Post-Paris state spending will focus on security
Because political priorities follow the zeitgeist, people will seek protection
Britain’s prime minister David Cameron: part of a ruling class enabled by the politics of bean-counting that allowed technocrats and former special advisers to shine. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Leviathan was always the wrong metaphor. The state is not a monster with its own mind. It is, at least in a democracy, the expression of our tastes and concerns. We literally get the government we deserve. So libertarians vexed by the welfare state should take up the grievance with their fellow citizens, who consistently vote for it. Left wingers, always prodding government to do more, should persuade their compatriots to bear higher taxes.
The state changes in size and function only when society wills it. Welfarism happened after the industrial working class was given its electoral say. Defence spending was high during the Cold War because of our existential dread. When that insecurity abated, Britain spent the peace dividend on tax credits and a larger National Health Service. Demand determines supply, not vice versa.
Years will pass before we know for sure but the terrorist attacks on Paris may bring another of these inflection points, when the demands we make of the state change. Voters in Britain and other European democracies might start to ask government to return to its original function – security – not to the exclusion of all else but ahead of all else. If they do, the implications for our politics will not be subtle.
For the median Briton, aged 40, politics has always been a branch of economics. He or she first voted when the Soviet threat was already gone.The ensuing elections in the 1990s and 2000s were distributional debates: this spending project versus that tax cut. The politics of bean-counting allowed technocrats and former special advisers to shine as a new ruling class – the generation of David Cameron. They may have been a narrow-shouldered bunch but they knew their way around a policy brief and, anyway, the stakes were paltry.
The wonder is that 9/11 did not disrupt this. The three general elections since then have dwelt on nothing more fundamental than public services and budget deficits. It may be the latest iteration of the terror threat – urban guerrilla in form – that also leaves no imprint on politics. But, if it does, it is not hard to picture what the change will look like.
Fiscal decisions about who gets what will start to favour the cause of security. At the margin, “hard” claims on public money (defence, policing, intelligence, borders) will win out over “softer” imperatives in future versions of the spending review being held on November 25th. These changed priorities will mark election campaigns, too; a televised debate between prime ministerial candidates that does not touch on foreign or defence policy, as happened last April, could and should become unthinkable. Command of these subjects might even displace economic competence as the sine qua non of electability.
The most polarised dialogue in public life over recent years pitted believers in austerity against their Keynesian enemies. In future the faultline will run between interventionists, who argue for an active campaign against terror groups abroad, and isolationists, who believe safety lies in a Fortress Britain. The electoral market for civil libertarianism is close to nil; the market for isolationism under a security state is not.
The most visible change could be our preference for a different type of person to run the state. If the Age of the Special Adviser were not already nearing its sunset, a new mood of insecurity should see it off. It is easy to imagine voters turning to older politicians or to those who have known uniformed service.
There is a fetching photograph doing the rounds of Dan Jarvis, a Labour MP, and Tom Tugendhat, a Tory MP, during their time in the British army. When they are touted as prospective party leaders, old Westminster hands question their political street-smarts – the supple feel for the greasy pole that only comes through apprenticeship in some cabinet minister’s back office. These objections carry force in an era where nothing matters very much. Once politics returns to the heaviest subjects, the quibbles will embarrass anyone who raises them.
Of course, there is no innate reason why a former soldier, police officer, or spy, should be better than anyone else at securing the country as prime minister. But then a former think-tanker is not automatically better at reaching sound judgments in social policy. What matters, electorally, is a gut sense among voters that rulers are attuned to issues of the day.
If those issues are about to change from economics to security, from the material to the existential, the rulers will change as well. Politics might become too important to leave to professional politicians. – (copyright 2015 The Financial Times Ltd)