Is the Future Scary?


We took my 5 year-old son to see a ‘Horrid Henry’ show after Christmas. At one point in the production Horrid Henry is trying to convince his little brother Peter Perfect that he’s been to the future. “What’s the future like?” asks Peter. As Henry appears stumped for an answer, my son shouts out “scary” and gets one of the best laughs of the show. (I’m not sure whether to be proud or hide under the seat).

So, this is the time of year and decade at which pundits traditionally pontificate about the future and it seems an appropriate question – is the future scary?

I’m not going to answer that on wider global issues of the day, that’s another time. I’m just going to concentrate on the public management challenges in the UK.

I’ve written extensively on this blog and elsewhere on just how big the public financial challenge is (it’s Big and Scary). I’ve also tried to give a little historical context – for the past nearly 5 decades we’ve been spending approximately 43% of national wealth on public purposes and governments have found it incredibly difficult to get too far away from this average – Mrs Thatcher for example, for all her other radical changes, failed completely to roll-back this aspect of the State.

Just to get some real historical perspective I’ve been reading Philip Harling’s “The Modern British State”. This reminds us that in 1720 the average British public manager was a military of tax collection officer. By 1820 even these roles, especially the military, was in contraction (public spending fell by 25% between 1815 and 1835). With the reduction in military service, the State featured far less in people’s lives than it has a century earlier.

By 1920 the social service State had started to emerge but the disengagement of the State from economic activity and regulation massively contributed to the ensuing slump and mass unemployment (current politicians please note).

So what can we expect by 2020? Well, it’s very unlikely we’ll see a substantial dismantling of the post-war Welfare State – there will be cuts around the edges, but there’s no appetite amongst the public to really radically slash the provision of health, education, welfare and protection services.

If any government really does try it they will rapidly become the most unpopular government in recent history. Remember that is what happened to the Thatcher government in 1979-82 and it was only the Falklands War that saved them. And all the polls suggest that even if the Tories manage to narrowly win a Parliamentary majority it will be with a smaller popular mandate.

So, the future is going to be a bit scary – getting the deficit and public debt under control is going to indeed mean hard choices. But we should get these into perspective, we are going forward to the future and not back to the past. The British State will still be a wealthier, more decent, better educated, and healthier place than it has been in the past 3 centuries.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Spending, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is the Future Scary?

  1. Richard Common says:

    As you can appreciate Colin, I consider myself to be an expert on Horrid Henry. I have read all the stories several times over to Aidan. I am sorry to say I have consumed more Horrid Henry than public administration over the holidays. If Alex hadn’t shouted that out, its the sort of thing that Henry would have scared Perfect Peter with (please note ‘Peter Perfect’ was a competitor in ‘Wacky Races’).

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