By Paul Goodman
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The parts of Theresa May's speech last weekend that attracted most interest – profit-making schools, new anti-strike laws, hostility to the ECHR – drew attention away from the whole. And that whole was held together by a distinctive and unusual view of the role of the state – at least among Conservative politicians and at least in recent years. The Home Secretary painted a "vision is of a state that is strong, small and strategic. Strong,
to provide security. Small, to protect freedom. And strategic, to make
our economy more competitive and provide opportunity for all."
The idea of a strong but small state is acceptable to most libertarians: after all, a weak nighwatchman state would be of no use to them. It wouldn't be able to guarantee the rule of law – to enforce contracts, for example. But what is distinctive about her ideal is its conception of strength. She wants an industrial policy that will promote strategic industries, back them with tax breaks, encourage more technical skills, provide tuition fee discounts for some "hard" subjects, buy more from Britisj firms. Many conservatives will believe that all this adds up to a bigger state, and that the strategic state seems to means picking winners. Is the Home Secretary another blonde interventionist? Is she Heseltine in disguise?
But whether one agrees with these ideas or not – which should be balanced against her support for more competition in the provision of public services – May is right to argue that conservatism has a place for the state in its view of the world as well as for the individual, and for everything that lies in between – those "little platoons" of Burkean renown. After the murderous failure of communism and fascism, we're bound to look at affection for the state – let alone state-worship – with suspicion. None the less, conservatism isn't just about "a market with a flag on top". It grasps that there is an unbreakable bond between the state, which we tend to dislike, and some of the things that we love most, such as the Queen and the armed forces.
Libertarians will always offer answers to the problems which May suggested must be addressed by state action: rip-off banks, loan sharks, the Mid-Staffs-like hospital wards, the Winterbourne View-stype care homes, the abuse of young women. But the stubborn fact remains that the overwhelming majority of voters are far closer to the Home Secretary's view of the world than theirs. Only 5% of voters would plump for "a society where individuals are almost completely free of both
government control and assistance". No less than a quarter, heaven help us, want "A society where government takes…a large role in running the economy and people’s lives".
Our interest where election-winning is concerned is mainly with everyone in between. They don't see the state as a bodyguard. That role would be too minimal. Nor do they see it as a carer: that would be far too maximalist and intrusive. In so far as he or she think about the state at all, I suspect that voters who have this in-between view of it, hard-pressed by the cost of running a car and rising electricity bills and shop prices and expensive childcare and insecurity at work, view it in the way that they might view an infuriating but indispensable cousin. He can walk through your front door at any time of the day or night he wishes. You have a standing order to him that you're not allowed to cancel.
Worse, he doesn't seem to need the money, and is unforgivably profligate with what he's got. People die and are abused on his watch. None the less, you expect him to guard your home, collect the litter, keep the roads clear, educate your children, care for you when you're ill, fund you if you get sick or are out of a job, and pay for some of your pension, perhaps all of it – or at least to organise all these things. More subtly, he's a reminder that you can't escape from those around you – that even the word "individual" is collective, spoken by people using a common language. He is as obdurate as that old family photograph of him that you'd like to throw away, but somehow never do.
Attitudes to somone whose carelessness may kill you but who you none the less rely on – and have no choice but to rely on, at least to some degree – are bound to be ambivalent. But when May said that conservatives believe in "standing up for the people, by taking on anybody who gets in the way, by confronting vested interests wherever we find them" – and using the authority of the state to do so – she was showing a keen sense of what the voters feel, think and say. However grudglingly, they view the state as the ultimate guarantor of their security. This means harnessing its power to aid the underdog. It isn't conservative to love the state. But it isn't conservative to hate it, either.