Pieces of apparently non-political trivia can tell you more about the state of a nation than many parliamentary debates put together. Earlier this week, there was a minor flutter in London over parenting responsibilities. A well-to-do German couple living in the leafy Dulwich Village of south-east London was warned by the headmaster of their childrens fee-paying school that he would be obliged to report them to the local social services department for what seemed to him a grave lapse. The parents had apparently let their two children, aged eight and five, cycle each day to school without being accompanied by an adult. We wanted, claimed the father, to create the simple freedom of our childhood.
It is not that the children had to negotiate main roads with heavy traffic for their mile-long journey. Their route was relatively safe and there were lollipop ladies present at the only crossing near the school. Yet, the headmaster, who must have imbibed the expectations of the Social Services, felt this was a case of parental dereliction. Small children, it was expected, had to be accompanied. The alternative was akin to child abuse.
This trivial incident, which was gleefully picked up by the media, would have constituted yet another example of an intrusive state something to momentarily invoke the ire of right-wing libertarians and conservatives and then forgotten. Not unnaturally, it caught the attention of Londons mayor, Boris Johnson, the enfant terrible of the Conservative Party who seems intent on showing up the rest of the party as boring, careerist fuddy-duddies. In this age of air-bagged, mollycoddled, infantilised over-regulation, he wrote in The Daily Telegraph, it can make my spirits soar to discover that out there in the maquis of modern Britain there is still some freedom fighter who is putting up resistance against the encroachments of the state... Lauding the parents, he added, with characteristic verbosity, that they have taken the sword of common sense to the great bloated encephalopathic sacred cow of elf and safety.
Johnson may have been guilty of some polemical exaggeration, but the gist of his rhetorical flourish would have struck a chord among many Britons who are convinced that the boundaries of the welfare state have been over-extended. The process that began with the Liberal Partys budget of 1906, and got a fillip with the Labour Partys famous victory of 1945, has reached an undesirable climax. There is hardly an area of civil life in Britain that is not governed by local, national or European regulation. From child-rearing and schooling to determining whether an aged person is fit to stay at home or be sent to care, individual discretion appears to have been banished. The ban on smoking in enclosed spaces has led to the closure of nearly 2,000 pubs; the legislation against fox-hunting in the countryside has led to the encroachment of urban foxes into peoples homes; race-relations legislation has forced self-censorship; and there are repeated moves originating in Brussels to standardize the consistency of cheese.
The irony of over-regulation is that it originated in good intentions. In 1945, a triumphant Labour Party rightly felt that the old ways of Britain had to be changed. It began with giving citizens complete, free access to education (including higher education) and health. In addition, at a time when Britain had near-full employment, it was felt that the state should take the responsibility for preventing destitution. Consequently, unemployment benefits, old-age pensions and disability allowances came into place.
Unfortunately, once it starts rolling, the machinery of statism starts acquiring a momentum of its own. How can a child, it was asked, take full advantage of schooling if its home environment isnt conducive? How can slum removal be successful if there isnt alternative, affordable housing? How can a child suffer if the parents are unemployed? How can pensioners cope with the prohibitive costs of heating in winter? Should the unemployed be deprived of holidays? Shouldnt single mothers be given the right to preferential housing? If government housing isnt available, shouldnt local authorities rent private homes for the needy?
None of these questions is irrelevant. But the problem lay in the fact that to address these imperatives, Britain spawned a gargantuan bureaucracy that, in the process, lost sight of all social objectives. The huge National Health Service, it now emerges, has engaged more managers than doctors, and 30 of these apparatchiks are paid more than the prime minister. Earlier this week, the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, a tough-talking, working-class Tory from the north of England, suggested that it was about time people started asking whether some of this bureaucracy was at all necessary: What does an audience development officer do? Is a cheerleading development officer what taxpayers want? One council is even advertising for someone to spin for their bins last week. I wonder whether their residents actually want a communications waste strategy officer or whether theyd prefer a few more bin men.
Undeniably, Pickles was picking on the absurdities of a system that has turned roguish. But his assessment wasnt a caricature. A senior diplomat in the British high commission in Delhi told me last month that there was a multiplicity of quasi-government bodies, including tourism bodies and regional investment boards, which had set up shop in Delhi, paying fancy salaries to their officers and working at cross purposes.
In its bid to build compassionate capitalism, Britain forgot to ask itself a fundamental question: can we afford this elaborate nanny state?
The answer is: clearly not. Public expenditure accounts for nearly 48 per cent of the British GDP and the fiscal deficit is hovering around 12 per cent of the GDP. The country is already grossly over-taxed and it is unlikely that squeezing the taxpayer more will be beneficial. Britain is living well beyond its means and must shed weight. As one commentator put it, Britain must be prepared to accept that it can no longer afford paid unemployment.
This is the context of the furious class war that Britain is likely to witness in the coming months as the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government cuts public expenditure by at least 25 per cent. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who had to take on the organized might of the trades unions in her battle to roll back the frontiers of the state in the 1980s, David Cameron faces no significant threat of street protests and strikes. His threat comes from the misgivings of his Liberal Democratic coalition partner, which has been temporarily placated by the sop of a referendum to be held next summer on replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system with the alternative vote method of electing MPs.
For Cameron, the real challenge is to convince British voters that the country has been debilitated by an unaffordable, bloated state. Yet, the issue is not confined to managing huge savings in public expenditure. Cameron has to preside over another ambitious management of decline and re-forge the creative and entrepreneurial instincts of a nation (or nations) that has lost its raison dêtre. The next few years could be momentous for Britain. An unprepared political class has been forced by circumstances to set in motion an upheaval that involves the fundamental reinvention of the kingdom.
Britain remains an agreeable country. Its ability to endure economic chemotherapy will determine whether it continues to remain jolly.