If a Martian landed in London tomorrow, it could be forgiven for believing that Britain is a country governed, for better or worse, by an institution known as the "home office". Political news is now home-office news. From the overstretched asylum system, to tabloid-induced paranoia about the location of paedophiles, to disputes with the judiciary over sentencing, to the error-strewn anti-terror raid in east London, Britain's deepest and most divisive political concerns are now the responsibility of this one single department of government. Inevitably, a parallel debate rumbles on as to whether a single bureaucracy is capable of carrying this vast responsibility.
The most familiar explanation for this centres around recent historical events, and 11 September 2001 in particular. As we are constantly reminded by politicians and pundits alike, the west has been violently awoken from its contented liberal slumbers, and forced to confront a new era in which its enemies are not organised into territorially defined states, but instead wander amongst us invisibly. Meanwhile, globalisation of capital, culture and risk has involved increased mobility of people, forcing western governments to take harsh decisions as to who it can and can't afford to accommodate within their borders.
These trends are accompanied by a diffuse sense of insecurity that bestows greater urgency and scrutiny upon the actions of police forces around the world. "We" the fortunate minority are seeking protection from "them" the threatening majority; security has now trumped freedom in the wish-list of the public. And in the United Kingdom, it is to the home office that we turn with these demands.
This faintly apocalyptic version of events has an emotive appeal. But there is a more dispassionate alternative that might shed fresh light on the current political situation, while also offering pointers concerning the future of government in the UK and elsewhere. This alternative narrative would suggest that the new ubiquity of the home office in British political discussion owes less to historical events, and more to some important structural shifts that have been taking place in the country's political sociology.
Power in the land
The place to start is with Max Weber's famous claim that the modern state is defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Weber did not mean that modern states are only concerned with the use of physical force, nor that there are not groups or individuals who will attempt to challenge its monopoly. What Weber's dictum implies is that without a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within its borders, the modern state would not be the modern state, but something else altogether.
During the thirty-year Keynesian era that followed the second world war, one could have been forgiven for forgetting this brute fact about modern power. Over this period, the modern state was never solely a policeman, but a guarantor of jobs and growth, a comprehensive service provider, a social safety-net and a source of identity. Furthermore, its capacity to enact physical force upon its population was veiled by the prevailing liberal ideology that favoured support and redistribution over punishment and retribution, and prioritised social justice over criminal justice.
William Davies was a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). He is now studying for a PhD in sociology at Goldsmiths College, London. His weblog is at www.potlatch.org.uk
Also by William Davies in openDemocracy:
"The age of surveillance: a new 'dotcom boom'?" (August 2005)
The collapse of Keynesianism and the rise of conservative ideology in the 1970s is a well-rehearsed story. But the important thing to recognise is that between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1980s, western governments simply ceased to make the kinds of guarantees to their populations that they had been making for the previous thirty years. The social safety-net was slackened, many public services were privatised and labour-market protections declined. Most importantly, economic growth ceased to be something that could be produced through public borrowing and spending, but something to be subtly induced through creating the conditions that might attract and retain capital.
The story of the 1980s and 1990s was that of power being dispersed upwards. This was sometimes towards international governance bodies, such as the European Union and other free-trade areas. But more commonly, power drifted into the hands of ill-defined transnational networks: international currency traders, global media moguls, and footloose elites who felt equally at home in London, New York or Tokyo. Governments were left weakened by and subservient to these networks, rather than lords over them. Governments were left with the primary responsibility of supplying core public services of education and health, a responsibility New Labour championed vigorously to win three general elections.
The next decade looks likely to add a second and countervailing trend to this dispersal of power: localism. The need to shift responsibility for public services downwards now dominates the policy agenda in the UK. Neighbourhood governance, foundation trust hospitals, academy schools and "double devolution" represent the drift of reform in public services, born out of a recognition that central government cannot achieve the quality of service delivery on a national level that 21st-century consumer-citizens expect.
If Britain's new secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs David Miliband is to be believed (and there is every reason to expect his views to carry as much weight as any politician's today), the next ten years of British politics will be dominated by the challenge of empowering individuals and communities, and weakening central government control. This is now a cross-party consensus.
So power shifts upwards, and power shifts downwards. As a result of the former, central government has already ceased to receive credit for the performance of the economy: only 38% of people believing this government's policies will improve the economy, despite the fact that 64% feel confident about their own economic future. And if Miliband et al are successful in their ambitions for devolution, how long can it be before the same is true of public services? The goal of foundation trust hospitals is to strip the department of health of responsibility for frontline successes and failures in the health service. Think-tanks such as Demos argue that accountability for many other public services should be pushed towards those they aim to serve, achieving a co-production of services between supplier and user. Localism has fast become the only game in town.
But there is one unavoidable exception to these processes, a responsibility that can neither flow upwards into the hands of the global power-brokers in the way that monetary policy effectively has, nor downwards to the locality in the way that health and education are beginning to do. As Max Weber told us, there is one responsibility that the modern state cannot and will not dispose of, namely the legitimate use of physical force. When it comes to policing, regulating migration, tracking terrorists, protecting children and the surveillance of the population at large, central government retains an onerous moral burden that it is not about to lose, no matter how much it might actually like to.
As less brutal responsibilities flow elsewhere, government is left looking unattractively naked. But this trend will continue regardless of the "war on terror" or the latest tabloid outburst on paedophiles. It is structural not contingent. Until the globalising and localising tendencies go into reverse, this uglier, stripped-down model of the state is the only possible one for the foreseeable future. This makes it all the more important that a more sophisticated politics arises around topics such as criminal justice and surveillance, given that these look set to be the definitive problems for 21st-century central government.
A new climate
Flash forward to Britain in 2020. The title of chancellor of the exchequer has lost the prestige that it carried throughout the 20th century, and the treasury exists principally as a department for auditing local government accounts and setting an inflation target for the Bank of England. Local democracy remains sedate, but local tax-raising powers and decentralised public services have pushed local government to the centre of everyday policymaking.
Meanwhile, the home secretary holds the pre-eminent office of state, the most recognisable face of government along with the prime minister. National elections are no longer fought over the economy or public services, but over the efficacy of surveillance techniques, disciplinary measures, immigration controls, and anti-terror measures.
The most pressing question posed by this scenario is which party, if any, will succeed in forming a coherent, far-sighted and intelligent policy platform to respond to this new climate.