At least since the election of Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, each new government has come to power promising to rebalance the relationship between the State and the citizen. Despite Blairite waffle about transcending the old choices, the issue has been where Britain should lie on the spectrum from pure laissez-faire to total state socialism.
Yet there is an older and more fundamental question about the relationship between State and citizen that is becoming an issue again: should citizens be subject to the rule of law or to the rule of men?
You probably think that this question was long ago answered in favour of the rule of law, that no one still believes state power should be deployed arbitrarily. Then you have not been listening to the Prime Minister. In a speech in Munich in February, David Cameron promoted what he called muscular liberalism: “A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone […] But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.”
In what I assume to have been a witticism, Mr Cameron said that one of the values he would use his arbitrary powers to promote was respect for the rule of law. He also mentioned democracy, gay rights and all the usual stuff. In fact, however, he has devoted himself to promoting other values by extra-legal means.
Slim bodies, for example. Shortly after his Munich speech, Mr Cameron got food suppliers to sign a “responsibility deal”. Among other things, this will require them to redesign their products so that they contain fewer calories. Fattening food will not be illegal but food suppliers who want to keep in Mr Cameron’s good books know what to do.
Mr Cameron also values banks that lend to small British firms, pay even more tax than the law requires and give small bonuses to their staff. So the Chancellor has done a “deal” with the banks whereby they promise to do these things. The law does not require lending to small British firms. Nevertheless, banks that want to be part of the “partnership between government and business” saw the wisdom of obliging Mr Osborne.
Nor is it only banks that Mr Osborne thinks should pay more tax than the law requires. Last December he commissioned Graham Aaronson QC to draft a “general anti-avoidance rule”. This will allow government officials to decide whether the amount of tax you have paid, though strictly all that the law requires, is nevertheless too little and that you must pay some more.
Under David Cameron’s “muscular liberalism”, the distinction between what is the government’s business and what is private citizens’ business is to be dissolved. The law will no longer tell us what we may do without fear of government muscle.