A Social Justice Queen’s Speech would give local councils more incentive to build more homes for sale, take powers from some of them if necessary to improve failing schools, and back family stability through the tax system and targeted intervention – for example, by reforming SureStart.
Even a glance at this programme should be enough to help settle the debate that still persists among some Conservatives about the role of the state.
To aid social justice, the state must sometimes advance. When the economy goes through a downturn, companies retrench their spending. But the state should increase its capital spending, precisely to try to shorten the downturn. Government spending is the best part of £800 billion this year. In a modern country, that total will always run to hundreds of billions (which is why how it is distributed matters, which in turn is why this Government should end ring-fencing). Private housebuilding will turn down when that downturn inevitably comes, but state housebuilding can keep going, and keep the supply chain going into the bargain.
The state must sometimes retreat, too, if social justice is to be furthered. It should strip those same local authorities of the responsibility for managing schools if they are consistently failing children. But the example helps to show how limited that retreat must necessarily be. Some of those schools will be given to other local authorities to manage – as has happened on the Isle of Wight, where Hampshire is in charge, and elsewhere. Even when they are not, and the voluntary or independent or private sectors move in, it is the state that must assess the bidders, set the terms, make a decision and keep it under review.
Family policy is the ultimate proof of the role of the state in policy-making. As we have seen, a rising tide does not lift all boats. If a man is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or lacks the skills that school should have given him, or has been unemployed for so long that his skills are outdated, that rising tide of growth won’t sail his boat. Cutting back the size of the state won’t help him. It won’t somehow lift him off his crack dependency, or suddenly gift him with the skills he has lost or never had, or magic away the debt under whose weight he is bowed. Nor, certainly, will growing the size of the state. But it is the state that must help organise on a mass scale the interventions that will help him.
Too many Tories simply see the state as Big Brother when they would better view it as Little Brother – that’s to say, we shouldn’t hate the state: it has claims on us, even those of affection. (What Conservative does not revere the monarchy and the armed forces?) In the same way, too many simply defend the system under which we and the bulk of people worldwide live – the system that we call capitalism – without looking at how that system can sometimes act as a barrier to social justice rather than boost it.
Our own capitalism isn’t quite like anyone else’s. The size of our welfare state has sometimes led it to be viewed as a halfway house between American capitalism, with its tradition of individual freedom (though the United States can be much more interventionist when protecting its own industries is concerned) and German capitalism, with its stress on social co-operation drawn from Catholic social teaching. But however you view it, our system throws up its own offences against social justice.
There are the marginal tax rates that hit poorer workers harder than they hit higher-rate taxpayers – and the taxes that fall disproportionately on them; the pay gap between some companies’ poorest employees and their Chief Executives, whose pay themselves and their families well but somehow fail to safeguard their workers’ pensions funds. (That’s you, Philip Green.) The markets that help preserve a closed circle of providers – the electricity industry is often cited as a classic illustration; the state that deliberately targets taxpayers’ cash on richer retired people.
Them there are the lobby groups which lobby government which are paid by the taxpayer to lobby government. The relatively narrow interests which get a very big say in public policy, because of the way party funding funding works. The drawing of the people who run Britain from a relatively narrow social band. The best Universities are always likely and doubtless should provide many of the people who govern and shape the country. But what about access to them? Why do the private schools still have so entrenched a position?
Some of these problems are a direct result of Government, rather than the market, getting public policy wrong. Some of them are symbols of a wider, deeper, cultural malaise. Many of them can be tackled by Government legislation or by regulation or tax cutting (or raising) or by other incentives. But the old lesson of the law of unintended consequences always applies. It is easy to look at the BHS pension fund debacle and call for more legislation. But as David Willetts has pointed out, it was tighter regulation that helped to kill private pensions in the first place.
None the less, it simply won’t do to say that nothing can be done, bar the relatively narrow interventions in housing, schools, family policy and ending ring-fencing which this site recommends. The Government now publishes measures of General Well-Being. (“Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” “Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?” those who help to conduct it ask respondents.) That’s a legacy of the happy Steve Hilton days before the crash – with its taxpayer-funded bailing out of the banks, the biggest and most problematic recent social justice issue of all.
People sometimes complain that all politicians do is talk. Actually, talk has an important function in politics. Talk can change public attitudes. Talk can shift policy. Public attitudes to smoking, child abuse, same-sex marriage, the police, housebuilding…all these have arguably changed more because of what we say rather than because of what governments has done. Housebuilding is a classic example. Part of Nick Boles’s function as Planning Minister was precisely to risk harm to his political reputation by playing his part in shifting public attitudes to building more homes.
So just as there is a General Well-Being survey, so there should be a Crony Capitalism Register – or, more accurately, a Social Justice Register. It would measure the distribution and strength of those goods which this site has taken an interest in: family stability, good schools, adequate homes. It would assess who is taxed most, how much that taxation props up the lobby and interest groups, name and shame the worst corporate pay offenders, put in one place the details of how Labour is funded by the unions and the Conservatives by a small (though widening) number of donors.
The Commons would debate it. A Select Committee could launch an enquiry and call witnesses. Deliberately and carefully, which is the right way, proposals for Government action would emerge.
Yes, the state should be smaller. And, yes, Little Brother must not get too big for his boots. (If the sibling comparison works at all, then there should be a healthy bit of sibling rivalry.) But reducing the size of the state isn’t everything and capitalism isn’t perfect – not by a long chalk. A Social Justice Register is right up Cameron’s One Nation street.