Big vs. Little: The fight now shaping British politics

March 23, 2014 by
Filed under: Adam Lent 

According to Jonathan Swift, Lilliput was riven by a fierce dispute between Bigendians and Littleendians. The former believed an egg should always be cracked at the big end and the latter argued fervently for it to be cracked at the little end.  How clever of Swift to foresee the row that would shape British politics around the 2015 election and disrupt the traditional allegiances we take for granted.

The core issue in this emerging dispute is, of course, not about how we crack eggs but about how we crack our biggest problems.

The Bigendians hold with the idea that big concentrations of power hold the key to problems like inequality, climate change, public ill-health and unbalanced economic growth. The Littleendians believe power needs to be widely distributed to solve these problems.

Bigendians have faith in the huge resources, co-ordinating power, clarity and universality that the big or centralised state and big business can bring to bear on our thorniest challenges.

Littleendians favour a smaller state working at local level combined with small business and small civic endeavours. They think our problems are complex and fast-moving and require a plurality of solutions.  They also look back on the failing progress made by the big state and big business towards a fairer, stabler world and are sure that there must be a better route.

Both Parties Split by Endianism

This fight is splitting both parties and with ever greater intensity. It is a division that has crystallised out of the rather bewildering array of different perspectives and colours that characterised the period after the 2008 Crash: Red Tory, Progressive Conservative, Blue Labour, Black Labour, Pragmatic Radicalism, Purple Labour.

Many Labour people have recently renewed their belief that a powerful state is key to the achievement of greater social justice. They worry that a reduction in the size of the state, as planned by the Coalition, will lead inevitably to greater inequality between individuals and communities. There is also a mistrust of small business which it is feared pays less and has a weaker respect for employment rights than big business.

But this view has been facing challenge in recent years from a group who celebrate local entrepreneurialism, fear that the big welfare state has damaged the pre-war Labour tradition of small-scale mutualism and charitable endeavour and wants a vigorous decentralisation of power from Whitehall.

The influential figure Jon Cruddas, who leads the party’s policy review, is a firm Littleendian. The equally influential Tom Watson tends to the Bigendian way of thinking. There are strengthening rumours that this battle in Labour may soon be blown wide open as a public fight begins about whether the election manifesto will have a Bigendian or Littleendian feel.

However, the Conservatives are also riven. All conservatives would like to see the state shrink, of course, but what that smaller state looks like and what plugs the gap when it shrinks is a source of Endian dispute.  For part of the Conservative party, a strong if smaller central state batting for Britain’s biggest businesses, particularly in the City, is a cornerstone of their political beliefs. That strong state is needed to defend our shores against immigrants and security threats, to crack down on crime and give the British people a sense of identity and focus.

It’s a traditional Tory view but one that has been challenged recently by an insurgent group who want to see decentralisation combined with a powerful resurgence of small-scale civic activism (alongside the more traditional Tory faith in the market) and who rather suspect that big business often survives only because of its cosy relationship with the big state.

Jesse Norman is probably the most outspoken Littleendian Tory. Bigendianism, on the other hand, much like Labour remains hardwired into the mind-set of the Party’s grassroots activists across the country.

In Whom We Trust?

While so much of British politics is concerned with the distribution of resources, this dispute is really about the distribution of power and who should be trusted to exercise it.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the argument now raging over pension annuities. By changing the rules so that individuals can take their money out of their pension pots in one go, the Chancellor has struck a blow for Littleendianism. Whatever his motivation and whatever the concerns about how it was announced, he has removed a power from the big, universal state and given it to a million little individuals to do as they wish. He has put his trust in those millions to do the right thing rather than the state.

This has immediately made some people very uncomfortable who don’t share Osborne’s faith in those little millions. The Labour leadership’s uncertain response reflected the fact it felt pulled both ways by the Bigendian and Littleendian instincts in the party. While many Bigendian Tories are probably deeply worried about what the Chancellor has just done to one of the biggest industries in the City of London even if they won’t say it out loud (yet).

A Littleendian Centre?

For years the political centre in Britain has been defined by vote-winning pragmatism. The left of the Conservative Party and the right of the Labour Party shared a managerial outlook that was often indistinguishable. Could this be about to change as the Endian dispute heats up?

The Bigendians in both parties are miles apart politically: one side believes fundamentally in a big, high spending state regulating business, the other in big, high spending business free of the shackles of regulation.

Littleendians are much closer in spirit. Both Conservative and Labour Littleendians believe the state should be decentralised, they both believe that small-scale civic activism is a good way of dealing with deprivation and inequality and they value small business. Most fundamentally, they place their trust in the millions of individuals and small organisations that make up the country and believe power should follow that trust.

It’s very unlikely that these two sides of a Littleendian centre could ever work together formally. They are from different parties after all and there are important differences of emphasis, most notably around faith in the unregulated market. For example, some Littlendians may be very comfortable with the idea that pension pots can now be spent on Lamborghinis; others may hope this freedom could give rise to a new wave of mutual savings based on voluntary rather than statutory principles.

But as battle within the parties heats up, we may see some surprising informal conversations spring up across the party divide.

The Power to Create

From the RSA perspective such conversations would be a good thing. William Shipley founded the RSA in a  Littleendian spirit. He launched the Society with a deep belief that the solutions to our problems could be found amongst the mass of the population not just a powerful elite.  For Shipley, there was no monopoly on good ideas and effective solutions. He also believed, unlike hardly anyone else at the time, that small-scale innovation in the commercial sphere had to be matched by small-scale innovation in the social sphere. Creativity had to be released for the wider public good and the poor as well as private benefit and the rich.

Historically, Littlendians have usually lost out to Bigendians. That may be changing now as the big and powerful find it harder to govern and deliver in an age of technological disruption and huge attitudinal shifts. That’s one major reason why the RSA is trying to capture the original Shipley spirit through the idea of the Power to Create: the notion that we will solve our biggest problems and live better lives if we are free to turn our many different ideas into reality.

In other words, we think there’s never been a better time to start cracking your eggs at the little end.

 

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Comments

  • Edward Harkins

    We must beware that we lose sight of the reality that ‘big’ – and yes even ‘Big State’ – does work better than small in some essential areas.

    On Osborne’s arbitrary and ill thought out pension changes it’s declared above that, “This has immediately made some people very uncomfortable who don’t share Osborne’s faith in those little millions.”

    What many of do not have is ‘faith’ in the possibility that ‘those little million millions’ will not be exploited and , the proverbial, be ‘ripped off’ yet again by many in the pensions and associated financial services industries will not exploit.

    (Incidentally, isn’t ‘little millions’ just a little arch and patronising?)

    For many of us there is no evident, ‘Osbone’s faith in those little millions”. There is evidence of another an unedifying, pork-barrel, vote-buying stunt at the expense of the taxpayer. This by one of the most irresponsible and ‘political’ chancellors the UK has experienced. This man has form – the ‘Help to Buy’ series of taxpayer funded giveaways to wannabe property owners and speculators is, to quote economist Alan Posen said, ‘mistaken and dysfunctional’ (presumably he was being polite as he was addressing the HoCs Treasury Select Committee). Another example of posing onself as having ‘faith in the little millions’ – when you are placing many of the most vulnerable into an insecure and probably unsustainable from of tenure that they ought never be induced to enter.

    Meanwhile many unfortunate households are experiencing the horrors of the bottom-end of the private rented sector – because successive recent UK Governments’ ideological rejection of ‘big scale’ supply of decent, affordable, regulated rented housing. (Incidentally, small-scale private sector landlordism is also a sector that benefits greatly from taxpayer funded subsidies… an example of small costing much more than ‘big’?).

    To repeat: We must beware that we lose sight of the reality that ‘big’ – and yes even ‘Big State’ – does work better than small in some essential areas. In contemporary England, for example, the social enterprise sector needs to beware that it’s unwitting legacy is one of being a willing and ready agent in the disassembling, dismantling and ultimate demise of the NHS. The British Victorians and Edwardians tried the wonderful notion of a myriad of varied, mostly small, scales and compositions to deliver core public services in a modern state – with voluntarism and charity as the main underpinning. It didn’t work.

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