Credit where it’s due: Cameron talks sense
For nearly 80 years, from the end of the First World War to 1997, the Conservative party seemed to have a natural claim on power. The MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments were interludes in a long Conservative supremacy which culminated in the Thatcher years.
Like her opponents and her colleagues, Mrs Thatcher took it for granted that Conservative rule was more or less assured; the task was to do something effective with what the gods had given British conservatism. Hence her no-holds-barred, free market fundamentalist revolution.
But Conservative dominance rested on two fragile political realities that the Thatcherite zealots did not recognise. The first was that the Labour party was wedded to a statist vision of socialism, ideologically excluding British liberalism and gifting majorities to the right. The second was the converse of the first. The Conservative party organised itself as an essentially liberal conservative party, incorporating the displaced liberal Britain, so that Rab Butler and Chris Patten could be members of the same party as Enoch Powell, Norman Tebbitt and John Redwood. Both realities could change and they did.
Thatcherism’s stubborn disregard for the social and public realms repelled the British liberal tradition. Blair’s genius was to capture it for Labour and so reconstitute the left as part of a majority, centrist liberal-left coalition which, if managed well by his successors, could reverse the old order. Labour could become the natural party of government and the Tories an ideological minority. What David Cameron has recognised is that the Tories have to escape Blair’s script if they ever want to win power; they have to become liberal conservatives again.
Thus Cameron’s Scarman Lecture on inequality on Friday. After sallies into environmentalism and greater well-being, now comes Cameron the Conservative leader who sees that poverty is not absolute. Extraordinarily, given his party’s recent history, he argues that it matters to the health of British society that the gap between rich and poor should not become unbridgeable. Addressing poverty, he argued, was more than about creating a safety net through which people must not fall; it is about creating an escalator which lifts everyone together and keeps the body social together.
At times, reading the speech, I had to blink with disbelief. He repudiates trickle-down economics; he insists that benefits are a vital lifeline and asserts the importance of state social spending. He deplores the gap in male life expectancy between Kensington and Chelsea (82) and Glasgow (70). As argued by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, now seen by Cameron’s Conservatives as offering a more compelling view of poverty than the minimal safety net version offered by Winston Churchill, it is churlish not to recognise the change of thinking. We live in a democracy; one day, the right will again govern Britain.
The solution Cameron offers is necessarily conservative. It is not to advance the state, as he puts it, but to advance society. He talks warmly of the role of strong families as bulwarks against poverty and of disbursing state spending through local social enterprise to offer smart responses to alcohol, drug and debt dependence. He rails against the way withdrawing assistance to the poor as they earn more means they face impossibly high marginal tax rates. And so on.
None of this is stupid; the trouble is that both poverty and the widening gulf in our society are, in the last resort, about money. The 2004 Unicef-WHO survey found that, on average, 8 per cent of British babies had low birth weights (on a par with Kazakhstan and Mongolia and the highest in Europe), rising in some cities to 11-14 per cent, Third World levels. As a national community, we thus guarantee that 8 per cent of the next generation will have the behavioural pathologies and cognitive disorders that inevitably flow from being born desperately physically disadvantaged. The Family Budget Unit estimates that the minimum income standard for childless adults is £85 after housing costs; the job seekers’ allowance for 18- to 24-year-olds is £45.50, rising to £57.45 for those over 24.
It is a simple callousness reproduced across the benefit system. Meanwhile, the average annual take-home pay of FTSE 100 CEOs climbed by 30 per cent to £3m last year. British society is decoupling before our eyes. Human beings have judged their worth by their relative position to others since the beginning of time; if the super-rich pull away so that the rest of society feels valueless, ultimately, it rebels. Britain will be no different.
The response must be universal fairness. The new vogue for social enterprise – New Labour is no less enthusiastic – has to be associated with more generous benefits both in and outside work. Higher benefits have to be funded by increased taxation on the rich. Warren Buffett does not want to destroy his children by leaving them too much money and passionately advocates higher inheritance tax. He is right. If David Cameron wants a Clause 4 moment where he decisively signals his break with the past, he should make common cause on taxing wealth.
So to the nub of his problem. The intellectuals from whom he might borrow to give his intent some ballast – Amartya Sen or John Rawls – are liberal. Nor have Conservative intellectuals done the necessary spadework. In Britain, for example, liberal conservative journalist Simon Jenkins makes a good case for reasserting the local against the bureaucratic centre in his highly readable Thatcher & Sons, but how that might address, say, low birth weights eludes me.
Former chair of the Tory party, Maurice Saatchi, in a recent pamphlet vacuously praises ‘the free and independent’ individual and the Enlightenment ideology that inspired the American Declaration of Independence as the source of Conservative ideological renewal. Sadly for Saatchi, the Enlightenment emphasised enfranchising every citizens’ capabilities along with his/her political rights.
If Tory intellectuals are broken reeds, the Conservative press and commentariat are largely unreconstructed Thatcherites pouring bile over what Cameron is trying to do. Conservative businessmen, in the most pro-business climate since the 19th century, in a mad depiction of reality imagine they have no defenders. Recreating liberal conservatism against this background is an uphill struggle; it may even be impossible. But in the attempt, Cameron has already helped to legitimise environmentalism; now he is doing the same for concern about inequality. For that alone he deserves credit.