Big Ben. Photo: Creative Commons Big Ben. Photo: Creative Commons

In the second part of his article, Chris Nineham examines the recent development of the state and how the Coronavirus will impact on government policy and the left

Read Part One here

The state today

Three things stand out about the contemporary state. The first is the extent to which it is integrated with big business and finance. This is not just a question of the outsourcing of services. The state has drawn business directly into its core functions. ‘Quangos’, unelected and often industry-funded bodies, have more and more control of state operations. They are packed full of corporate representatives and serve to weaken an already enfeebled democracy. One study notes, ‘The quango state removes layers and areas of policy-making and action from parliamentary – and public – gaze. The absence of a constitutional framework and the informal and secretive nature of its policy process blocks scrutiny and parliamentary and public debate about policy goals and outcomes.’[i]

After forty years of neoliberalism the whole of the civil service is imbued with market ideology and operates on strict market principles. The privatisation of policy-making reached its logical but surreal conclusion in March 2012, when the Tory Cabinet Secretary, at the top of the state’s policy-making structure, seriously suggested opening up policy-making itself to an external bidding process.[ii]

The British government’s unique enthusiasm for the ‘herd immunity’ strategy is one outcome of this decades-long process. The policy was pushed not just by right-wing government advisors like Dominic Cummings and Sir David Halpern from Downing Street’s ‘nudge unit’, but also by key officials like Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance, a former president of research and development at pharmaceutical multinational GlaxoSmithKline.

Its laissez faire, anti-intervention implications and eugenicist overtones appealed to a government stuffed full of free market enthusiasts and representatives of corporate interests at every level. This fusion with commercial interests and a deep-seated commitment to market values makes the British state more hostile than ever to the prospect of state-led progressive change.

Connected with this is a significant decline in trust in state institutions amongst the wider population. The corporatised state has in fact generated widespread discontent. Partly this is because it has become virtually incapable of carrying out its basic roles of keeping society functioning. But the series of mass movements and rebellions, from the Iraq War protests, Occupy and the anti-austerity marches, the climate movements,  the near-miss Scottish independence vote, the vote to leave the EU in 2016 and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, have all expressed a deeper anxiety still. It is clear that millions of people feel they have lost whatever limited control they had over society and that the state is completely oblivious and even hostile to their interests and concerns. The disastrous mishandling of the Coronavirus outbreak is only reinforcing this sentiment.  

Finally, a state more and more outsourced to commercial interests and less and less prepared to provide basic welfare is showing marked authoritarian tendencies. Surveillance, monitoring and an obsession with security have partially replaced state provision. The British are one of the most monitored populations in the world. Wikileaks revelations have shown that between 2008 and 2010, with the help of the US National Security Agency, Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ intercepted and stored webcam images of millions of internet users who were not suspected of any wrongdoing. Spending on public order more than tripled between 1979 and 2010 and Britain has the largest prison population in Europe.

The pandemic crisis provides tempting opportunities for strengthening state control over society. The government has already exploited the emergency conditions to increase police powers, giving them extensive new rights to detain people they think might be infectious, to force them to be tested and to place them in quarantine without a time limit. According to Liberty, it is also prioritising secret surveillance during the pandemic, making it even easier to spy on us all and laying plans to use mobile phone data to see if people are following public health guidelines.

Recent events have underlined the class-based ruthlessness of today’s state. Various state institutions played an important part in derailing the Corbyn project. The recent Labour report showed that the party right which controlled HQ blatantly used the disciplinary process to try and undermine him, in collaboration with key figures in the parliamentary party. They wouldn’t have been able to do this if they hadn’t had support in the wider establishment. Claims that Jeremy Corbyn was unsuitable for office were made by generals, the security services and unnamed civil servants who spread rumours that Corbyn was too old and infirm for government office. The claims were loyally recycled by a media that was almost universally hostile to Corbyn. It is quite clear now that even if he had been elected it would have taken a massive effort by the mobilised population to force through progressive change.

None of this means state intervention is off the table. Even before the Coronavirus, there was an uneven move towards protectionist policies in various countries. Interventionist economic policies have been widely discussed in the respectable media. The Coronavirus has turbo-charged this trend. The market has proved completely useless in the face of a virus that demands a co-ordinated, planned and preferably socially agreed response.  In early March the US Federal Bank responded on a massive scale in response to a wave of panic selling on the world’s stock markets. This intervention was greater than that after the banking crisis of 2008-2009. Every major domestic credit market was propped up and central banks were allowed to swap their plummeting currencies for dollars.

Against their will and under popular and media pressure by their own admission, the Tories have been forced to take emergency measures including a lockdown and large scale economic interventions. At its centre, and largely unreported, was a massive discretionary bond-buying programme launched by the Bank of England to stop market collapse in mid-March. The government has also pumped money into the NHS, loans and grants for business and a furlough scheme to pay the majority of the wages of temporarily laid off workers.

The episode so far has not been good for a government that won a big majority on a wave of Brexit triumphalism. The administration’s inhumanity and incompetence are widely recognised. The majority of people believe it was unprepared for the crisis and has moved far too slowly, particularly on testing. The more general ideological fallout of the crisis is dramatic. There is widespread evidence that it has already generated massive support for radical economic measures. Pollsters YouGov found in April that a majority of the public support paying people a universal basic income to ensure their financial security, and a striking 72% support a  jobs guarantee to keep employment stable. 75% support bringing in rent controls to limit housing costs. As well as breaking the taboo on large scale government intervention and opening the door to completely new ways of organising the economy, the crisis has revealed to the whole population that it is NHS workers, cleaners, transport, agricultural and shop workers rather than bankers and CEOs who actually keep society running. 

The left response

As neoliberal ideology looks more and more threadbare, the Tories are liable to fall back on a combination of more state intervention and one-nation rhetoric to try and dig themselves out of a very deep hole. As John Rees argues elsewhere, one danger is that the Labour leadership, distracted by talk of national emergency and mistaking these developments for a shift in the right direction, are unduly supportive. This has been Keir Starmer’s instinct. Since becoming Labour’s leader he has been reluctant to criticise this most heartless and reactionary government. He has gone as far as saying he would consider joining a national government even though no one has asked him to. As the government’s incompetence has become clearer and clearer, Starmer is trying to position Labour as the responsible competent alternative. The result of this disastrous approach is that despite the sharp radicalisation of the population and anger at the government, Labour was, until April at least, way behind in the polls. 

To the extent that the Tories use state intervention, it will be to save their corporate allies, particularly the biggest, and to try and get Britain back to business. This will involve some more economic stimulus, they may have to institute some further face-saving welfare changes to deal with the massive reputational damage they have suffered. But just like the intervention after the banking crisis of 2008, if left to their own devices they will implement City-focussed policies and force us to pay the price.

It is unlikely too that even large amounts of government spending and intervention will have the long term stimulus effect experienced in the late thirties onwards. In today’s globalised world, capital can travel the world almost instantaneously in the search for returns and national arms spending no longer does much to mitigate declining rates of profit. The post-2008 policy of quantitative easing has done nothing to restore profitability. What QE did do was fuel a new speculative bubble in financial assets, with stock and bond markets hitting new highs. The result was the super-rich who own these assets became richer still and, incredibly, inequality soared again. 

It is important that from the start the left demands not just more government investment, but an overall plan outlining how the money should be spent and where it should come from.

This is critical to avoid a rerun of the aftermath of the banking crisis. Some work has already been done on this. A recent academic study by Richard Murphy for example shows that a series of wealth taxes targeting corporations and the rich could raise a massive £174bn in short order. Huge resources could also be redirected from Britain’s bloated defence budget. But we need to be clear that it is this kind of re-ordering of social priorities that is necessary as we move out of lockdown and that these kinds of demands would involve a direct challenge to the structures of power embodied in the British state. 

The crisis of the neoliberal model has created openings for left wing ideas and organisation. But we will only be able to make the most of this opportunity if we understand two things. One is that state spending is not automatically progressive or positive for working people. The key division in politics is not that between more state intervention or less, it is between a vision of a society based on solidarity and co-operation that benefits working people and one that serves only the profit of a tiny minority.

The second is that modern state is more than ever programmed to back corporate policies and resist anything that smacks of economic redistribution let alone democratisation. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Corbyn project, the idea that focussing on getting a Labour government elected sometime in the future is a sufficient strategy for change is not convincing. In the short term, this means we must focus on the kind of pressure the wider movement can bring to bear.

The history of major reforms suggests that it is very often struggle outside of parliament that determines the kinds of policies adopted and who pays for them. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Coronavirus crisis and the lockdown conditions have provided a glimpse of the fact that working people can mount effective pressure to get policy changed, particularly through workplace organisation. Bus workers, teachers, cleaners and others have shown that organised pressure can force major concessions from both employers and the government, including getting schools and other workplaces closed. In some places where union organisation is strong the combination of management irresponsibility and concern about the virus has led to a situation where union activists are making key decisions. In the words of one London tube driver:

‘Since the lockdown was announced on 23 March train drivers and the unions have had to, for all intents and purposes, take over the running of the operational railway to ensure a solidarity service (what management call an emergency service) continued running for our NHS and frontline staff while ensuring our own safety.’  

History, however, also tells us concessions will be limited and that the establishment will fight to take back any ground it is forced to give. Given the criminally incompetent response to Coronavirus and the resentment and anger directed against established institutions, it is not fanciful now to start considering more permanent and revolutionary change. As Marx and Engels argued, the movement needs to push for the maximum level of reforms possible, but also to begin to discuss what it would mean to radically democratise the economy. We need to be clear this will require not just the mobilisation of working people on a large scale, but the dismantling of state structures from below and the development of new institutions genuinely under popular control. 

Chris Nineham’s book The British State: A Warning is available to buy here.


[i] David Beetham and Stuart Weir (1999) ‘Auditing British Democracy’, Political Quarterly, Blackwell, Oxford p.232.

[ii] Colin Leys (2014) ‘The British Ruling Class’, in Socialist Register, Volume 50, Merlin, London, p.111.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.