Even so early in this Parliament [November, 1970] it is clear that ‘less government’ is going to be one of its dominant themes. We have been told on the highest authority that state intervention is more and more to be withdrawn from people’s lives. It may be useful, thus at the outset, to be clear about what this theme really implies, what it means and also what it does not mean.
‘Less government’ does not mean less government everywhere. It is not only consistent with there being more government in some spheres and directions, but it positively demands it. If laissez-faire means that government withdraws from those functions in society which the citizens must not or cannot try to perform for themselves, then the Tory Party is not, never has been, and never can be, the party of laissez-faire.
Let me list some of the directions in which more government is necessary and must be forthcoming.
One is the administration of justice and what the Prayer Book, in its blunt old-fashioned way, calls ‘the punishment of wickedness and vice’. These are functions which in any tolerable society belong to the state alone. Today both the administration of justice and the means of detection and punishment have been starved of resources. One result is that justice is delayed, often unconscionably delayed. I am not under the delusion that Magna Carta is part of our statute law. That is just as well: otherwise, over the provision ‘to no one will we delay justice’, government today would find itself in Queer Street. Perhaps even worse, when judgment has been given, the penalty has often to be fitted not to the crime but to the resources available for exacting the penalty. I am myself a supporter of penal reform, in the sense that I am prepared constantly and with an open mind to examine and re-examine the effect and the efficacy of existing and traditional penalties and punishments. This has nothing to do with being ‘soft on crime’, still less ‘permissive’ – rather the reverse. What is certain is that penal reform is a mockery when the resources are not provided even to administer the existing range of penalties, let alone to improve upon them.
A second area is that of the social or welfare services, sometimes unhappily called ‘the welfare state’. If that dreadful phrase ‘the mixed economy’ belongs anywhere at all, it is here and not in the context of industry.
The social or welfare services are genuinely ‘mixed’, because in providing them both economic and non-economic motives are at work. For example, security against want in old age, retirement or affliction. This is a provision which is properly made on commercial principles, by those acting from economic motives, through insurance: there is, in fact, rightly so called, an insurance industry. On the other hand, no one would say that those who have failed or been unable to make such provision ought to be left by society to take the ultimate consequences, even though, economically speaking, we might all be worse off through preventing it. The same applies in health, the same in education: there is a mixture of what economic forces can and will do, and what they can not do.
Unfortunately, we have tried in this country to achieve the non-economic purposes by forms of nationalisation which, like all forms of nationalisation, tend of their own nature towards an arrogant and exclusive monopoly. In this sphere therefore the Conservative urge towards ‘less government’ does not mean denying the non-economic purpose: it does not mean dismantling the national health service or the state education system or withdrawing the state’s ultimate guarantee of security against want. What it does mean is that where economic forces will provide services within this area, we shall see that they are not choked or driven out by the ever-growing appetite of the state, but rather that the state withdraws as the action of individuals, expressing itself through market forces, advances.
The fact that the state finances the overwhelming majority of school education, both during the years of compulsory attendance and thereafter, is no reason why the provision and the pattern of university education and of technical training at maturer ages ought not to be determined by a variety of forces, among which economic motivation would predominate, and the role of the state would be to supply or safeguard some of the elements which are believed desirable on other than economic grounds and which might otherwise not be maintained. The principle holds good throughout the social services: it is indeed only a special application of the general intention that ‘men and women should more and more take their own decisions, stand on their own feet, and take responsibility for themselves and their families’ – and those are not my words.
Then we come to the field of business, commerce, industry, where the economic motive reigns. There is no point in using effort and savings to dig coal or build ships if the same effort and savings would yield more economic good if used for something else. We do not do these things for fun or as religious exercises, but for the measurable material benefit we expect to get. The Conservative Party, being a capitalist party and a party of free enterprise, accepts the market as the arbiter of measurable material benefit, and rejects the state. Hence the necessity of eliminating state decisions or intervention wherever economic benefit is accepted as the touchstone.
There is no choice here but to be whole-hoggers: from exchange rates to production subsidies, from little Neddies to nationalised industries, we are obliged to put the state in all its guises under ‘notice to quit’. Until that notice can be enforced – and it will take much time and much work – we shall continue to suffer such absurd spectacles as that of the Cabinet deciding on the rival commercial merits of one airliner rather than another, with the Treasury and the Foreign Office putting their oars into questions which are no more fit to be their business than the makes of motor car or the range of goods in Marks & Spencer’s. And why? Because on the one side there is a nationalised aviation industry, and on the other side an aircraft industry which has been, and is still, the recipient of hand-outs from the state. It is a beautiful little illustration of how one intervention leads to another. You can neither intervene, nor withdraw from intervention, by half measures.