The State is Not a Leviathan But a Hydra | Elliot Stein

Elliot Stein is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank that facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

The state is a mythical beast, which many political commentators liken to a leviathan. A leviathan is a large, powerful creature, a demonic serpent of the deep. Yet this analogy is not wholly apt. The state is not a leviathan but a different beast altogether: a hydra. A multi-headed creature that often seems on the decline, but possesses a remarkable regenerative capacity – growing two heads where once there was just one – and frequently turning on those who claim to control it.

The hydra-like property of the state is often-overlooked, yet is more apparent than ever under Boris’s premiership and the new coalition of conservative red wall voters. How have we reached this situation? What does it mean for the future of conservatism and the role of the state in our everyday lives?

The power of the state has waxed and waned since the coalition years. Post-2008, there was a general consensus that low taxes, low spending and reducing the size of the state was the future of the economy. Hence, in the dying days of New Labour and throughout the Cameron era, we saw many of the hydra heads removed via various austerity measures including but not limited to the 2012 Welfare Reform Act and the downgrading of legal aid in 2013 with the LASPO Act.

In 2015, Cameron stood on his platform of fiscal responsibility and the electorate voted him in a majority conservative government. This is ultimately the key reason as to why there was not a state-based shift in policy, rather a solidification of austerity and privatisation. As a result of this staunch commitment, the hydra was kept in check by fiscal conservatism.

A crucial point often missed out of the 2015 election is the 4 million votes UKIP amassed. Whilst analysis is inconclusive about whether these votes, had they gone to Labour or Conservative, could have shifted the election; it is clear that an electoral platform based around a more working-class, pro-state, northern demographic could have electoral success.  Hence, UKIP’s populism was a precursor to the policies of the current government. This is indicative of the fact that despite the state being severely shrunk, before any policy commitment, the growth of the state was already showing signs of its regenerative capacity, akin to that of the hydra.

The hydra parallels become increasingly clear with the advent of Brexit. Just a year after Cameron shrunk the state, it was able to reformulate itself to undergo significant growth. With two new departments being formed out of the referendum, and £3bn being allocated to Brexit funding – just as Cameron cut off one head, two grew back. 

After having established prior rises and falls in the prominence of the state, we can turn to the successful leadership campaign of Boris and subsequent snap general election. At the time, in 2019, Boris clearly understood the great shift in his voter base. Those that hold the power to reshape the British political landscape are no longer the metropolitan middle-classes, but the more working-class constituencies situated in ‘Red Wall’. An indication of this is Bassetlaw, held by Labour since 1935, swung to the Conservatives by 18.4% and produced a majority of over 14,000 votes for the new MP. Crucially, for Boris to harness the power of the hydra instead of being engulfed by it, he has to embrace the change in the electoral battleground.

To maintain the confidence of his new electorate Boris has shifted the Conservative party to the left economically and pursued expansionist policies in the state. Consequently, even without the added impetus of the pandemic, we could have seen the return of big government and its bed-fellow, big spending. The state has now returned with more influence over our everyday lives than at any time in the past two-decades.

However, having embraced the rise of the state where can Boris turn next? Is he stuck? The red wall turned blue partially because of Brexit, not because of any love for the Conservative party. State-centric policies may have thus had a short-term benefit to Boris’s popularity but ultimately if this comes at the price of a sustainable conservative voter base, unleashing the hydra will prove more damaging than beneficial to the Tories.

Boris should know that to vanquish the hydra. Heracles required the assistance of his nephew Lolaus to attack the monster using a sword and fire. In order to gain compatriots to help him slay the beast, Boris is trying to rekindle old allies. This is symbolised by the Conservative’s advocacy for environmentalist policies. For example, the Labour-created now Conservative adopted Green Industrial Revolution will mobilise £12 billion of government investment, and potentially three times as much from the private sector, to create and support up to 250,000 green jobs. Boris thought he could control the hydra. However, he forgot a key factor, the hydra is often untamable. Just as his state-centric policies unleashed the hydra, his green-focused policies will fail to bring the allies needed to effectively tame it. Boris, after his 2019 triumph, is looking less and less Herculean and increasingly like he is bending to the state’s every whim.

The state is hydra-like in nature and it never remains small or large. Rather, it is a transient and slippery creature that politicians neglect at their peril. Voter demographics is a crucial lens to show why the state has expanded over the past decade – especially post-Brexit – highlighting that it is imperative for politicians to recognise where their policies appeal. Fundamentally, the Conservatives are currently in power due to those that voted them in, and this new, yet unstable base will continue to shape the state-centric policies of the current government for the foreseeable future; for good or ill.

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