Leading article: When it comes to the state, it is not size that matters most

Where government action is necessary it must be effective

Share
Related Topics

David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester earlier this month had a strong and clear theme. And that theme was the perils of "big government". The Independent's opinion poll today suggests there is a significant level of public support for that diagnosis. 67 per cent agree with the Tory leader that the British state ought to be smaller. Just 28 per cent disagree.

It is certainly not hard to point to instances where the hand of government has blundered in recent years, some of which Mr Cameron highlighted in his speech. Consider the grossly disproportionate Vetting and Barring Scheme, which will require a quarter of all adults to register on a database if they want to work with children. Or consider the case of Ofsted's recent intrusion into the childcare arrangements of two policewomen. The state has also plainly overreached itself with its ID cards scheme.

Yet the Conservative leader's claim that all of society's ills can be laid at the door of an over-active states is too simplistic. There are also areas of public life where the state has plainly not been active enough. The Government has failed to do enough to stimulate investment in renewable energy technology and infrastructure. The result is that we lag far behind the likes of Germany in the development of solar energy and wind power.

And one of the reasons we got into this economic mess was the prevalent political ideology that said financial markets were always self-correcting and should be left to their own devices. The banks blew up a destructive credit bubble without facing any meaningful controls from the regulator. For Mr Cameron to argue in his speech that our economy is broken "because government got too big" was bizarre and wrong. Spain and Canada had considerably tighter financial regulation, and the banking sectors of neither witnessed blow ups in the manner of HBOS and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

There were contradictions in the Conservative approach on show yesterday. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, gave a speech calling for the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury to intervene to stop state-supported banks from paying employees cash bonuses more than £2,000. He was right to do so. Strong state direction is warranted in this area. While banks are still failing to supply credit to viable small companies and while their capital levels are still below safe levels it is absurd that they are planning to pay generous cash bonuses to their employees. Yet how does this fit with his leader's reflexively disdainful attitude towards "big government"?

Strong government action is also needed to deal with the banking empires that have emerged from the rubble of last year's crisis. Not only do these institutions enjoy an unmerited de facto state guarantee of their liabilities, they often work against the interests of households and businesses. Yet market forces will never break them up and deliver a competitive market in financial services. Only the state can achieve that.

The "big government" versus "small government" opposition is, in many respects, a false one. There are areas of British life where the state's activities are distorting and it should pull back. But there are other areas where government ought to be more activist in pursuit of the public good. Our political leaders need to decide where government has a role – and then concentrate on making it as effective and productive as possible in fulfilling that role. The true enemy is not "big government" but "stupid government".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence