How I learned to love the interfering state

Published by The Guardian (15th January, 2016)

Political archaeology studies the influence of the past in shaping politics. It explains why New Labour hugged the Murdoch press even after it shredded a previous leader, and why some leading Tories adopted Tony Blair as a guru. And perhaps it explains why, as someone who first pondered politics against the backdrop of punk and then Margaret Thatcher, I developed a fierce individualism, combined with contempt for state authority.

Now Thatcher is dead, punk bands are collecting pensions and my views have evolved. I have shifted from ultra-liberal to a more rounded appreciation of the state’s centrality, along with the role of community. Perhaps it is also age; as Edwina Currie once said, everyone is a libertarian until they have children. Certainly, as the father of a daughter with profound disabilities, it is impossible to disavow the crucial role of the state in providing support while also gaining fresh insights into failure on too many fronts.

Clearly the state, like the private sector, can be benevolent or destructive. Yet my journey seems matched by Conservative ministers, which creates a curious anomaly. On one hand we see a rightwing government slashing the size of the state – one central figure says they are completing Thatcher’s revolution. But these same politicians are drifting left on the role of the state, intervening with a vigour that must delight her nemesis, Michael Heseltine.

This is noticeable in key polices such as the Northern Powerhouse, national minimum wage and apprenticeship levy. It could be seen in David Cameron’s speech this week on poverty, with more help for troubled families and postnatal depression. And also when he announced plans to commission 13,000 new homes as ‘a huge shift in government policy’. The scheme – allowing smaller developers to buy land with planning permission in place – is the biggest housing project led by ministers since the regeneration of London’s docklands three decades ago.

Such is the scale of the housing crisis the government has to become more involved. After Churchill won the 1951 election with a pledge to build 300,000 homes a year, his housing minister Harold Macmillan ended up personally procuring supplies of bricks and mortar. So if current Tory ministers want one million new homes in five years, they must break the stranglehold of developers sitting on land while liberalising planning laws.

These moves show the right evolving in government, fusing scepticism over the size of the state with more sophisticated understanding of its role. Cynics might claim this shows the corrosive power of the civil service to co-opt ideologues. Yet it feels like an emerging post-Thatcherite Conservatism that accepts the need for state action to assist the vulnerable alongside protection against the failures of unfettered capitalism.

Among those praising intervention recently are three of the most liberal-minded cabinet ministers. George Osborne called the banking crisis ‘a spectacular failure of capitalism’ and admits he understands the positive power of the state more than a decade ago. Justice secretary Michael Gove argued that governments must intervene to curb cartels. Business secretary Sajid Javid rightly pointed out that ‘without government intervention a business owner would be allowed to refuse me service because of the colour of my skin – as some did to my dad’.

Another cabinet minister told me he was attracted to the Conservative party by its libertarianism and love of freedom, only to see that when used judiciously, government is a force for good. Ministers even seem to be losing fear of nanny state accusations with new drinking guidelines, more parenting classes and slow acceptance of a sugar tax Reporting on obesity from Africa to America, I have seen how the state has to tackle the epidemic since the solutions embrace so many issues, from education to urban design.

There is also incontrovertible evidence of the success of some interventions. Britain’s car industry wilted under public ownership only to be transformed by foreign owners investing in traditional marques – yet they were lured by generous grants as well as relaxed labour laws, then aided by the car scrappage scheme. New Star Wars and James Bond films highlight the triumph of British blockbuster production, yet we must credit the crucial role of tax breaks. Similar benefits were handed to the video games industry, which predicts they will create 2,700 jobs and £320m investment over the next five years.

It would be easy to go overboard: the right is still sceptical over the state, supportive of the private sector and an enthusiast for capitalism. In areas such as banking and tax avoidance there remains too light a touch, while the country remains cursed by cronyism. Yet ironically it was Ed Miliband who pushed the concept of responsible capitalism, identifying the broken housing market and low pay. Now these have been taken up by the Tories.

In this emerging Tory vision of smaller, more activist government, there is a challenge for Miliband’s successor. Jeremy Corbyn is an old-fashioned socialist intent on driving private providers out of the NHS, renationalising railways and restricting tax breaks for business. The right is learning to love the state again. When will the left rekindle an understanding of the market?

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