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Features

The Price of Diversity

Nick Spencer

NICK SPENCER believes pruning the state could be the death of 'us'…

Having softened up its victim with months of threats and warnings, the government delivered its emergency budget on 22 June. It wasn't the full story - the promised 25% real-terms cuts in public spending have yet to be identified - but it was an admirably clear prologue.

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Cynics claimed that the (stronger part of the) coalition was cloaking (its idea of) virtue in necessity, using the vast, inherited budget deficit to do what it always wanted and 'roll back the frontiers of the state'. Others pointed out that with the British state now comparable in size to that of Sweden it was about time someone did some pruning. All, at least, agreed that we can expect the kind of public sector reduction that even Margaret Thatcher, for all her anti-state rhetoric, never managed to achieve.

Will it grow back? Is our public sector like an unruly hedge that, after we have attacked with Treasury secateurs, will slowly grow back to its natural state? It might. Post-war governments, even Thatcherite ones, have increased the size of state simply because if they want to achieve anything, they need money to do so.

But there are reasons to think it might not. A number of years ago, David Willets, now Minister of State for Universities and Science, pointed out the so-called 'Progressive's Dilemma'. 'The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties that they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state.' Looking at it this way, the welfare state is essentially an extended postscript to World War Two, the moment in history in which, thanks to the Nazi threat, we, the people, were most conscious of our collective need.

Twenty-first century Britain promises to be very different. Eric Kaufmann, a demographer specialising in religious trends, has called the future of Europe a 'plutopia' where no one creed or ethnic group dominates, a state that already exists in some English cities. If you want to see the future, visit Leicester.
This isn't simply a question of religious diversity, however. Britain is economically more unequal than at any time since the war. It is also more ethically diverse. Disputes over when life starts, how far it should be modified by medical science, and when and how it should end are widespread and not limited to the religious. The fight between social conservatives and liberals is as fierce as ever. The clash between environmentalists and neo-liberal economists is more than a technocratic dispute over the most efficient way to use resources. All these factors either reduce the pool of people I consider to be sufficiently 'like me' to merit my money or reduce the range of public services that I am willing to fund. Either way, re-growing the state becomes more difficult.

There have always been bitter public disputes, of course but there have also always been centripetal forces to counter those that drive us a part. The most significant of these has long been the Christianity-and-water that still pervades national life. But as this becomes ever more diluted, it is unclear what remains to unify us. Those supposedly quintessentially British values that Blair and Brown liked to talk about - equality, freedom, fairness, democracy - are admirable but are neither self-evident nor self-sustaining.

Without a more substantive account of our common life, we are liable to grow further apart. And this means that the impact of June 22 may still be felt years from now.

Nick Spencer