The state we're in
By Tori Harris, Public Sector Research Team Lead  


We are becoming what George Orwell once feared. The state is increasingly, and frighteningly, less respectful of the individual and more certain of its own omnipotence

Rand Paul, US Senator and candidate for Republic Presidential nomination

The role of government is a continually hot political topic in the United States and often the foundation of argument on other, even more divisive, issues such as gun control and abortion. This is especially the case during the build up to a Presidential election. In the UK, debate regarding of the role of government tends not to be framed in the same way. Certainly with the exception of Big Society (which sought to give greater power and decision-making to local communities and groups, and to encourage non-state actors to deliver public services), discussion has tended to focus on which element of government (local, devolved or national) should hold responsibility for certain services or for collecting certain taxes.

Fundamental debates about whether there should be any government at all are almost never heard in the UK. In a country that prizes its National Health Service above all other political endeavours, this isn’t too surprising. But perhaps the idea of smaller, or at least more accessible, government is something that might have more resonance among certain sections of the British public than has previously been thought.

Recent ComRes polling for the Institute of Economic Affairs has found that half (50%) of British adults feel that the level of influence governments have over people’s lives is too much. Perhaps more revealing are the age differences, in particular those over 45, the age groups most likely to turn out and vote, are more likely than younger age groups to think governments have too much influence.

Interestingly in the context of current devolution debates, Scots (57%) are particularly likely to think governments have too much influence, while the North West (42%) and South West (48%) - both regions within which some areas are currently moving towards greater devolution, do not feel as strongly. It’s difficult to place any causation on this, but if a resistance to the biggest of governments in this country (the UK government) is a helping hand for successful adoption of devolved power, this may pose a problem for any new devolved government in areas such as Manchester and Cornwall.


Some of this resistance to the reach of government may well be, as with many similar issues, down to a sense of disenfranchisement with the system. More than seven in ten British adults feel that they have not very much or no influence over decisions made by local councils, the UK Government and the European Union. Similar proportions feel they have not very much or no influence over the type of service provided by government in the three key areas of schools, hospitals and public transport.


At a time of increasing devolution and continued reduced public spending, the role of government in the UK is inevitably changing. While rhetoric similar to that used by the US Tea Party is unlikely to speak to the British public at large (as indeed it fails to in the United States), or even to most of those on the outskirts of political debate. However, it’s interesting to consider what impact that might have on the face of government in the UK. With three in five (61%) Britons thinking the welfare state as we know it today is unlikely to exist in 50 years time, does the same hold true for government as we know it today?