February 2, 2024

The state we’re in

by Adam Lang, Carnegie UK

It is fair to say that the UK state – and its various moving parts – is under pressure. Our infrastructure is creaking, our economic performance is sputtering and there is a worrying disconnect between those we elect to govern and the people they serve, leading to a crisis of legitimacy.  

This situation has not been helped in recent weeks by the multiple revelations from the various inquiries into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. These important initiatives have brought to light inconsistent decision-making processes and questionable operating cultures at the highest levels within our governments and public agencies. 

While there are many ways to diagnose these problems, one area that doesn’t get enough discussion or debate (in my view at least) is how we conceptualise, resource and deliver the role of the state in 2024 and beyond. 

If we accept that the years ahead will require radical innovations and new approaches to meet the multiple challenges we all face – demographic change, the climate crisis, technological disruption etc – then we must at least consider and debate how an effective state would and should respond to these challenges. 

This needs to go beyond the usual binary distinction between an interventionist state and a free-market society. Neither of these options alone do justice to the complexity of the issues we face and most mainstream political parties no longer fit neatly into one camp or the other. 

At Carnegie UK we have long championed the idea of the Enabling State as an alternative and an evolution of our current default model for thinking about the state and what it does. At its heart, the Enabling State concept advocates for a move away from top-down decision making towards a model that supports people and communities to achieve positive change for themselves where they are best placed to do so, and in doing so focusses effort and resource on those areas where only action by the state can help us achieve shared outcomes.  

We have tried to bring this idea to life with our Wellbeing Tests that we use to shape and inform our organisational response to public policy developments and guide our vision for what better policy making can look like. 

With this last point in mind, it is encouraging to see more and more organisations and individuals calling for a rethink of how our state operates and functions and, crucially, serves people and communities well. It was notable too, that Sir Keir Starmer made this topic the focus of his recent remarks at the Pro Bono Economics event in London where he spoke about reframing the role of the state and resetting the relationships between government and civil society. Given the importance of this debate to the future of our country, it was encouraging to hear the current Leader of the Opposition talk about wanting to lead a government that devolves power to communities, focusses on “working with people, not doing things to people” and that has a deliberate design towards long-termism. This is a conversation that we would like to see all political parties engaging with in an election year.  

At Carnegie UK we believe that many of the threats to collective wellbeing that we see at a local and national level too often have their origins in decision makers prioritising short-term policy gain over long-term outcomes. We will continue to follow how all party leaders talk about their ideas for the role of the state, and we will keep advocating for our vision of one that is enabling and that puts improving our collective wellbeing at the heart of efforts to ensure we can all live well today and into the future.