Many would argue that the scope of public services has altered radically from the vision shared by the architects of the welfare state in Britain. The benefits provided by the National Assistance Scheme were envisaged as a support to be called on in extremis, not as an entitlement that absolves the individual of any personal responsibility for their own maintenance. Proponents of a smaller state sector emphasise this.
An obvious difference between the public sector of the 50s and 60s and the public sector now lies in who is actually delivering these services. Most big nationalised industries, publicly owned for decades, have returned to the private sector. A host of other services that we once took for granted would be delivered by the public sector, such as street cleansing, refuse collection, drug rehabilitation and forensic services, are now provided by private or voluntary sector organisations. Many functions of government are now delivered under contract with private sector organisations. But all are still described as being public sector services. And each part of Britain provides a different picture. Contrast the local authority landscapes of, for example, London and Scotland and you start to understand key differences in the way services are organised in different parts of the country.
People often decry the state of our roads or rubbish collections and invoke ‘third-world countries’ as a benchmark for unsatisfactory services. In fact, conditions in these countries make it very clear to us why we need public services. On balance, most of us would probably not swap abolition of income tax for unmade-up roads and no ambulance service.
But when it comes to comparisons, we should at least make them with countries that purport to offer some level of public service rather than countries that are not in a position to offer any. The Institute of International and European Affairs (www.iiea.com) and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (www.oecd.org) are great sources of data on different employment patterns in different parts of Europe and beyond.
So where does the UK sit? Data from the Institute of International and European Affairs shows the UK sitting somewhere towards the middle of a spectrum that has the Scandinavian countries at the top, with their renowned enthusiasm for paying taxes that allow for high levels of public spending, and Greece at the bottom, despite the commonly held view that almost everyone in Greece works for the government. In Scandinavian countries almost a third of employees work for the government, compared with 17% in the UK. (Note, though, that these figures are for 2011, the latest available. A lot of change will already be in the system so it is well worth watching www.iiea.com and www.oecd.org for updates.)
What would happen if we did not have public services? Well much depends on the national consensus around a minimum standard of living, and on government fears of the UK replicating the civil unrest seen in countries where this consensus has been breached. Horror stories from the Greek financial crisis convey all too vividly the trauma of citizens in advanced economies who find their services and safety nets whipped away from under them.
Read more on this in my new book, How to Survive Austerity, which is now available on Amazon.