Question: Big or small government? Answer: effective

One prominent member of Liberal Youth hits the nail on the head when she says ‘[I am] frankly sick of all this I’m a social liberal so I’m a better Lib Demno it’s Orange Bookers that are real Lib Dems… we’re in the same party ffs.’

And the contrasting Economist correspondent missed the target by a mile when he wrote – following our last conference – that ‘the Liberal Democrats are still in denial about their innate dividedness.’

You see according to this correspondent – quoted again in The Week – he has had a brilliant insight: ‘You cannot be both for, and against, the Big State.’ But whilst his truism is logically spot on (it is true, you cannot be both for and against the big state,) you can be neither. We are surely the party that says ‘I don’t care how big or small the state is; I care about the individual and their control over their life.’

So the libertarian-leaning Lib Dem can find solace in the words of J. S. Mill when he writes:

A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.

But how on earth does this fit alongside this quotation from the very same champion of liberty?

A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development.

The answer is *easily* if you accept that Mill is writing about the strength of the individual, and the answer is *impossibly* if your entire understanding of politics rests on the size of the state.

But it doesn’t stop The Economist presuming, that left and right and a painfully dull centre (triangulated, of course) are the only options for politics. And it doesn’t stop with them: Jackie Ashley has recently said something similar in the Guardian, craving for the return of left-right politics. How painful that was to read and read again in numerous ‘grass-roots’ Labour articles condemning centre-politics and eagerly agitating for a testosterone fuelled political punch up or conversely demanding that Ed Miliband seize the inert centre of British politics and become champion of the bland. It’s sad to say his detractors on both sides are more interested simply where he is on the big to small government scale than they are with whether or not his policies will result in a just society.

Why so disappointing? Why so painful?

Because to hear people argue for a move to grab the ‘inert centre’ (offering nothing new and making all parties offers essentially the same) and to others lobby for a goo’ ol’ dual between the extremes almost exactly thirty-one years on from the Limehouse Declaration demonstrates how little progress has really made.

And because every one of these authors seems to think that their grounding in political philosophy is better than Shirley’s, Paddy’s, Mill’s, Reeves’, Rawls’, Nussbaum’s, Sen’s and any other liberal politician and philosopher for the last 200 years.

I don’t know exactly what liberalism is, or socialism, or conservatism for that matter, but anyone wondering what is wrong with British politics, thirty-one years on, need only re-read the Limehouse Declaration – as potent and relevant now as ever:

We do not believe in the politics of an inert centre merely representing the lowest common denominator between two extremes.

We want more, not less, radical change in our society, but with a greater stability of direction.

Our economy needs a healthy public sector and a healthy private sector without frequent frontier changes.

We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre. We need the innovating strength of a competitive economy with a fair distribution of rewards.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • All three main parties are divided… if we had PR then we’d have 6+ main parties.

    I think we’re all for effective state but there are a lot of us that believes a big state by definition is ineffective, just like big companies tend towards inefficiency.

  • DAVE WARREN 27th Jan '12 - 3:05pm

    We need to eliminate waste and bureaucracy.

    The public sector is awash with it. I have worked in the public sector and dealt with many public bodies none of them cared in the slightest that they were wasting the peoples money.

  • Daniel Henry 27th Jan '12 - 3:44pm

    Spot on!

    I think this would also be an appropriate time to encourage people to read David Boyle’s book:

    It’s not about an ideological preference for “big” or “small” states, agonising over
    “public” vs “private”. The important thing is that it’s effective and driven by human rationality and common sense rather than throttled by overly bureaucratic systems.

  • David Allen 27th Jan '12 - 5:26pm

    Yes, the Limehouse declaration gets it right when calling for “a healthy public sector and a healthy private sector without frequent frontier changes”. Sadly, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and Clegg have all since then begged to differ.

    I’m afraid that guy from the Economist who wrote ‘the Liberal Democrats are still in denial about their innate dividedness’ didn’t exactly “miss the target by a mile”….

    Cue “how does one identify a denialist?”:

    Q: “Aren’t you being a bit of a denialist?”
    A: “Nonsense! Nobody has ever put that suggestion to me!”

  • Barry George 27th Jan '12 - 9:48pm

    David Allen

    Cue “how does one identify a denialist?”:

    Q: “Aren’t you being a bit of a denialist?”
    A: “Nonsense!…

    🙂 Thanks David . I haven’t laughed so much in ages. A point very well made, as always….

  • I apologise for responding so late to some of these points, but here we go…

    For David, George and Barry – I don’t think I denied there being a division – Oranjepan gets what I am trying to say which is that the division is simple not as important as the correspondent for the Economist argued. We are not in denial about divisions, but I do deny that they are that crucial, so yes, he does ‘miss the target by a mile’ and demonstrates astonishing arrogance about the philosophies available to Liberal Democrats.

    For Daniel and Orangjepan – thanks, completely agree.

    For Dave and Tommy at the top – I see what you are saying, but am worried, personally about going down the ‘it cannot ever do good’ route myself.

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