It is Miliband, not Cameron, who is confused
Oliver Letwin, the Tory policy chief, says that the Environment Secretary did not tell us where the boundary between state and society should lie
Ever since David Cameron’s arrival, the Labour party has been trying to work out what to say about him. First they complained that the Conservative party bad changed too much – the so-called ‘flip-flop’ attack. Then they tried an attack from the Left, complaining that David Cameron hadn’t changed at all -‘still the same old Tories’. More recently, the Prime Minister attacked the Conservative party from the Right, arguing that Conservatives talk tough but vote soft. And the Chancellor has given up attacking David Cameron at all, instead complaining that Cameron has no substance while in fact lifting a range of substantive ideas from him.
In what was no doubt an attempt to deal with this intellectual mess, David Miliband provided in a recent issue of The Spectator, the first attempt at a serious critique of Cameron’s Conservatism.
Miliband’s argument can be summarised in four propositions: 1) Cameron has a big idea (‘Social Responsibility’); 2) this big idea doesn’t work; 3) the reason it doesn’t work is because it doesn’t define the boundaries between government and society in a way that reconciles social justice with individual liberty; and 4) Blairite New Labour is superior because it has a clear idea about the boundaries between government and society, based on the recognition that ‘the extension of personal freedom depends on collective action’.
This argument is sufficiently serious, sufficiently mistaken and sufficiently confused to be worth deconstructing. Miliband’s first proposition is, of course, true. Cameron’s ‘social responsibility is indeed a big idea. It is one of the biggest ideas that human beings have ever had – a deep part of our intellectual heritage.
It is the idea that between government and the individual citizen there lies the multitude of relationships, from the family and friendship outwards, that forms the fabric of our lives. The power of these relationships and of the culture they embody greatly exceeds the power of government. A government that wishes effectively to guide a nation towards social justice and wellbeing must therefore do so in and through civil society. This means using government to help people take responsibility for themselves and for others – the parent fur the child, the doctor for the patient, the teacher for the pupil, the community for its own public spaces.
Now, any careful reader of Miliband will have noted that he does not actually dissent from any of this.
So we move to Miliband’s second and third propositions – that this big idea of social responsibility doesn’t work as a guiding principle for government, and that the reason it doesn’t work is that it doesn’t define the boundaries between government and society in a way that reconciles justice with individual liberty.
In one respect, Miliband is right here’ too. A government founded on the idea of social responsibility will not come up with a flip definition of tile boundary between the state and civil society. The boundary is subject to a never-ending negotiation, a continuous search for the right balance of liberty and community, freedom and security, equity and prosperity, against a continuously changing background. Each decision about where to set the balance is one that has to be made in the light of events and circumstances.
There are, however, two clear qualities that one can bring to these decisions. The attitude of the Brownites is ‘if it moves, regulate if. The Cameron big idea, of social responsibility means starting, on the contrary, with the less arrogant attitude that politicians may cause a chain of unintended consequences if they try to direct too much.
You will get very different results if you have a government with the second of these attitudes as opposed to a. government with the first of them – A Cameron government will not feel like a Brown government. Miliband’s problem is, I suspect that – though a member of a government which has been inclined to regulate everything that moves (and which is likely to do so even more with the accession of Mr Brown) – he is personally inclined to push in the opposite direction.
His real complaint -which you can almost hear trying to get out from under his tortured prose – is; ‘They might, actually do what I want to do; but my party won’t let me do it -get me out of here.’
As a reflection on the psychopathology of today’s Labour party, this cry for help deserves sympathy. As a critique, however, it is defective.
So we turn to the fourth and last of Mr Miliband’s propositions -that Blairite New Labour is superior because it has a clear idea about the boundaries between government and society, based on the recognition ‘that .the extension of personal freedom depends on coJ1ectiv~ action’.
This all-important disclosure of Mr Miliband’s thought process is not, it has to be admitted, a hugely resonant phrase. ‘The extension of personal freedom depends on collective action’ may not have quite the same appeal in the Dog and Duck as the usual New Labour sound bite.
But we shouldn’t be put off by the density of the slogan. Once unpicked, it becomes both comprehensible and interesting.
What, after all, would one mean today by ‘the extension of personal freedom’? The ability to walk safely in the street? The ability of those trapped in multiple deprivation to escape from that condition? The ability of the businesswoman to run her business without endless interference from inspectors? The ability of the doctor to do his doctoring unhampered by targets?
All of these can indeed only be achieved through ‘collective action’. They all need action from government. So far, so true.
But much of that action has to work through family and community and social enterprise -essential ingredients of safer streets and of the escape from poverty. And much of the action has to consist in government taking steps to interfere less – essential ingredients to extending personal freedom for business people, doctors… everyone.
So it turns out not only (surprise, surprise) that the Miliband slogan tells us nothing definitive shoot the boundary between state and society, but also that -unlike the idea of social responsibility -it doesn’t even tell us anything directional about how that boundary should move.
Thatcher wanted to roll back the frontiers of the state. Brown wants to roll forward the frontiers of the state. Cameron wants to roll forward the frontiers of society. And Miliband wants… we know not what.
And that, of course, is precisely where the very clever Mr Miliband wants to leave us – in the dark – in the hope that we won’t have eaten enough carrots to notice that he can’t actually find any reason (other than the fact of belonging to the party he is in) for picking a fight with Cameron’s Conservatives.
At least, when Mr Brown arrives, this particular problem will disappear for Labour.