Mary Dejevsky: We already do too much. Don't expect us to govern, too

There are surely services that the state has a duty to provide
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The Independent Online

We could just see it from our kitchen window on Monday night: the question, "Who is the new member of Cameron's team?" projected on to the derelict towers of Battersea Power Station. Squinting at the distant spectacle for longer than it deserved, I cast around for an answer, until the awful truth dawned. That answer, now broadcast far and wide, was "You". You (and me, of course) have an "invitation" from the Conservatives to "join the Government of Britain".

Now before you all storm the Cabinet Office to claim your desk, let me venture one reservation. I rather thought that it was we the voters who did the inviting, if there was any to be done – at least at this stage in proceedings. But let's cut the Conservatives some slack and ask what they might expect us to do.

Which is where the real difficulties set in. Participatory democracy is a wonderful thing. The Swiss are dab hands at it, with their referendums on national service, women's rights, mosque-building and the like. As are individual American states, which put to the vote all manner of propositions, from hunting rights, through school spending to gay marriage. If it were just a little more voting that the Conservatives had in mind, who would object? Move polling to Sundays, and they could even avoid giving schools extra days off.

The trouble is that Mr Cameron and his cohorts are couching their invitation in the broadest possible terms. It's not primarily about showing up more often at the ballot-box – that could be risky; you never quite know where voters might place their cross. What the Conservatives seem to have in mind is delegating more of what the Government does to us. And while there are good arguments for small government (and the lower taxes that supposedly go with it), there are also good arguments for not shrinking government too far.

Not so long ago, it was all the rage to talk about "reinventing government". Think-tanks happily exercised themselves devising new ways of making government more efficient. "Delivery" entered the lexicon. But a key point was often missed. The idea came to Britain, as so many do, from the United States, where it had been embraced by Al Gore and the New Democrats. But reinventing there meant not streamlining, reforming or making more efficient, but actually recreating from the ground up, after a period in which government had declined to almost nothing. This was "reinventing" in the narrow sense of the word.

We are not at that point yet in Britain, but their manifesto shows that the Conservatives have quite specific ideas about how you and I might help them maintain a smaller state. We have long known they favour a much greater role for churches, charities and voluntary organisations in tackling what they call "Broken Britain". We also knew something of their education plans: if you are not satisfied with your local schools, you may set up your own, and the state will help fund it. Managerially lean and fit, these schools can be up and running in weeks.

Yesterday we learnt more. Public-sector workers will be encouraged to form John Lewis-style co-operatives "as a way of transferring public assets and revenue streams to public-sector workers" (and reducing the actual public sector). Those without a job will be helped to turn entrepreneur; social housing tenants will once again be persuaded to buy, and if you don't like your council tax increase (who does?), you will be entitled to join your neighbours in rejecting it.

You will be jollied into helping govern your schools and hospitals, and if your local pub or post office is doomed, you – yes, you – will have a "right to buy". All of which sounds as though we are heading for a latter-day march of Edmund Burke's "little platoons" – an idea that still entrances a certain section of the British intelligentsia.

My question is: where on earth does Mr Cameron (and his rather bigger platoons) think the rest of us are going to get the time and energy to do all this participating? The tax system in this country is organised on the presumption that both partners in a household work. The pitifully small married couples' tax break promised in the manifesto will not create a new class of leisured spouses. And single parents, who already have plenty to do, are being required to take up paid work earlier and earlier.

Even now, much of what is wrong with Britain can be traced to time-poverty. We work longer hours than most of our Continental peers. We have more "shift-parenting", more child-minding by television, more neglected teenagers. It was entirely predictable that many GPs would use their windfall salary-rise to cut their hours. If the rest of us take on even a fraction of what the Tories propose, we will be on the treadmill of responsible participation 24/7.

More likely it will be the very same "good citizens" who volunteer their services as at present, producing an even larger "committee class", whose members select and promote each other, using their paid "great-and-good" positions to subsidise the rest. Either that or employers will need bribes to give time off for civic activity – which would be just another way of transferring government costs.

In essence, though, Mr Cameron is only broadening a trend set by New Labour. For a decade now, we, the public, have been increasingly saddled with responsibility for decisions we are not qualified to make and inveigled into doing other people's jobs for free. It was New Labour that expounded the joys of "choice" (an orphan word in this election). In practice, this meant we were left scrabbling around to read the small print of prospectuses for oversubscribed schools. We had to initiate ourselves in the arcane ways of league tables, mug up on hospital consultant records and co-ordinate reams of paperwork for uncoordinated bits of so-called "social care" dispersed between "agencies".

In the scant time left, we had to compare the charging plans for our gas and electricity, check the banks hadn't dropped the savings rate without telling us, and keep tabs on our vanishing pensions. As our own domestic administrator and financial adviser, we were instructed to "switch, switch and switch", and if we made the wrong call (Icelandic banks, anyone?), we had only ourselves to blame. Even the supermarkets have entered the game, providing their frazzled customers with instant training to check out their own groceries. "Self-check-out" – now there's a term!

There are surely services that governments, like supermarkets, have a duty to provide. In the sort of jargon they might understand, these constitute nothing less than their "core functions". Why should disgruntled parents have to set up their own school? Is it not a prime duty of government to ensure every child's educational life chances? Is it not for government to keep, and enforce, law and order, without relying on amateurs dishing out Asbos? And charities are already overstretched coping with the amount of homelessness, addiction and rehabilitation on their books already, without becoming the safety net of first resort.

This is not to say there isn't enormous potential for streamlining the way government works. In 10 years, the public sector has ballooned even as many of its functions have been farmed out to agencies or commercial concerns. The result has been simultaneous duplication and fragmentation, which has been both expensive and confusing. But we expect governments to govern. Instead, we have Mr Cameron saying: "Ask not what your Government can do for you, but what you can do for your Government" – of voters already required to do too much.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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