Anthony King was, among other things, a public intellectual: that is, he could explain how the most rigorous and theoretical social science threw light on our political condition.
King published his deeply pessimistic research on government, ‘Overload: problems of governing in the 1970s’, in 1975. It was plainly drafted in the shadow of successive failures of British government: the fiascos of the Heath government’s dying days and the catastrophes of its Labour successor.
The definition of an overloaded government
King’s descriptive account of an overloaded government can be reduced to three propositions. First, ‘the business of government has become more difficult.’ A symptom of this is the proliferation of failed policies, some large, some small.
Second, “the range of matters for which British governments hold themselves responsible—and for which they believe that the electorate may hold them responsible—has increased greatly over the past ten or twenty years … and is still increasing at a rapid rate.’
Finally, the account is tied explicitly to the language of overload: ‘just as the range of responsibilities of governments has increased, so, to a large extent independently, their capacity to exercise their responsibilities has declined. The reach of British government exceeds its grasp.’
King summarised the situation as follows: “Once upon a time … man looked to God to order the world. Then he looked to the market. Now he looks to government”.
Problems arose, King argued, from an engrained feature of modern industrial societies: organised social complexity: rising social complexity means that we are all—not just governments—increasingly dependent on others to carry out our everyday social functions; and the recognition that these dependency relations are ubiquitous means that groups—like trade unions—that are central to the struggle over expectations, have strong incentives to withhold compliance from those dependent on them.
All this, he believed, had led Britain to become harder to govern. A comparison of the fate of the miners in two great industrial disputes, 1926 and 1974, is used to illustrate the point. King argued that dependency relations are not likely to become less frequent in the future; rather the reverse. Acts of non-compliance were likewise unlikely to become less frequent.
How far were those pessimistic expectations realised?
Many of King’s pessimistic expectations have not been realised, but viewing this work from a vantage point of more than forty years can tell us important things about our present political condition.
While I show below that government in the 1980s and 1990s did indeed turn off the expectations tap in ways that King failed to foresee, the very methods used to turn off the tap actually created fresh expectations and fresh ambitions on the part of government. In particular, the quarter century following the publication of the original ‘Overload’ paper saw the rise of a new regulatory state in Britain.
If we compare the United Kingdom now with the picture offered by King in 1975, we see four particularly important changes in the conditions that lay at the root of overload. First, a large part of the problem diagnosed by King lay in the nationalised industries.
Particularly under the second Thatcher administration, the British state implemented the most ambitious privatisation programme of any large capitalist economy. After it, to adapt King’s aphorism, men looked once again to the market rather than to the state.
Second, the state also went a long way to putting a cap on the expectations problem. It successfully withdrew from areas where it had been long assumed that it would supply goods and services. The case of public housing is the most striking. Under the Thatcher government’s ‘right to buy’ scheme about 1.5 million dwellings were transferred from public to private ownership. In the process, what had once been a highly sensitive issue of public sector rents was transformed into an issue to do with financial markets.
That brings us to the third change that helped confound King’s pessimism. In the years after 1975, the United Kingdom created a new regime of governance, one that insulated the state from the competitive pressures of electoral democracy. Important domains of policy—such as the regulation of competition—shifted to non-majoritarian bodies like the Brussels Commission. The rise of the independent regulators for the newly privatised utilities within the UK was also a sign of that change. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough occurred under the first Blair government in 1997, with their new regime for the management of short-term interest rate policy, which invested control in an independent Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England.
The new system of rule was not itself invulnerable to popular challenge—something very clear in the populist revolt that was Brexit. But it did for several decades solve King’s problem of how to manage popular expectations.
Fourth and finally, the long tenure of the Conservative governments after 1979 enabled the state to solve one of the key difficulties which King had identified in 1975: the capacity of organised trade unionism to exploit the dependency intrinsic to social complexity by withholding cooperation.
The adaptations to the overload King identified in this paper in turn created new difficulties. These new difficulties lie at the root of the analysis in his last major study, The Blunders of our Governments, originally published in 2013 with Ivor Crewe.
Many of the most spectacular examples come from the world of privatisation and outsourcing, like Capita (one of the great corporate giants of outsourcing) and Individual Learning Accounts; the fiasco of support for single mothers and the Child Support Agency.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.