by Matt Grist
The men behind the spending cuts - David Cameron, George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg - are all social and economic liberals, instinctively favouring a smaller state that requires free citizens to do more for themselves. Other than all going to public school (apart from Alexander), this is one of the reasons they all get on so well. For them, state intervention is only legitimate when it contributes to greater personal autonomy, hence their agreement on trying to improve education for the poorest, and reversing long-term unemployment.
But a government cannot survive on philosophical consistency alone. To build consensus it has to show a coherent response to pressing contemporary problems. Here are just a few of the problems we face: ensuring growth in a highly competitive globalised setting; dealing with climate change and the supply of energy; combating what is perceived as an increase in dependency and a decline in personal responsibility; making the welfare state affordable without abandoning the most vulnerable; kick-starting social mobility.
In pursuit of their agenda the economic liberals in the Government have so far overseen a considerable transfer of responsibility from state to citizen. For example, students have been asked to pay the full cost of their education, middle class people the full cost of raising their children, and public sector workers somewhere nearer the full cost of their pensions. At the same time, social policies like the 'pupil premium' create a complementary narrative on autonomy.
This approach is coherent because its elements all pull in one direction: economic and social policy aim to create less dependent citizens whilst at the same time reducing unsustainable state spending. An added benefit is that such policy encourages a citizenry more used to changing its behaviour for the sake of long-term goals, a change in social norms that is welcome in our consumerist society.
The coherence of this liberal approach means the public can form a picture of the kind of person the Government is supporting: independent, hard-working, and responsible; someone who saves for her pension, would like to invest in solar panels, puts her kids' futures above all else, yet is not averse to contributing towards other people's social mobility. This is an image that can both win elections and create a lasting political settlement. It resonates with the 'squeezed middle', as well as the aspiring working class. If all the policy balls can be juggled – and it is a big 'if' - then by capturing the imaginations of these voters, the Government could shape British politics for some time.
However, if the massive gamble of today's spending cuts create years of economic hardship, the 'squeezed middle' and aspiring working class won't feel supported, but betrayed. There is a lot at stake.