The writer is director of the Social Market Foundation think tank
For more than a decade, the British state has been retreating. This irregular withdrawal has been unplanned and inconsistent, felt hardest in the poorest places and by people who lack strong voices. Until this Conservative leadership race sparked echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s call to “roll back state lines” among Liz Truss supporters, it too was largely ignored.
Local public services, often the area where the cuts have the most impact on the ground, receive little attention from decision-makers physically and intellectually concentrated in the well-resourced capital. Library closures and reduced bus schedules do not dominate the Prime Minister’s Questions or the front pages. Even hungry kids needed Marcus Rashford’s celebrity campaign to get noticed.
New revelations about inadequate policing could make the question of where to draw the line more salient. What does the public have the right, even minimally, to expect? The Victims Commissioner notes that serious crimes, such as rape, are rarely even prosecuted. Last week, the police inspectorate criticized the regularly unsolved burglaries and thefts. Install a tracker on your car or cameras on your home and provide officers with actionable evidence and they might investigate. If not, case closed.
The most glaring failure is fraud. Stealing money via cards, phones or the internet has indeed been decriminalised, so law enforcement is ill-equipped to respond. When the money was taken from my account, the bank’s anti-fraud team was surprised when I suggested contacting the police: “People don’t usually care.”
The next place where retirement will be sounded is in schools facing downturns and high energy bills. Again, affluent neighborhoods suffer less, with parents able to raise funds to make up the difference. But will it even spark a debate about what can be left to private funds or charities? The self-sufficiency demanded of citizens when services are abandoned may sound like David Cameron’s ‘great society’, but the regressing state is not ultimately about the former prime minister and his austerity agenda. It is the result of structural failures in the way we raise and spend money.
Local government finances are not only insufficient, they are broken. Ridiculously, council tax is based on land values established in 1991, but no politician dares extract money from real estate assets that have seen decades of undeserved growth.
And an unreformed health and care system is developing inexorably to serve (more and more badly) an aging population. On current trends, health will take up half of all departments’ day-to-day expenses, leaving all other parts of the state to fight for what’s left. Without major changes, the only result may be further unraveling of state benefits at all levels.
The structural public service deficit stems from an awkward truth of British politics: we want to pay US taxes and expect European services. The Truss champions are sputtering that the UK tax burden is the highest for 70 years. True, but the British still pay significantly less tax than most Europeans who enjoy more generous services.
Few politicians even attempt to bridge the gap between our tax and service expectations, let alone confront voters with dissonant demands. They offer heartwarming stories of tax cuts and a better NHS – nothing on debt interest which will soon cost more than the health service.
The bravest leaders would tell voters that they can and should generate more revenue, especially from inflated land values. And that there is fat to cut, starting with universal gifts that unnecessarily favor the wealthiest. Bankers’ children don’t need free school meals. Their grandparents don’t need winter fuel payments. These families would save even without tax relief.
Politics comes down to hard choices. Tax better and spend better. Or accept the continued withdrawal of the British state, in a way that more voters will notice – and resent.