King's Evangelical Divinity School

25 May 2010

The State, the "Big Society" and the Church

In today's Queen's Speech we learned further details of PM David Cameron's "Big Society" idea. This represent an important defining line between the Con-Lib coalition and the Labour Party. The latter, like many parties on the Left, espouse a centralising, statist approach to government, that is, big government and substantial public spending, which are seen as essential to rectifying society's ills and problems. Conservatism, and parties on the Right, however, generally take an opposite view, working instead towards localised, smaller government, lower spending and society having to take some responsibility and action to rectify its own problems and develop its communities. Cameron's aim (together with his LibDem coalition partners), then, is to legislate so as to bring society into contributing towards many of the issues and services currently controlled and funded by government. Such a move is aimed at shrinking government and the public purse.

Leaving aside whether the Con-Lib coalition government will deliver successfully, personally I believe strongly in small government. Neither is my view motivated solely by my political background and cleavage; my Christian worldview has contributed to this position also. Let me explain some reasons why this is the case.

In the Old Testament during the period of the Judges, Israel existed as a confederacy of twelve loosely knit tribes, summed up in that phrase "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Jdg 17:6, 21:25 ESV). Of course, Israel's form of governance in Judges is not necessarily normative, or a model, for us, while sinful behaviour during this time of period of independence resulted in judgment and oppression from external enemies. Nonetheless, it is interesting that small government and human independence seemed to be the order of the day, while when Israel later sought a king God, through the prophet Samuel, sought to dissuade the people, warning of the enslaving nature of big government (1 Sam 18).

Why might big government be conceived as problematic from a Christian perspective? First, it is a hungry monster which eagerly seeks to devour to exist and grow for its own sake, which in turn leads to the state interfering in affairs which are arguably not its concern (the so-called nanny state). Thus, expansion leads government greedily looking ever wider, passing all manner of laws on human behaviour and social issues, expanding policing to exert further control, and even spy on its citizens. In short, all forms of power seek to expand power for its own sake, and it is essential to check regularly the power of institutions. If anyone doubts statism's hunger for power, one need only consider the history of big states, whether the former East bloc nations or (in a more diluted form) the New Labour experiment of the past thirteen years. Christians especially have paid the price for this illiberal statism.

Next, big government all too often becomes bloated and inefficient, wasting scant resources which goes wholly against a Christian focus upon good stewardship and efficiency. The UK currently employs six million civil servants, has countless departments and agencies, and wastes money on a massive scale through consultancies, partnerships with private organisations which government is ill-equipped (or inexperienced) to monitor, and throws money at problems because this is one thing big government is particularly good at, raising revenues. But the result, of course, is yet more tax raising, squandering and national debt.

Finally (and somewhat ironically given its collectivist agenda) big government arguably contributes to a sense of selfishness and individual prioritisation, leading to expressions of sentiment such as, "If big government is going to do it all, why should society get involved in dealing with social and community issues?" or "if big government is going to tax and spy on me so much, why should I take any interest in local issues and contributing to society? I just want to look out for myself and my family, get rich and then leave the country as soon as I can." I suggest this attitude is prevalent among many Brits today. When we lived in Staffordshire we once spoke with our neighbours concerning one day possibly moving abroad, and they detailed a dinner party at which seven other couples attended. Of the eight couples, six had already decided in the past year or so to leave the UK for these very reasons and were well on their way to making preparations to do so.

Conversely, the concept of a big society emphasises the Christian values of personal responsibility, local and community participation, and not looking to others (in this case government) to engage with and seek to find solutions for social ills we might, at the local level, do a better job of dealing with. Importantly, too, it encourages Christian organisations to play a greater social and community role, contributing imaginative solutions to pressing social problems. (That said, I think Christian churches and organisations are wise not to accept government money, as it comes with strings attached and, in some case, diluting values to satisfy government checklists.)

This post is not about supporting the Con-Lib coalition government (though I make no excuse for breathing a huge sigh of relief over seeing the back of the Blair-Brown years). Neither am I necessarily advocating smaller government along U.S. lines, where some argue it can lead to a permanent underclass (though I suggest if this is so, it is not necessarily because of small government per se but rather how government prioritises and spends). I am simply commenting from a Christian perspective on a major aspect of the Queen's Speech which might have important ramifications for this country over forthcoming years. Interestingly, it has taken the dovetailing of a rather unusual political coalition emphasising small government and liberalism over against statism, together with the drastic need to curb spending as a consequence of a dire economic situation, to bring about the impetus for reducing government and empowering society.

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