Alex Massie

The Big Society vs The Small State

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Rachel Sylvester's Times column (£) today concentrates on the philosophical divide at the heart of the government:

[E]ven as ministers go to the wire in their negotiations over the “what” of the Comprehensive Spending Review that will be published in two weeks’ time, the Conservatives in the Cabinet are divided on the crucial issue of “why”. For some Tories, the recession has created the perfect opportunity to reduce the size and scope of the State. For others, the smaller State will be a by-product of the decision to hand power down from the centre to local people.

The overwhelming imperative to reduce the size of the deficit — which is agreed by all — has disguised the divide, but it is there and apparent in the disagreements over individual departmental budgets. “The ‘what’ may be the same but the ‘why’ is different,” says one minister. “There are those who think the purpose of all this is the smaller State and there those who think the aim is a better, more cohesive society. We will only win if people believe the latter. Whether we are stuffed or not depends on whether people believe we have the right motivation.”

As that minister says, how all this is framed matters. No wonder the Prime Minister is keen to avoid the impression that the Tories are keen on a slash-and-burn approach.

Nevertheless, is there actually a real divide here? On the one hand, the government's hopes for welfare and education reform will, in some instances and at least in the short-term require additional expenditure, but that doesn't itself mean that the state is playing a more intrusive role. On the contrary, the state may pay more but also be more limited.

Which is one reason why focusing on total levels of government expenditure is only a partially-useful exercise. It's far from trivial but it's not enough either. A smaller state and a more "cohesive" society certainly can be at odds with one another but there's no necessary requirement that this must be the case.

Explaining this - a more limited government is a good thing in itself and provides opportunity for a better "bigger" society - is more complicated than selling a single message and that consequently this explains, I think, some of the government's communication problems. But that's also a by-product of having an optimistic, ambitious government arguing that "yes, necessity demands we do this but we'd want to do much of it anyway because it's the right thing to do even if necessity weren't an issue."

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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