Sometimes, well, quite often actually, I find myself using an idea repeatedly but having the gnawing feeling that I haven’t really thought it through. This has happened recently with an assertion I made first in my 2007 annual lecture but repeated most recently in my inexplicably overlooked Prospect piece, namely that I am ‘an enthusiastic collectivist but a sceptical statist’.
It’s already late on Thursday evening and I have an in-tray bigger than the collection of a small municipal library so I can’t work through this thought properly, I just wanted to flag it up before I forget.
The thing is I am not anti-state. I think, for example, the actions of our own government and those around the world saved international capitalism from falling of a cliff a few months ago. More fundamentally, the state is vital to dealing with a whole set of social, military, economic, cultural and environmental priorities which would not otherwise be addressed adequately or at all. Most fundamentally of all, the failings of the state are generally the failings of us, the people, in relation to our often incompatible demands for safety, freedom, individual affluence, community cohesion, economic growth and sustainability.
What I mean when I call myself sceptical about the state is, first, that the state – especially the central state – finds it very hard to successfully manage local public services, particularly those that rely on a strong relationship between providers and users, and, secondly, that it generally lacks the capacity, subtlety and responsiveness to affect the changes in people’s lives that it intends - which doesn’t mean I think these things can be left to either the market or the spontaneous organisation of communities, but that the central state needs to be more strategic and realistic about its role. For what it’s worth, this is a view I consider to be perfectly compatible with a progressive political orientation (I say this partly in response to the complete stranger who came up to me the day before yesterday on the Piccadilly Line platform of Kings Cross underground station and called me ‘a nasty right wing s**t’).
The question about the size and role of the state is already at the heart of the political debate as we move towards the general election. It needs to be a debate that moves beyond a crude pro-state, anti-state dichotomy. But until I get a bit more precise in my own terminology I had better not go about criticising others!
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.