Make the State great again

Young Fabian writes up the Book Club event discussing Dismembered bu Polly Toynbee and David Walker

It is almost ten years to the day since the collapse of US banking giant Lehman Brothers. The financial crash, precipitated by excessive risk taking by banks, thrust the world into what many economists consider to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. A decade on, the political ramifications of the crash are becoming increasingly evident.

Polly Toynbee and David Walker have tackled the major social and political consequences of this event in their new book Dismembered, asking how the state should function to benefit the many in this new political and financial landscape.  This was the focus of the third and final Young Fabian book-club event ran by Deeba Syed to accompany the upcoming Nation Divided pamphlet. Discussing Dismembered with the Young Fabians was George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman. 

Eaton began by offering his broad assessment of the book: a comprehensive summary taking broad brush strokes of both the macro and micro factors effecting contemporary British society. The current overall picture is grim. Austerity is at unprecedented levels in post-war Britain, a point analysed in depth in the New Statesman’s ‘Crumbling Britain’ series. This has been exemplified by a strained NHS and struggling public institutions such as the Prime Minister’s home turf of the police service.

The severe cuts to public expenditure may have had a delayed impact on political opinion, but Eaton suggested that austerity is hurting far more in 2018 than in 2015. This, in part, explains the surprise result of the 2017 election as well as the Conservatives giving territory on increased expenditure, for example the newly announced investment plans for the NHS and increased wages for soldiers. It will therefore be important to argue the case for increased public investment in the run-up to the 2019 spending review when government departments are issued spending plans for the subsequent five years.

An important observation of the current political paradigm is that New Labour failed to achieve a lasting consensus on higher public spending in the same way that Thatcher’s government cemented Britain to the notion of free market capitalism. However, as the strain on public services becomes impossible to ignore, people are becoming more willing to provide greater funding for institutions they can see failing. The general current of British politics is therefore flowing towards the left as the public appetite to reverse some of the damage from austerity increases.

Both Eaton and Young Fabian members argued that one of the greatest shortcomings of the austerity project is that it is not only cruel but also woefully inefficient. A Young Fabian member with experience in the civil service noted his frustration with the inefficiency of government in general, citing examples of the spiralling costs of purchased goods for projects. Often purchases for public sector ventures must be done through the private sector, and the member recalled times when the prices of government bought goods increased five-fold due to the buying process oscillating between public and private sectors.

George Eaton agreed with this remark, suggesting that the left should amplify the fact that they can act as wise spenders rather than big spenders. This also relates to how governments raise tax, with aggressive tax avoidance and evasion being a key area for the British left to target. This of course requires cross-border collaboration, as most recently evidenced by the EU commission fining tech giant Google, and is therefore another challenge that a post-brexit Britain must overcome. Regarding taxation, Toynbee and Walker argue the case that greater levels of funding are required for HMRC to tackle the issue of tax evasion – yet another public body that has borne the brunt of austerity and would provide taxpayers better value for money if properly invested in.

The discussion then turned towards the general mood of British society after enduring a decade of austerity. A Young Fabian member acknowledged government rhetoric about tackling the current unprecedented mental health crisis but pointed out that the driving factor was what he dubbed “shit life syndrome”. It should come as no surprise that the struggle of mental health is correlated to socio-economic conditions. Any good doctor will prescribe preventative measures before medicine is required. It therefore makes sense for future British governments to try to eliminate poverty and poor accommodation etc to tackle mental health concerns head on before they become a widespread epidemic.

It remains all too easy to point out the many problems with our society. The task, however, is to improve it, and this can only be achieved by the left building a nationwide consensus. Eaton discussed how the main challenge faced by the left is persuading people to its way of thinking. The political right has been successful in using simple everyday analogies to promote their economic positions: “There is no magic money tree” and “We cannot max out the public credit card”. Perhaps it is time that the left used similar rhetoric to argue its case, using analogies of mortgages and business investments to help encourage future economic prosperity.

Eaton concluded the session by offering some comments on the direction of travel the Labour Party should take. As the disparity between private affluence and public squalor becomes self-evident, Labour must think seriously about how to change the political narrative. Overall, he feels more optimistic now than he did several years ago. The 2017 election suggested that people still feel a moral attachment to redistribution of wealth and that government, in certain cases, can act as a more practical alternative to the private sector. Eaton’s closing remark summarised both Dismembered and the current political zeitgeist: “We’ve experienced crumbling Britain. The onus is now to rebuild it”.


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