Bloody government, sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong. Stop hoarding our data and putting snouts in the trough; we don’t need such a big state anyway. As long as we’ve got a decent health service, that’s all that matters. Oh, and a police force. Fire too, while I think about it. And maybe some bin men. And teachers. Hold on, I think we need to think about it in more detail.
What is the state? Is it a singular entity? There’s certainly no evidence of that; it’s a network of organisations, executive agencies, and councils all responsible for their own “bit” of the whole.
A famous political historian, A J P Taylor, suggests that this wasn’t always the case. He has said that WWI and WWII brought the state closer to us than ever before; before then, government was almost invisible to the person in the street, aside from “the policeman and the post office. The state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the Second World War was again to increase.”
Before 1914, large-scale welfare, education, or social service provision by the state was entirely unimagined; there was no safety net except whatever was provided by charity. Nothing was regulated for the consumer, whereas now it’s entirely reversed. The state – collectively – is the largest employer in the UK, even after all the privatisations from the 1980s onwards.
But unlike private business, the state is not a coherent, organised entity. Local authorities may well disagree with their neighbouring council or central government; executive agencies could well push back on government directives and set their own course. Even within government, there are political masters who give the orders and civil servants who carry out the duties – and the two sides will not always gel. “The state” is not uniform, and the endless agreements and disagreements will always rock the boat; look at the Covid-19 lockdowns in the four nations of the UK that differed dramatically at times.
Being a citizen of a state gives us particular responsibilities and rights; we pay our taxes and expect something in return. What that “something” will be can depend on a lot of different factors, but there is a symbiotic relationship between the person and the “thing” – this state that is made up of people and constantly evolving philosophies. The state itself can be reinvented with every generation – several times, if people demand it – but it never shrinks that much. It will be interesting to see what happens to the state after the emergency powers it gave itself during 2020 finally abates – or will they? Some people will argue for them to reduce dramatically, but it’ll be interesting to see where calls for powers to be retained come from – because some will inevitably call for that.
We accept the state “as is”, to a greater or lesser degree, because we want something running the services we need. The general population don’t want to be bothered with the intricacies of statehood; our taxes pay for these services, and we want to procure them whenever we need to. In the meantime, however, why should we care how they’re organised or funded? As long as we – reasonably – feel like that, the state is made legitimate. As a society, we have a lot of power; we could easily demand huge structural changes, but that would mean a lot of involvement from us, and we’re not always coherent enough to know what changes we want.
The state can also be temporary – even if “temporary” lasts for hundreds of years – and that often leads to panic amongst its controllers. They seek to solidify their state power through elections, referenda, and polls, clinging to the hope that these things will keep it in favour with the people it serves – or rules, depending on its view. The current arguments over Brexit and the Covid pandemic tell us that tensions are guaranteed, and a remaking of the state could yet rear its head again. States changes (will the United Kingdom as a political entity still exist in 50 years?, but hardly ever disappear.
Ireland is a perfect example of this. When the country was partitioned in 1921, Northern Ireland remained part of the Union, whilst the Republic of Ireland became a free state. The state changed; the majority of the country was free of British rule, but another part wished to remained within the United Kingdom. A country – once whole – was split into two, and has been riven by conflict ever since; the demographics of the two countries – they are two separate states now – are shifting, as no-one remembers the time before the partition. The people who are alive now will only ever have known themselves as Northern Irelanders / British, or as “free” Irish; they will know of the past only through history books or family stories.
The state can be a force for good as well as for ill; it’s the state that organises schools and hospitals, but it’s also the state which runs the armed forces and our nuclear arsenal. It’s down to us to watch over the state as much – if not more – than it watches over us. We need to remember that states reshape themselves, and how they look when they do is down to us.