Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Cameron focuses on the state as Big Brother stalks Westminster
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The Independent Online

Two words dominated the week at Westminster. There was just no escape from "Big Brother". The row over alleged racism in Celebrity Big Brother followed Gordon Brown to India, where he discovered the difference between being Chancellor and Prime Minister.

In his 10 years at the Treasury, Mr Brown has carefully planned a media blitz around events such as Budgets, pre-Budget reports and key speeches, and kept a relatively low profile when it suited him. A prime minister cannot control the media agenda, must juggle several balls at once and respond immediately to unforeseen events. In a way, it was fitting that Mr Brown's best-laid plans were blown off course by Channel 4's programme: he used his India trip to accept for the first time that he would soon be Prime Minister. He maintained a sunny smile throughout but must have been cursing in private. It was a foretaste of what is to come when he moves next door in the summer.

This wasn't the only Big Brother row. The Government provoked outrage from civil liberties groups by proposing more data-sharing between Whitehall departments. The aim was laudable - to improve public services so that people did not have to provide the same information to lots of state agencies. But the concern was genuine too.

Yet another Big Brother controversy looms on the political horizon. It will continue long after the bust-up between Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty has been forgotten.

David Cameron believes a simmering debate over the role of the state - and how far it should interfere in our lives - will become a key dividing line at the next election. He is keen to paint Mr Brown as a "big state" man whose instincts are to intervene, regulate, legislate or open his cheque book.

The Tory leader hopes this issue will help him dilute Mr Brown's attempt to play his favourite tune and make the election a choice between "Labour investment and Tory cuts". He has already played down the prospects of early tax cuts, and is now trying to head off Labour claims that the Tories want to "shrink the state" by axeing public services.

"I want to roll forward the frontiers of society," Mr Cameron said this week. "By putting the emphasis on a larger society, rather than a smaller state, we are returning to a richer Conservatism, one that reconnects us with the aspirations and the problems of the British public. Rather than thinking, in every instance, what can the state do about this or that issue, we'll be thinking what can society do."

The Tories hail this "social responsibility" as their big idea but, as yet, it is only a small one. Mr Cameron hasn't put much flesh on the bones and there are lots of potential contradictions. But he is on to something about the state's role, especially as the public are not convinced that 10 years of higher spending and top-down reforms have improved public services.

In a game of political chess, Labour can see the Tory attack coming and has started to move its defences into place. Mr Brown has started to sketch out his vision of a "servant state." Tony Blair spent yesterday at Chequers discussing the Cabinet's six policy reviews with his advisers. Significantly, one is called "the role of the state."

A fascinating cabinet paper charts the changing relationship between the state and individual over the past 100 years, and argues that it needs to change again. "Higher expectations of public services, fuelled by rising living standards, better education, decreasing deference, comparisons with the private sector and new technology, will lead people to be ever more demanding of public services," it says.

The answer is "an enabling state" which focuses on ends not means, is flexible about whether government-funded services are delivered by the public, private or voluntary sector and which devolves power to people and allows decisions to be taken locally.

Despite that, the paper says, the state may need to intervene more in some areas - to protect the law-abiding majority from crime and terrorism, protect the environment and tackle social exclusion and public health issues.

At a Downing Street seminar this week, Mr Blair was told the public are "schizophrenic": they don't want an overbearing "Big Brother" government but they expect ministers to "do something" when a dangerous dog kills a child or there's a horrific coach crash.

People want choice. But they also expect minimum standards. They may like the idea of handing down power. But they don't want a "postcode lottery" in service provision. Devolving power is no panacea. The Government is increasingly taking a back seat, with more day-to-day decisions taken by 131 semi-independent agencies. But that raises questions about who is accountable for their mistakes.

All three main parties now talk about devolving power, though only the Liberal Democrats have consistently supported it. It remains to be seen whether Mr Cameron's rather vague plans about "society" add up, and whether he would hand decisions to new institutions. Similarly, will Mr Brown put his money where is mouth is by transferring real spending power to local bodies?

Questioning the role of the state is the easy bit. Finding the answers will prove much harder. Mr Cameron and Mr Brown have identified the issue, but are in a bit of a state about what to do about it.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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