Fine line between state interference and protection

On one hand we want less interference in our lives, on the other we want regulation that benefits all

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Quite the most fascinating series currently on BBC Radio 4 is A History of Britain in Numbers, an investigation headed by Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, into how UK governments have, over time, managed the business of “creating Leviathan”.

Starting with Anglo-Norman efforts to quantify who owned what and how it might be taxed, and going on to explore how the medieval monarchs’ keenness on harrying the French encouraged the development of logistical systems capable of supporting continuous armed conflict, Lord Dilnot’s quarry is what might be called the state apparatus and how it put on flesh since the days when Henry VII reckoned £140,000 a pretty good annual haul for the exchequer.

Five hundred years on from the early Tudor tax-gathering project, the average Briton’s attitude towards Leviathan – the 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s evocation of the state – is highly equivocal. On the one hand, a politician who talks vaguely about “setting the people free” can usually be sure of a hearing, even if a moment’s thought suggests that the free-market nostrums that lie at the heart of these urges are more likely to shackle those at the bottom of the social heap than liberate them. On the other, certain aspects of the modern UK state – notably the National Health Service – are so highly valued as to be more or less sacrosanct, their achievements praised to the heavens, their failings a source of shame and bewilderment. The outrage that followed the recent child abuse scandal in Rotherham, for example, proceeded from an awareness that authority had failed and should be strengthened: no one, not the most right-wing berserker Tory MP in Westminster, was going to suggest that the care of vulnerable children needed a lighter touch.

And then, lying behind this deeply felt desire to have one’s cake and eat it too, to wander freely, untaxed and unhindered, through a world mysteriously devoid of HMRC inspectors, park-keepers and that age-old national bug-bear “people telling you what to do”, while still benefiting from a safety net of hospitals, national insurance and care homes to catch you should you fall (and paid for by whom, exactly?) is that near-universal distrust of the bureaucracy that always seems to be Leviathan’s natural consequence. In some ways the Labour minister Douglas Jay’s remark that “the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best” was an epitaph for the whole Attlee administration of 1945-51, which lost power because the electorate, while happy that the country should be governed along more collectivist lines, grew tired of the bureaucratic obfuscation that followed in its wake.

Interestingly, Lord Dilnot’s first programme began with an on-the-spot analysis of just how rigid is the modern state’s grip on our collective collar. Sitting in a café, he noted the dietary information printed on the wrappings of the foodstuffs he was eating, the markings on the roads outside, the regimentation of the traffic, the passing police car – tiny things in themselves but, when taken together, enough for any libertarian to question the idea that he or she was a free citizen living in a free country. Not just the libertarian either, for one of the dismaying or, depending on your point of view, encouraging aspects of our national life is the regularity with which some enlightened measure – shops charging for carrier bags, say – is assailed by all sorts of different interest groups on the grounds that its inhibits the individual’s freedom to choose.

At the higher, political level, the desirability of loosening the state’s grip has become such an axiom that last week’s stories about the UK railway system came as a profound shock. Item one was the news that the nation’s commuters are so infuriated by the poor quality of service that hundreds of thousands of them are flooding rail firms’ Twitter feeds with their bad experiences (a total of 280,960 tweets apparently used the words “delay”, “late” and “stuck”.) Item two was the shadow Transport Secretary Michael Dugher’s denunciation of railway privatisation as a disaster and his vow that Labour, if elected, would “rip up” the current system of handing operating franchises to private train companies. Mr Dugher, while conceding to the New Statesman that he did not want to bring back British Rail, was adamant that “the public sector will be running sections of our rail network as soon as we can do that”.

Is this what the public wants? What the public wants, naturally, is cheap travel, without realising that cheap travel usually requires government subsidy to make it work. At the same time the suspicion, common to passengers, that the railway system seems not to be operated for the benefit of the people who use it, and that its ticketing system is a nightmare apparently conceived with the deliberate aim of over-charging the customer, has transferred itself to energy supply.

The existence of six leading energy companies, expert testimony now suggests, does not encourage competition, as consumers, fearing subsequent price hikes, are reluctant to switch their accounts, however regularly encouraged to do so by government ministers. All of which might lead the neutral observer to wonder why we need six companies and why the system wouldn’t work better for the people it serves if there were only one.

In a country where the phrase “nationalised industry” has had about the same malign resonance as “tax evader”, one wishes Mr Dugher well in his quest – in fact the Labour Party’s rail policy is about the most radical scheme to which Mr Miliband has set his name. What will probably stymie it is not right-wing babbling about “freedom”, or the predictable Tory response that a de-privatised system would “create chaos on infrastructure that is so vital to our economy” (as if the Conservatives ever bothered about infrastructure) but the folk-memory of life under the old regime, with its grime-covered windows and its buffet cars that, as if at some pre-agreed signal, would always shut down halfway through the journey.

Twenty years after the event, I can still recall an evening spent coming back from the Cheltenham Literary Festival when, as I loitered on the freezing platform of Swindon station, the first Virgin Intercity train I had ever seen – sleek, streamlined and indefatigable – sped into view. It was  10.30pm and still the buffet was open. This, I told myself, was progress.

It is the same with the energy companies. Yes, the whole system is a triumph of wool-pulling, consumer-fleecing late-capitalism designed to create a spurious market that will fill the pockets of the robber barons who run it rather than deliver reasonably priced energy to the masses. On the other hand, as never happened under the British Gas monopoly, you can generally, if not always, get someone to come and fix your boiler on the day it breaks down.

Meanwhile, the real problems that face the 21st-century Leviathan occur at a much less newsworthy level. Only last week, for example, after a £42m grant reduction courtesy of central government, Norfolk county council was forced to vote through £10.5m-worth of budget cuts. Perhaps all those disaffected commuters would be better off bombarding Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with 280,000 tweets containing the words “libraries”, “highway maintenance”, “arts funding” and “charging visitors to museums”.