We need a generous state forever

For years we have been told that expansive government intervention is not a feasible or desirable solution to our major social, economic and environmental ills.

Yet, the unprecedented government intervention of the last three weeks has turned decades of orthodoxy on its head. The state, maligned for years by successive governments, is back. In this, it has re-assumed its fundamental purpose: to insure us against a life that is, as in Hobbes’ Leviathan, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The terrible human cost of austerity has now been exposed for all to see. In 2013 CLES and UNISON observed that “Britain is becoming less able to take advantage of opportunities, less resilient to shocks and less able to protect the most vulnerable”.

Seven years on, in the months preceding the current crisis, evidence of the harm austerity creates came thick and fast:

Sir Michael Marmot was quick to join the dots. He released a statement arguing that austerity “is responsible for the life expectancy flat-lining, people’s health deteriorating and the widening of health inequalities”.

“too lean and too mean”

Now, though, with the Covid-19 crisis accelerating towards its peak, the consequences of a state that has become too lean and too mean is being played out in horrifying real-time. New interventionist policies, though welcome, are struggling to play catch-up with years of neglect.

Our underfunded, understaffed and underequipped NHS is seriously struggling. Despite the Chancellor’s promise that it will now get whatever it needs, tens of thousands of nursing posts remain vacant, beds are bursting to capacity and stories abound of frontline staff making improvised masks out of snorkels and school science goggles. Collectively, our definition of key workers has expanded. It now encompasses not just the swathes of over worked health professionals, but the shelf stackers, refuse collectors, delivery drivers and many other low paid positions that are keeping our country going at this perilous time. As the importance of these roles becomes recognised, so too do the inadequate pay and conditions that many are subject to.

“no adequate safety net”

Beyond the health crisis, many people are discovering that there is no adequate safety net in the UK. In the last two weeks, the Department for Work and Pensions has seen a tenfold increase in Universal Credit claims, processing nearly a million applications. Even in the midst of this crisis, Universal Credit’s five week wait to receive payments remains. This will cause serious hardship, with recent data showing 1 in 10 families would struggle to get by for even a week if their main earner lost their job. There is then a very real danger that many will fall into debt, rent arrears and poverty, heaping yet more misery and suffering on people who find themselves in a desperate situation.

A decade of cuts has left our public services starved of resilience. It is now crystal clear that we should never again allow their evisceration and that things must be very different going forward.

“inbuilt resilience and adequate contingency”

The dogma of leanness and efficiency that has left us so ill-prepared must now be dropped, in favour of a generous national and local state with properly funded services. The local and national state must be equipped with an inbuilt resilience and adequate contingency to tackle the other crises it has for so long ignored: poverty, social care, housing and – most significantly of all – the climate emergency.

“no one wants a re-run of the Big Society”

We should also build on the community power and social solidarity which it has been so heartening to see over the last few weeks. However, as we have recently written, the community should never be a replacement for the local or national state, or be pitched against it. Local government should be a bureaucratic manifestation of the community and the human bonds between us all. No one wants a re-run of the Big Society.

There will be no going back. The free market, as John Maynard Keynes once put it, is “not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous — and it doesn’t deliver the goods”. How true these words are today. How vital it will be to remember them as we attempt to build a better future.