In the Spectator magazine's 'How to Save Britain in Ten Easy Steps: A Manifesto', Ross Clark asks a very pertinent question. How is that the UK's public sector is larger now (as a percentage of GDP) than it was in 1979, when it was still controlled vast swathes of industry? The answer is bureaucracy:
What are public sector workers doing if they are no longer mining coal, driving buses or making steel? A huge and growing number of them are engaged in regulatory activities. We have gone from a blue-collar public sector to a white-collar one. The state does not work on the shop floor; it is employed upstairs in the compliance department, in health and safety and in human resources. Nowhere demonstrates the change more than Castle Morpeth in Northumberland; once a coal-mining district, it has developed an economy which revolves around state bureaucracy. Government employers, most significantly the local authority and the Inland Revenue, account for 57 per cent of all jobs in the district.
That statistic is an eye-catching one, but even the nationwide picture is depressing. According to the ONS, there are now more than 6 million public sector workers, which is equivalent to more than 20% of the workforce. How many of them provide a service you would willingly pay for, I wonder? And how many represent nothing more than a vast paper-shuffling payroll vote for the advocates of ever bigger government?
As I've written before, you could cut public spending by £118bn overnight, just by making a reasonably extensive list of government's necessary functions (and I mean necessary in an immediate, political sense rather than a philosophical one) and getting rid of any area of spending that doesn't appear on it. A further 15-20 percent efficiency savings on what remained is not out of the question either. The trouble is, with so many people dependent on big government for their livelihood, and such strong lobby groups to protect those special interests, it's going to take a very brave politician to do the right thing.
If anybody finds one, let me know...