There is a myth that a desire to balance the books is a virtue only of right-leaning governments.
There is myth that those who want to shrink the state are more concerned than others about how the state raises money.
Deficit deniers in one corner – state shrinkers in the other.
But Liberal Democrats can act to reduce the deficit and be positive about the role of the democratic state.
What prompts any given government to run a deficit is usually circumstantial, prompted and encouraged by economists reading the runes. Reaganomics was based both on huge deficits and reducing the role of the state.
As someone who regards talk of ‘rolling back the state’ as largely vacuous I don’t want to see us crippled by debt, in hock to the bond markets or, like Greece, dancing to the tune of creditors.
Social Liberals believe a state responsive to the democratic will to be an enormously powerful mechanism for increasing opportunity and freedom. They ought to be troubled when it turns into a flaccid and unwieldy vehicle spooked by the murmurings of self appointed credit agencies and powerless when confronted by the denizens of international finance.
Like others on the centre-left I want the coalition government to put the nation’s finances in good shape and do so in a pragmatic and principled way – in the interests of an effective state. As long as that is what happens there need be no centre left/centre right split.
The trouble starts when those on the right start to regard the democratic state itself as some sort of alien monster that has sprung into existence on its own, independently of its citizens. Then ‘rolling back the state’ is identified as freeing and empowering citizens – as though we can always achieve the same individually as we can collectively.
It is precisely because of poor accountability – a distorted voting system, limited devolution and huge swathes of public services run by quangos – that people disassociate their aspirations from those of their state.
That is no reason for Liberals to endorse a general despair about the democratic state itself.
The degree of that despair, though, is what is dividing Liberal Democrats and leads some to accept public service reforms that offer superficial choice as a fair exchange for diminshed public accountability.
Others believe that we give up the battle for true accountability at our peril.