The Duty of Government by Derek Wyatt
J.J. Rousseau the enlightened Swiss French philosopher wrote a pithy and thoughtprovoking book called The Social Contract. It was about the responsibilities ofgovernment. He had in mind Geneva, a city state, where he lived and though itwas written in 1762, before the French Revolution, it profoundly resonated thenand still resonates today.
In short, he wrote about "duty". He asked what was the duty of government (the monarch) and therefore what was the duty of the citizen? His answers were that the citizen must surrender his/her rights tothe state. And by doing so they must be provided with even greater rights. Itwas a delicious idea. But what were these rights?
In Rousseau's day there were two. The first was that there would be a civil society at home watched over by magistrates to enshrine these rights (but no police force). The second was that the citizen should know that they would be free (or rather safe)from external factors like wars. Thus, the monarch would provide an army and/or a navy. Simple really.
What do we ask of our government today? Well, in essence, not much more. We now have to have an army, navy and air force alongside a secret service to protect us. We also need good laws but this time by elected representatives. What else do we hope for?
Since 1944, we have demanded a proper education service, a welfare state held together by a national police force. All else has been a bonus. Bonus or not this civil society has to be paid for. Crudely, the Tories have wanted a thinner state with a basic offering and less taxation whilst Labour has wanted a more comprehensive set of solutions with higher taxation.
Fast forward to Jeremy Corbyn's speech at the Labour Party conference at the end of September. It was essentially a genuflection to Rousseau. It was about rights and duties. It was not about the harder edge of how more rights and duties inevitably mean higher taxation. Indeed, like Ed Miliband last year (when he forgot to mention - he refused an autocue - the economy) Corbyn hardly mentioned how he was going to pay for more rights. Of course, he batted it into the long grass just as David Cameron did when he was first elected to lead the Tories in 2005. Let's set up this commission and that commission was his mantra.
For the moment his speech - aimed at Labour supporters - was enough to stifle dissent. Over the next year, when there are elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland plus mayoral elections in London and Bristol with local elections and possibly an EU referendum (brought forward), he must tell us how much extra taxation we will have to pay to end austerity. What he did not say was anything about a new constitution for the UK or a change in the voting system.
So, whilst it was a decent and respectable speech it lacked an over arching vision for our nation. No doubt by the time you read this Cameron and Osborne would havelaid into the fact that once again his economic policies, such as they are, willboth increase the debt and increase taxation by £thousands for every workingcitizen. The political noise over the next year will clearly be the economy.If Labour cannot provide us with a clear set of accounts properly audited andare therefore heavily defeated in the elections, the Tories will be in power fora decade. If they can, then Corbyn may yet surprise us all.