servants who collect it. We don’t even expect it to find its way back into our own bank accounts, though it may do so in the end. We expect it to end up in the accounts of what we call the state. This is public money.

A second consequence of conflating the state with sovereign individuals is that it soon becomes clear that the rolling back of boundaries is not as liberating as it sounds. It suggests we will be freed from outside interference, but if the boundaries are between individuals, what it really means is that more and more people are distanced from the seat of political control. One way to limit the arbitrariness of government is to reinforce its constitutional underpinnings. But because we lack a written constitution, a rolling back of the state serves only to distance those who happen to be in power from the institution in whose name power is ostensibly being exercised. Thatcher’s desire to push back its boundaries thus freed not us from it but her from us. The Thatcher years were marked by an increasing disregard for the niceties of office, and if the end result was indeed a greater freedom for individuals at large, the means was a greater freedom for an increasingly narrow sovereign portion.

This contrariness can and does work the other way. Despite her obvious liking for government when it involved her personally, Thatcher had a genuine distaste for other forms of government, a distaste that increased the further removed from her they got. Above all, she loathed local government, its wastefulness, its pettiness, its capacity to get in the way. The Thatcher years did see a rolling back of local government. But it is worth remembering how she tried to put her seal on this achievement. The poll tax was designed to ensure that local councils would never be elected to office on extravagant spending proposals, since each of us, as poll-tax payers, would recognise that it was our money that would be spent. This was seen as endearing government to the people, the aim being to keep for the individual’s own use as much of his or her income as possible. But it could also be said that the intention was to include as many people as possible within the group (tax-payers) who felt that the money in the public coffers was theirs. This was in fact to push the boundaries of the state forward, so that as many people as possible were caught in its net.

The poll tax failed because it was so unbelievably crude. To the apparent surprise of its creators, it turned out that most people, even those who stood to benefit, wanted their taxes to be fair, not equal. This scepticism as to whether public life can be anything more than the sum of private enterprise forms an important part of Thatcherite rhetoric, however. And it too taps into a long and redoubtable tradition. In 1987 Thatcher famously told Woman’s Own: ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ Nearly a hundred years earlier, M.D. O’Brien wrote: ‘There is no such thing as the state. The term expresses a pure mental fiction ... [there is] simply the sum total of the activities of individual Englishmen.’ The echoes are clear; but there is an obvious difference, too. Thatcher never said there was no such thing as the state. How could she? She may not have wanted us foisting all our ills onto a mental fiction, but she knew something had to be able to cash our benefit cheques, secure public services (even she didn’t believe that the ones she failed to sell off failed to exist), guarantee the billions that her government continued to borrow and stump up the billions it continued to loan. She couldn’t wish it away, any more than she could have provided the names of the individual men and women, and their families, who were personally responsible for each public transaction she initiated, and personally liable for each public service she failed to perform. Thatcher needed the state behind her as much as any other 20th-century politician. There may have been times when she behaved as though the state was an individual – herself – but even she (particularly she) will have noticed that it was the Queen who got invited to Heads of State conferences, not her. There was one occasion when she seemed to think that the suite was her family, or that her family was the state (‘we are a grandmother’). But she could not deny that somewhere between individuals and society there existed a political organisation which made forms of collective action possible. All she could do was ignore it.

Chipping away at local government, abolishing society, talking up individuals: all these were part of the rhetorical package but none of them touched the state, because the state means something other than government, or society, or individuals. The language was wrong. Whatever the words, however, it is still true that during the Thatcher years, and beyond, fewer and fewer individuals and organisations were able to rely on tax-payers’ money to bail them out of their difficulties. One result of this was that economic differences between individuals were exacerbated during the Eighties. Some people got richer than they could otherwise have done, and some got poorer. And the same was happening in the United Suites, though there the rhetoric was different. In the US they don’t have a ‘state’, just ‘government’ and ‘the people’. The Reagan years were meant to be about less government and more people, without anyone having to worry whether that meant less state or more. It meant less money being spent on public projects and more money for private individuals.

Political language matters. US politics are different from ours precisely because of the ways in which the language of government limits political possibilities. The government is a group of individuals; the people is a group of individuals; and the issue between them tends to be which individuals get to spend what. So individuals organise themselves into pressure groups in order to stake a claim to government resources, and politicians surround themselves with staff trained to play these groups off against each other. The boundaries, though constantly shifting, could hardly be clearer: you have it, we want it; you spend it, we pay for it; you do it, we vote on it. Inspired ‘governance’ (a word you rarely hear in Britain) can lead to successful and popular public ‘programs’ (another word you will rarely hear here). Permanent public institutions providing comprehensive public services are harder to come by, however.

Such institutions came together in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as the welfare state, at a time when the collective experience of war had generated a clear sense of identity between state, nation and people: of the state as something more than mere government and distinct from individual endeavour. The Conservative Party tried to revert to a different language during the 1945 election – their manifesto warned of the dangers of ‘docility to the state machine’ – but they were overwhelmed. It is often pointed out that the period which saw the greatest increase in public welfare provision (1945-79) was also that in which political theorists showed least interest in the idea of the state. This is sometimes seen as ironic; it is anything but. Expanding public services are not evidence of a state that is getting bigger and more visible, but of a political culture in which people are comfortable with the idea of the state, and with how it relates to them as individuals.

It is this, in particular, which makes the rhetoric of the Eighties seem so confused, appearing to present the state simultaneously as something from which we needed help in escaping and something for which we were individually responsible. It looks like an attempt to have it both ways. In fact the Thatcherites didn’t really want either alternative. If more and more of us are genuinely to be freed from the demands of the state, it ought to follow that the burdens of welfare devolve more and more heavily on the few who can afford it. Meanwhile, if we are to be encouraged to identify with the state as individuals, there is no reason to suppose that we will want less and less provision of welfare. The historical evidence points the other way. It may have been that some Thatcherites would have been happiest abolishing the state altogether, along with all its welfare provision, leaving nothing between her inspired governance and the individuals who lived under it. But they never dared say so. As a result they ended up saying things they didn’t mean.

What is ironic about the language of state ‘retreat’ is that it should have been taken so seriously. In this respect, it stands in stark contrast to what looks like becoming a catchphrase for the Nineties: almost as soon as the words ‘stakeholding society’ were out of Tony Blair’s mouth, they were being dismissed as just another piece of vapid electioneering. But ‘stakeholding’ is a perfectly respectable idea. If Blair thinks it is going to win him any votes he is almost certainly mistaken, but if he thinks it represents a coherent way of talking about the state, then he is right. ‘Stakeholding’ addresses itself to the central issue, which is not the means of escape from the state, but the means of identification with it. If individuals are given a personal stake in public welfare – a pension fund they can control, education vouchers they can cash in as they wish, healthcare options they can choose – it is possible to hope that they will be more comfortable with the notion of public expenditure in general. A stake is not a share, it is simply a say in how the state is organised, a means of having some influence over what we get as individuals for the money we put in as individuals. It is not an idea to make the heart sing, or even to sweep the Tories from power; but at least it makes sense.

That is, it ought to make sense. Yet even the language of stakeholding has been quietly corrupted by misconceptions about the state. When Labour politicians have been asked in recent months what this big idea might mean, they say that a stakeholder society is a society in which every individual has a stake. To which we say thanks for nothing. We all have a stake in society already – it is where we live. Answers of this kind are enough to make anyone hanker for Thatcher’s steely logic. What these politicians must mean is that stakeholders have a say in the organisation of public institutions and public resources. They don’t say this, however, perhaps because it sounds so clumsy, perhaps because they fear the word ‘state’ in itself will frighten people off. Maybe they are right. But if stakeholding means anything, it ought to mean a way of talking about the state without presupposing that it is something alien, oppressive and intrusive, that it must always be talked about in the language of ‘it’ against ‘us’.

Green and Whiting’s book contains no reference to stakeholding, which is hardly surprising, given the term’s recent coinage. The book in fact remains wedded to what one of its contributors calls the ‘spatial metaphor’, or the language of advance and retreat. Its purpose, according to its editors, is to put into historical perspective the claim that the Eighties were a decade of unprecedented retreat, a view that they suggest pays too little heed to the ebb and flow of 20th-century politics. Yet they remain happy with the simplistic language in which this claim is expressed. The real difficulty with the book, however, is that it provides no coherent picture of what the state actually is, this thing whose size and scope it is supposed to be measuring. For some contributors it is government, for some the law, for some sovereignty, for some public spending, for most a combination of these. Sometimes the terminology gets clumsy (‘For good or ill, the British state is less frequently obeyed and more frequently criticised by its subjects than ever before’; states don’t have subjects, they have members; we may criticise the state, we disobey only laws and people). Sometimes it is more than that. The editors, in their concluding essay, point out that ‘fewer and fewer national governments’ are willing to pay for universal state benefits. But governments don’t pay, the state does; that is what makes them state benefits. To see these decisions as belonging to government begs important questions, questions concerning not how big a state, but what sort of state we want.

The evidence is, of course, that we wish increasingly to pay less and less. There is no evidence, however, that we want less and less in the way of services and benefits. That is the bind for national governments. One way out is to try to find some new means of making the connection between taxes and benefits. In the past this has best been done by such contingencies as war, failing which it may require reforms normally associated with the language of state retreat – self-governing hospitals, opted-out schools, co-operative pension schemes, lower levels of income tax. But it won’t work if these continue to be described as a means of escape from the state. The only real escape would come with the freedom to choose how much, if anything, you wish to hand over to the public exchequer, a view to be found only on the American lunatic fringe. Individuals can exit from state provision by using their private resources to purchase healthcare or pensions or education, but they can’t exit from the state.