Simplistically, government has moved from some major landholder (a king) trying to protect his holding by force, through to a more measured interaction with neighbours based on trade, but still essentially intended to protect ownership. The protection of ownership can be accompanied by idealistic views that tell of the benefits of ownership (to whom not always being defined clearly), and all tempered by a need to make sure the populace does not riot. In the UK, and at this moment, that gives us government that prioritises ownership (where the rich tend to own more, have a powerful voice and are super-sensitive to loss of any sort), coupled with an ideology that extols free markets and a minimal state. Rioting is quelled by a powerful police force, the self management that comes from the panopticon effect, and a dulling of the ability to think of alternatives, largely induced by the apparent level of comfort that the consumer society brings1.
From a slightly different perspective, we could say the state exists to provide common services. Given that the rest of the world is divided up into more or less powerful states we need our state to prevent incursion. The state provides the ultimate source of the rule of law. As such, it also has a monopoly on the use of violence. We might also need a state to provide education or transport infrastructure. A certain amount of redistribution of wealth might be considered appropriate. All of these are arguable, and, indeed, all variations from total anarchy to totalitarianism have been argued from time to time, with various degrees of emphasis on different social organising principles, including capitalism and socialism and blends in between, coupled with reflections on the degree that realpolitik should be used to counter the prevailing ideology. There is no obvious right approach (unless you are promulgating one or other of the various theories). Even identifying a wrong approach depends on assumptions about what it is to be human, what constitutes the good life, and, critically, who has a right to the good life. Generally, a wrong approach, to a theorist, is any approach not your own, or, to a ruler, any approach not your own.
In the UK, the approach has generally been to support business, with the recent addition of a neo-liberal ideology. This has lead to some awkward conflicts. Business would appreciate a stock of appropriately educated workers. To this end we have an educational system that has, since Victorian times, focused on producing clerical workers and skilled manual workers. The output has morphed over the years to produce potential scientists and technicians, but the essential aim is to produce young people that the country (business) needs. So far the schools system has also been able to produce well rounded people who have the potential to contribute to society in general. Ideology has lead to a reduction in funding for schooling and privatisation of schools, with the result that the school system is loosing credibility, among parents and teachers at least. The change is, perhaps, too new to evaluate fully. Transport infrastructure is also important to business. In principle a market might develop its own roads and railways but in practice is cheaper for business to allow the government to do this. The government is responsible for raising the money, roads will generally be free at the point of use, and railways will share infrastructure costs in various ways. This has also been conflicted. For railways in particular, the government has been reluctant to raise the money, so, for the HS2 project from London to the north, the terminus site in London has been expanded to allow redevelopment. The developers will reap the advantages of redevelopment, while the locals expect to be priced out2.
In this context it looks as though the politicians exist to manage the country for the benefit of business while making sure that the populace provides a workforce and matters remain reasonably peaceful. Of course, Marx got here first. His version is that "the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie"3. We have to be a bit careful here, though. Marx talks about the executive of the state and therefore leaves out the body of Parliament. Our government structure has a reasonably small committee, the Cabinet, that undertakes the day-to-activities of government. Members of Cabinet, Ministers, are the administrators of the various departments and, as such, make decisions either as individuals or in committee according to guidelines and current law. The Cabinet can also propose new laws or amendments to existing ones. In principle, the Cabinet is answerable to Parliament, which is why we have to be careful with Marx's aphorism. On the other hand, since the Prime Minister and other Ministers are generally chosen from the majority party this approval can be achieved by ensuring that all members of that party vote in the desired way. We might note, in passing, that Ministers, and the Prime Minister in particular, have powers of patronage. While nothing is ever quite certain in politics, an executive supported by a decent Parliamentary majority appears unassailable.
We are now left with the question of whether this structure, representative democracy, really does represent citizens' needs. How do citizens address issues that Parliament is not handling? Can we identify issues that parliament is simply not built to handle? What can we do about systemic failure?
This paragraph could do with some, or even a lot of justification. It is, in effect, a distillation of much of recent political history, including, but not limited to: the development of neo-liberalism; the history of policing in the UK; the enhancement of surveillance through parallel developments of social media and government agencies; the break-up of communities by an emphasis on meritocracy, reinforced by narrowly focused advertising algorithms; and a strengthening of the connection between welfare and work by resurrecting the concept of the deserving poor. I should try to put something together to make these threads more visible. ↩
Karl Marx: The Communist Manifesto. ↩