Sometimes you don’t get the news from the news. Among the confusing scatter of recent Westminster stories – retiring MPs, Matt Hancock in the jungle, blah blah – I found myself talking to a shrewd and experienced Conservative about the challenges facing Britain in the 2020s. And the news that bounced out of our conversation was this: the big state is back.
Consider: war is back. So is plague. We have experienced one pandemic; there may be more. Climate change requires drastic state intervention. It also creates migration flows that only states can handle. If we care about “levelling up” – and we do – then the state’s role in directing investment can’t be dodged.
Beyond that, the power of the virtual world and AI to shape societies requires what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “countervailing power” of the state to push back against the huge tech companies. (Item: the Online Safety Bill.)
It is crucial to note that these things are not, in ordinary terms, party-political controversies. Nor are they local. The need for stronger, more assertive central governments is driven by global forces and overwhelms ideology. It is recognised around the world. Joe Biden, to take one big case, is pushing ahead with a $621bn investment in transport and environmental infrastructure in what he calls “a once-in-a-generation investment in America”.
Here in Britain, the case for a more effective state can be glimpsed in every second news story. The Tories are tormented by their inability to handle persistent ripples of migration on small boats across the Channel. But that’s a visible speck of a bigger tale. Net migration into the UK was around 504,000 people in the year ending June 2022 according to the Office for National Statistics – a record number and about the population of Liverpool. In some ways, this number is misleading. The Ukrainian, Hong Kong and Afghan refugee crises, and a sharp increase in foreign students coming here after Covid (some with their dependants), bringing essential revenue, are big factors. But considered another way the rise isn’t misleading at all.
The effects of climate change across Africa and parts of the Middle East, including the conflicts it is igniting there, mean that migration pressure will be a huge story in the decades ahead. This is just the beginning. Rishi Sunak’s political headache is going to be more severe in Keir Starmer’s Downing Street. And there isn’t a private sector solution.
Did I mention war? As a young man I agonised about the imminence of nuclear war – there’s a very good account of the mentality in Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, Lessons – and as a young reporter I attended Western conferences about the missile gap and tank formations on the central German plain. Then – shazam! – with the Berlin Wall down, it seemed as if war was going down too.
How naive we were. It isn’t just the images from eastern Ukraine, so eerily mimicking those from the Western Front in 1916; it is the serious threat of a Chinese attack on Taiwan and further wars over natural resources, including rare earth minerals, which have been so vividly described in this magazine. No, even after Putin, war is back. Alongside it, energy resilience and food security are back as well. They too require concentrated national effort and investment for long-term survival. The privatised world may supply kit – indeed, one of the West’s last strategic advantages is that it generally supplies better kit – but some things can only be directed by the state.
The biggest threat, of course, is not war but climate change itself. We hear a lot of glib talk about a new green industrial revolution without really considering the huge social and economic changes that implies. If this is real, it requires different jobs in different places; the reshoring of much of our lost industrial capacity, this time to make turbines and solar panels; the remaking of most of our housing stock; a different way of thinking about land; and, to support it all, radical change in our education system.
Let’s hope the dislocations aren’t as brutal, ugly and socially damaging as those of the first Industrial Revolution. But it is a sizeable task.
A bigger and more assertive British state will, almost certainly, end up taxing even more heavily. But it’s unlikely that it would make the mistakes of the mid 20th century and attempt to nationalise industry. Nor need it be so centralised. It will, however, be directive and will feel, to some, oppressive.
The American technology giants have already taken and monetised aspects of our imaginations and our intimate identity. I find it hard to imagine how the future state will cope with migratory trends and fair welfare without some form of identity database, though David Davis promises me that he and his fellow Tory rebels will defeat any attempt to implement ID cards over the next couple of years.
So, the return of the big state means things that will naturally and rightly alarm the libertarian left. We know, not least from the pandemic, that the state can be blundering, incompetent and corrupt. The price of liberty is vigilance. All that.
But the centre-left is going to need a revived statism. For a generation the private sphere has become ever more assertive and cocky. We need to point out the limitations of this.
Private companies can be wonderfully efficient and creative institutions because they have limited objectives – they are interested in their investors, their customers and (usually third) their workers. Fine. But narrow, self-interested objectives do not magically meld into the common good. To be an employee is good, but to be a democratically engaged citizen is a grander thing entirely. Faced with common challenges, as now, we need to emphasise our civic identities.
The trouble is, that kind of identity has retreated because political authority has too. In a democracy, authority does not normally depend on fear or force, but respect. We loan authority to a cluster of institutions and individuals because they have a record for competence and making our lives better.
Sorry, not “have a record”. Had a record. Over the past decade an endless series of squalid scandals – the Michelle Mone affair over £200m worth of personal protective equipment appears to be the latest – has quietly shredded the authority of central government.
The shrivelling of authority goes far further than Westminster. Scandals in the Metropolitan Police and other forces suggest law-enforcement can no longer be trusted. We’ve had scandals in hospitals, prisons, asylum centres and now in the fire brigade. Universities and museums are turning inwards to culture wars; that involves a loss of authority too.
Problems, problems, problems. But the return of the strong state offers one obvious, huge advantage to the centre-left. Historically (and the history of the New Statesman itself reminds us of it) the left has been comfortable with democratic state power in a way the right never has been. This is a moment to reclaim the old language and try to restore the authority of politics.
Unless I have read Keir Starmer badly, it may be a case of right time, right guy. Starmer has a mildly authoritarian streak that is becoming clearer by the day. He is more the buzz-cut public prosecutor than he is the rebellious leftie schoolboy. His relish for throttling the left – and his instinctive traditionalism when it comes to the rights of parents with transgender children, or the treatment of Just Stop Oil protestors – is beginning to add up to a picture that may not delight many readers of this column but which may, just may, chime with the times.
Andrew Marr has been named columnist of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince