Forget public service cuts: it’s the size of the state sector we should worry about

“The main reason people come to work in the public sector is the desire to make a difference to society.” So said Andy Robling, director, public services, at recruitment agency Hays. And yet a recent survey by Hayspaints a depressing picture of mass redundancy and poor morale. It led David Brindle to argue that the sector needs to rebrand itself around the “ethos of public service“.

After more than a decade in local government I have to admit I don’t know what this means any more. I was made redundant a couple of months ago and, perversely given the implications for my own situation, I felt like one of the lucky ones. The truth is that these crumbling institutions need more than a lick of paint. The brand has been out of sorts for some time now – both for those of us “on the ground” and those unlucky enough to depend on public services.

With the exception of those whose livelihoods depend on it – reportedly half a million took to the streets in March – there has been a notable absence of opposition to the cuts from the wider public. The funny thing is that for all the official plaudits, nobody dare mention the apparent indifference of the supposed beneficiaries of public services. The institutions borne of the welfare state are far from “cherished”, as the leader of the opposition would have us believe. If anything, they are endured because of the lack of an alternative.

Of course this isn’t helped by the hypocrisy of their supposed defenders. We should be asking searching questions of those who claim to oppose the cuts and yet, scandalously, are simultaneously implementing them. When Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool council, joined threatened staff on their march against the cuts, he was rightly booed for his shameless hypocrisy. But he is just one of many local politicians claiming impotence in the face of cuts rather than truly opposing them. Town halls up and down the country are guilty of such doublespeak.

Still it is depressing, not least for those of us who have made our living in a sector that we once held out at least some hope for, to hear the relentless obsession with cuts. And yet, for all that this myopia suggests an absence of ideas about how to improve things, can we really afford to ignore the implications of the growth of the public sector? That the public debt is at unprecedented levels is well documented. But it is worth reminding ourselves that more than 6 million people are working for the state, and state spending accounts for over half of the nation’s GDP. While that no doubt bothers market economy enthusiasts, it doesn’t bother the rest of us nearly enough.

Anyone with a healthy hostility to officialdom and a creeping regard for society (big or otherwise) should be concerned by this. It is not so much that the state is a drain on private enterprise; it is more that the political culture it gives expression to inhibits social enterprise. It crowds out – to borrow a phrase – the social action on which a healthy society is dependent. If we are to revive the public service ethos and defend public services that people need and want, we must first develop a respect for people’s autonomy and begin to recognise their capacity to run their own lives.

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