“Big Society” blues: David Cameron’s Conservative ideology needs rebooting

Is the “ratchet effect” back? Are Cameron, Clegg and Miliband largely fighting about who can manage the social democratic state best?

David Cameron on the Big Society
The Commentator
On 28 May 2011 13:52

In January 1996, Margaret Thatcher made the following remarks in her Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture entitled “Liberty and Limited Government”:  

 “…the Left,” she said,” claimed all the arguments of principle, and that all that remained to the Right were the arguments of accountancy — essentially, when and how socialism could be afforded.

“It was this fundamental weakness at the heart of Conservatism which ensured that even Conservative politicians regarded themselves as destined merely to manage a steady shift to some kind of Socialist state. This was what — under Keith’s tuition — we came to call the "ratchet effect”.

It is noteworthy that in 1996, Margaret Thatcher felt confident enough to talk about that phenomenon in the past tense. Those were the heady days of “the end of history”; the Cold War had been fought and won; even if Labour was poised to take power a year later, they could only do so by calling themselves New Labour, and that meant conceding all the important points of principle to the political right.

How different it all looks today. When all is said and done, New Labour turned out to be as rapaciously statist as Old Labour, and just as reckless with the public finances.

If you’d fallen asleep on May 3, 1979 (when Margaret Thatcher came to power) and woken up on May 6, 2010 (when New Labour was voted out of office) you would have awoken in a country where public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product had actually risen, from 43 percent to 45 percent.  

That doesn’t mean Thatcherism was for nothing: vital reforms to the trade unions largely remain in place; Britain still has important op-outs from the European Union; the Cold War was in fact won and Margaret Thatcher’s role was vital; and the huge rise in British living standards over the last three decades is exclusively due to the radicalism of the 1980s.

Nonetheless, it is a sobering reminder of the scale of what still needs to be fought for.

The question now for Conservatives is whether David Cameron sees things this way too, or whether we’re back to the ratchet effect where a nominally Conservative leadership will, by and large, devote itself to managing the social democratic economy better than its potential rivals.

Stepping back for a moment, there are two reasons why that question is difficult to answer. The first is that he is in coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, and that muddies the ideological waters considerably. It is not just everything Cameron does that inevitably ends up being some sort of compromise with his partners, it’s everything he says as well. The Lib-Dems are in enough trouble with their voter base as it is. But if Cameron started sounding off like an American Republican he’d destroy his own government.

The second, and related, reason is that this has always looked like, and often been sold as, a kind of government of national unity designed to get us out of the economic mess inherited from Labour. Everyone knows that the vast bulk of the political business of the day has been preordained by the force of circumstances. Put another way, the zeitgeist lends itself to pragmatism rather than principle.  

But David Cameron does, of course, have a big idea: The Big Society.

And he gave an impassioned speech about it just this week. The key section in that speech is worth quoting in full:

“In the past,” said Cameron, “the left focused on the state and the right focused on the market. We're harnessing that space in between - society - the 'hidden wealth' of our nation. The idea that the centre right is simply about the philosophy of individualism - of personal and commercial freedom - is a travesty of our tradition.

“From Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in the 18th century, from Hegel and de Tocqueville in the 19th, to Hayek and Oakeshott in the 20th - all have been clear that individual freedom is only half the story.

“Tradition, community, family, faith, the space between the market and the state - this is the ground where our philosophy is planted.”

There is no doubt that Cameron is absolutely right in identifying Burke, Smith, Hegel, de Tocqueville, Hayek and Oakshott as key thinkers in the Conservative tradition. It is also reasonable of him to draw from such thinkers in support of his key Big Society principles of voluntarism, private giving – of both time and money -- , personal responsibility, the importance of the family and so on.

But there are two big problems. The first is that you can argue for (or at least happily live with) many of these things if you’re a social democrat too. It is highly unlikely that Ed Miliband is going to come out against the family or personal responsibility, for example.

The second is that voluntarism and personal responsibility have to a great extent been crowded out of communal life due to the size and scope of the British state. So long as people are losing up to half of their income in taxation, so long as almost half of the entire economy is flushed through the state, so long, by way of stark illustration, we persist in vital areas of national life with state-socialist monoliths like the National Health Service, so long, in short, as Britain remains a social democratic state, talk of the Big Society is unlikely to amount to much.

And that is because Cameron is missing half the story. To make it work as a credible vision from the political right, he needs to reformulate his big idea as follows: Big Society, Small State.

If he did that, people would understand what he is talking about, which currently they do not because wherever one stands on the political spectrum it is obvious that you can’t bang the square peg of conservative philosophy into the round hole of a social democratic state.

When Burke, Smith, Hegel, de Tocqueville, Hayek and Oakshott wrote about the ideas Cameron so admires, they did so against the backdrop of societies that were constituted in entirely different ways. They may well have been stressing different priorities if they were writing today. In 1900, for example, public spending represented just 14 percent of GDP. 

Of course, there is always the possibility that Cameron is well aware of this. It could be that he is biding his time, hoping to ride out the economic crisis, do what he can for now, and then go back to the British people in four years time hoping to get a mandate to govern alone. Under such a scenario, he could then implement the kind of full-on, centre-right agenda that, for the reasons outlined above, he can’t currently implement or even talk about.

Cynics on the right who have already written Cameron off, will scoff at such suggestions. But there are plenty of examples of leaders radicalising whilst in power.

If David Cameron reassess his Big Society ideals and adds in the other half of the story along the lines we suggest, he will not only have a powerful vision which everyone can understand, he will have the means at his disposal to both unite his party and revive his country’s fortunes.

It’s surely worth a thought.

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