Anyone tuning into political debates over the last few months would be forgiven for thinking we were back in the 1970s. ‘Government has got too big’, the Conservatives argue. ‘We need an active government’, Labour reply.
But there’s a key difference this time round. While in the 1970s the Conservatives wanted smaller government in order to give more room to market forces, this time it is society that they feel has been squeezed out by the state.
I’ve recently been involved in an online debate on this topic with Policy Exchange, who claim that the Government spends too high a percentage of GDP, warning that this can 'crowd out important aspects of society such as family, clubs, faith groups, charities'.
A quick glance around the world tells you that things are more complicated than this. There are plenty of countries that have small states with very weak participation in society (think the USA) and plenty of countries with a big state that score well on levels of civic participation and social ties (think the Scandinavian states). And it is a bit silly to suggest the reason people break up their marriages and don’t join clubs or go to church is because of the size of government – it’s because they want to spend their time in other ways.
By the end of the debate I was convinced that politicians and the media get too hung-up about the size of the state. Debates that focus on size miss the far more important question – about how effectively the government works. Just as bad government can sometimes stifle economy and society, good government can support and enable people to take and use their power. It’s time to move beyond the argument that assumes an irreconcilable trade-off between active government and strong society. We need both.
You can read the full debate between ippr and Policy Exchange here .
Jonathan Clifton, researcher, ippr