The Price of Cameron’s Compassion

The Tory leader’s Big Society speech promises a revolution. But have we been here before?

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David Cameron delivers the Hugo Young Lecture, 10 November 2009

At first sight, David Cameron was an eccentric choice to give the Guardian‘s Hugo Young Lecture last month. Even more startling was the fact that he chose the occasion to make his most important speech on social policy, before an audience entirely drawn from the metropolitan liberal establishment. But the lionising of a Conservative leader by the guardians of the Guardian was firmly based on mutual self-interest.

Ever since Labour’s stock began to fall under Gordon Brown, institutions of the Left that depend on state patronage — and that includes the Guardian, which has thrived on public-sector advertising — have been ingratiating themselves with the new, “progressive” Conservatism. For his part, Cameron has grasped the opportunity to neutralise a potentially hostile liberal elite, particularly the BBC. He has colonised the Left’s issues, while playing down those associated with the Right, not because he thinks the Guardian‘s readers will vote for him, but in order to appear statesmanlike, open-minded and moderate to the swing voters who recoil from tribal politics of any kind. This, the “triangulation” strategy of Clinton and Blair, has never been seriously attempted by Conservatives before. When historians look back on Cameron’s career, his rapprochement with the Guardian may well mark the high point of Tory triangulation.

“The Big Society” speech turned out to be a bold attempt by the Conservative leader to set out how he intends to “use the state to remake society”. Predictably enough, there was a visceral reaction from many on the Left: they dismissed Cameron’s ideas as cynical, opportunistic and hypocritical to boot. Comments on the Guardian‘s website from the paper’s stalwarts ranged from the sneering (Polly Toynbee, who calls Cameron a “butterfly”) to the apoplectic (Madeleine Bunting, for whom he is “duplicitous” and “incoherent”). Yet there was also admiration at the sheer chutzpah of a Tory leader parking his tanks on Labour’s lawn. Frank Field, the veteran Labour MP who for many people embodies what is left of the liberal conscience, observed that Cameron hadn’t merely mounted “a raid into Labour territory. The speech declares war on Labour’s reason for existence.” Field warned that “the time for jeering at Cameron is over. Labour’s survival will now entail outmatching his programme.”

What is it about the Big Society speech that has caused such consternation on the Left? Many of the arguments of the speech had been well rehearsed before, notably at the Manchester party conference in October. There, the Conservative leader set out his views about how and why Brown’s expansion of the state had failed to reduce poverty and inequality. What is new is that Cameron now proposes a big new role for the state to redistribute and devolve power to a “bigger society”. He believes that the state must be transformed to enable society to shoulder more responsibility. His Big Society would not only reverse the decline in social mobility of the Blair-Brown years, but create more confident, independent and active citizens. The Tories are not just stealing New Labour’s clothes, but their entire wardrobe. There is a tactical aspect to this, too. The Major years were marked by a series of Conservative defections, carefully timed by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell to cause maximum mischief. Now the boot is on the other foot. For disillusioned Blairites contemplating a long period in opposition, what’s not to like about the “progressive” Conservatism mapped out in the Hugo Young Lecture? Cameron’s Big Society sounds a lot like Tony Blair’s Big Tent.

The consternation is a matter of style as much as content. Never before has Cameron revealed the influences that have shaped his brand of “modernisation”. No previous Conservative leader would have peppered his prose with references to intellectual luminaries from the progressive pantheon, from the “rich intellectual tradition” of the Edwardian New Liberals, L. T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson, to Hugo Young himself, as part of his critique of the Fabian-inspired expansion of the welfare state. It is this lost Gladstonian era, before the bifurcation of liberalism and socialism in Britain, that so excites thoughtful Blairites, such as Lord Adonis and Mr Field. Admittedly, if Cameron, or whoever wrote this speech for him, had actually read Hobson, he would know that this “economic heretic”, as Hobson liked to think of himself, was also a repulsive anti-Semite, given to tirades about Jewish plutocrats sinking their “fangs” into their victims. Ideological cross-dressing is a risky business, but Mr Cameron moves swiftly on to drop more contemporary names that will reassure the Guardian-reading classes that he is indeed a “progressive Conservative”.

For this purpose, it is vital to connect with the intellectual world from which Barack Obama emerged. So here are the President’s friends and advisers, Cass Sunstein of Harvard and Richard Thaler of Chicago, who claim that a mere “nudge” from government “can effect a whole culture change”. Here is the Harvard Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, Archon Fung, enthusing about “centralised support” for community activists, based on his doctrine of “accountable autonomy”. Here, too, are Eric von Hippel, the Professor of Technological Innovation at MIT, offering new reasons why small is beautiful in business, and Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Economics, explaining why “non-state collective action is more effective than centralised state solutions in solving community problems”. 

The American liberals cited in the speech are joined by a few British academics (but, interestingly, no Continentals) who reinforce the impression that Cameron has drawn exclusively on the centre-Left for inspiration in this speech. For example, he accepts the controversial thesis of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett, that what matters for quality of life is not wealth but equality: the more unequal a society is, the unhappier its people will be. True, he rejects their view that policy should be directed at reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest, which requires punitive taxation on the wealthy. Cameron prefers to close “the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because it is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.” He was mocked by Polly Toynbee for apparently letting his wealthy friends off the hook, but surely more significant is the fact of a Tory leader who does not even question the principle that it is the state’s job to redistribute wealth in the name of social justice.

By comparison, Cameron gives the conservative intellectual tradition short shrift. There is a perfunctory nod to Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott. Indeed, I suspect that the last time he opened one of their works was as an undergraduate at Oxford, at one of his tutorials with Professor Vernon Bogdanor. None of the various American centre-Right currents of thought gets a look-in: no libertarians or supply-side conservatives, and especially no neoconservatives. The exception who proves the rule is Francis Fukuyama, the End of History Man, who was once a leading neoconservative but later distanced himself from the Bush administration and supported Obama. So Fukuyama is quoted here approvingly as he polemicises against laissez-faire: “There is a certain assumption that civil society, once having been damaged by the excessive ambition of government, will simply spring back to life like brine shrimp that have been freeze-dried, and now you add water to them and they become shrimp again. It is not something that you can take for granted.”

Even more striking is Cameron’s endorsement of Phillip Blond, the self-styled “Red Tory”, who in the past year has risen from Cumbrian obscurity to become le dernier cri in the salons of Notting Hill. A former lecturer in theology may seem an implausible candidate to be the ideologue of Cameronism, and as he has yet to write a book (one is promised before the election), the rationale for his influence is somewhat sketchy. He does, however, have the ear of the liberal media. Vigorously promoted by the Guardian and Independent, Blond was adopted by the Blairite think-tank Demos to run their “Progressive Conservatism” project, another leftist attempt to retain influence (and public funding) by clinging to the coat-tails of a coming prime minister. It was launched early this year with a cover story in Prospect, a monthly that appeals particularly to well-established would-be radicals, and a speech by the Tory leader. But the orthodox radicals of Demos and the “radical orthodox” theologian soon fell out and parted for reasons that remain mysterious. 

Nothing daunted, Blond then promptly set about raising funds for his own think-tank on the strength of his Prospect article and not much else besides the patronage of the Tory leader. ResPublica, as the new outfit styles itself, was launched last month, again in the presence of the Conservative leader and his entourage. There is no doubt about Blond’s debt to Cameron. Much more important is: how much does Cameron owe to Blond? On the strength of the Big Society speech, the answer is: quite a lot. Blond is quoted thus: “The state…has dispossessed the people and amassed all power to itself…This centralisation of power has made people passive when they should be active and cynical when they should be idealistic. This attitude only makes things worse-the more people think they can’t make a difference, the more they opt out from society.” This is a key part of the Cameronian critique of big government. Cameron believes that moral values such as duty and responsibility have been replaced by “the synthetic bonds of the state-regulation and bureaucracy”. I agree. However, the Cameronian critique rejects the idea that “state retrenchment” will bring about moral regeneration at the bottom of society. 

What Cameron seems to like about Red Toryism is threefold. First, he offers a moral critique of the welfare state which appears to echo Iain Duncan Smith’s distinctively Christian conservatism, although in many ways Blond’s ideas have more in common with various other traditions — corporatist, communitarian, even socialist — that blame “neo-liberalism” for the decline of social solidarity. That is a prejudice that Mr Duncan Smith, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, would repudiate. Second, Blond’s dogmatic rejection of individualism is dressed up in the vocabulary of radical orthodox theology, an Anglican movement that counts Rowan Williams among its adherents. To a great extent, however, he is recycling the ideas of the American communitarian movement, founded by Amitai Etzioni, which were taken up for a time by the Clintons and then re-emerged in a new form, the “faith-based” initiatives of George W. Bush. Third, Blond identifies his main enemy as “monopoly capitalism”, drawing on popular fear and loathing of large corporations from Goldman Sachs to Tesco. This part of Red Toryism echoes the Distributist movement that flourished between the wars and attracted mainly Catholic intellectuals such as Belloc, Chesterton and E. F. Schumacher. Blond’s hostility to big business fits in with Eric von Hippel’s key idea, “user innovation”, based on the notion that customers are better than corporations at adapting products to their needs. 

So far, the Left’s alarm at Cameron’s speech has not been matched on the Right. It has been praised by influential columnists such as Janet Daley of the Telegraph and Brian Appleyard of the Sunday Times. Yet, in some ways, the Right has more to worry about. The vision of a Big Society set out in this speech goes far beyond Burke’s “little platoons” or the “One Nation” Tories who hark back to Disraeli. Indeed, it is directly opposed to the ideas of Oakeshott, whom Mr Cameron also cites, but who warned against using the state to transform society into an “enterprise association”, subordinating the interests of its individual members to some higher purpose. The Big Society proposed here is just such an enterprise association. It amounts to nothing less than a Cameron revolution, doubtless every bit as profound in its impact as, a generation ago, the so-called Thatcher revolution, but utterly different in its aims and methods. Under Cameron, Conservative parliamentary candidates are now expected to undertake “social action projects” in their constituencies, and already 150 such projects are up and running. The putative Cameron revolution sounds as though it is modelled much more closely on Barack Obama’s “Change” agenda, with its mass mobilisation by ideologically motivated community organisers. The Big Society, Cameron tells us, will be “remade” by the state, which will “stimulate social action”. Under the benign tutelage of Cameronian “social entrepreneurs” and “community activists”, the British would be re-educated to become a nation of model citizens.

Many of the ideas and the vocabulary are on loan from America — but from the arsenal of Democratic politics. The Cameron slogan “Big Society” bears a striking similarity to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme of the 1960s. This would set any American conservative’s alarm bells ringing, because that programme was the source of so many social problems of the present-day US, from the dissolution of the black American family into an underclass dependent on welfare and affirmative action, to a cripplingly costly “War on Poverty” that was no more winnable than the war on the Vietcong. Like the New Deal on which it was modelled, the Great Society moved beyond necessary reforms, such as the civil rights legislation, to become the driving force behind the rise of big government. The Great Society’s legacy has been subjected to devastating criticism from some of the most brilliant minds in America, from Irving Kristol and Charles Murray to Thomas Sowell. But none of these writers is cited in Cameron’s Hugo Young Lecture, and there is every indication that he has closed his mind to this neoconservative school of thought, for no better reason than that “neocons” have been cast into outer darkness in the age of Obama. Yet the Big Society runs exactly the same risk as the Great Society: of mutating into the disease of which it claims to be the cure. 

The same applies to another American experience that Cameron’s Conservatives seem destined to recapitulate: George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”. Launched in the late 1990s, compassionate conservatism was not only a startling bid by Republicans to woo Christian and ethnic voters away from the Democrats, but had a good deal of success in mobilising voluntary groups, charities and churches to tackle welfare dependency, crime and urban decay. Inspired by the ideas of Marvin Olasky, Bush set up the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. However, like Cameron, President Bush and his administration believed that, in tackling poverty and urban blight, “is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support — public and private — we are asking [local community-serving groups, both religious and secular] to make bricks without straw.” These words, in a campaign speech in 1999, showed that Bush had underestimated the distorting impact on the local level of central control and federal funding. Once Congress and its lobbies got their hands on them, these initiatives rapidly spiralled out of control. Olasky, the man who had persuaded Bush while he was still Governor of Texas that private Christian initiatives could deal with issues such as drugs and alcohol more effectively than state or federal programmes, threw caution to the winds. “Let’s throw away the budget cutters,” he declared in the 2000 election. The new president did exactly that, with the result that federal spending rose faster under the Bush administration than at any time since the 1970s. “Big-government conservatism” replaced “compassionate conservatism” as the catchphrase of the later Bush years. President Bush himself got no credit, either from liberals or conservatives, for increasing federal spending by one-third in real terms. He was blamed for the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, for example, even though the city and state authorities were much more at fault than he was. Even so, the Bush administration showered the Gulf of Mexico region with up to $100,000 per displaced person.

The lesson of all this is clear. Cameron promises that the new role for the state is “galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal”. He has put no price-tag on all this frenetic activity, but if past experience tells us anything, it is that such activism is very expensive. Archon Fung , the Harvard political scientist whose name Cameron likes to drop, warns that his “accountable autonomy” model, however effective, “won’t necessarily shrink government”. If Bush and Obama are anything to go by, this could be an understatement. Hyperactive government is almost bound to morph into big government. Cameron shows little awareness of this danger.

Moreover, once the state pumps large sums of public money into the voluntary sector, the latter tends to switch its attention away from serving the poor and vulnerable and towards the bureaucrats who have taken over. Many of the best known charities in Britain now receive half or more of their funds from the government. For example, Oxfam, Shelter, Save the Children and the British Red Cross are all between 30 and 70 per cent publicly funded, while Barnardo’s, Turning Point and Action for Children (formerly NCH) get more than 70 per cent of their income from the state. These charities have become part of the public sector. In a brief passage in his Big Society speech, Cameron does show some awareness of this danger, when he talks about the need to “break the culture of charities and social bodies being dependent on the state for hand-outs”. But what is his solution? “We need to look at how government can use loans alongside grants to make them more sustainable and effective.” This will not do. A charity that is borrowing large sums from the government is hardly less dependent than one that is directly state-funded. And he evidently envisages that charities will usually be in receipt of both grants and loans. This is a far cry from Burke’s little platoons. Two years ago, Nick Seddon’s Civitas pamphlet Who Cares? pointed out how another Tory initiative, the National Lottery, had not liberated the voluntary sector, but nationalised it. Cameron needs to think much more seriously about the fact that there is no simple way to multiply the success of local initiatives on a national scale: they work precisely because they are uniquely adapted to their circumstances.

None of this is to deny the sincerity of Cameron’s commitment to helping the poor, the vulnerable and all those who are held back by big government. He deserves great credit for having encouraged Iain Duncan Smith to develop a truly impressive set of policies to tackle the “broken society”. His own dedication is not in doubt, if only because he has personal experience of one major area of social policy: the disabled. Those who have followed the tragic story of the Camerons’ son Ivan, who suffered from cerebral palsy, will know how deeply his life and death have affected his parents. The Conservative leader was brave to talk about his son on a BBC documentary made by Rosa Monckton last month, and all who watched him will have been impressed by his determination to help others in a similar plight. He acknowledged that their wealth had helped his family to get through the experience of caring for a severely disabled child, but added that money was useless in relieving the trauma of loss. The Big Society speech could only have been given by a man with a genuine, indeed passionate concern for those less fortunate than himself. 

The problem is that sometimes different ideals are in conflict with one another. If the voluntary sector is to flourish without being taken over by the state, it requires philanthropic individuals with the freedom to donate generously to charity. But that requires the state to step back from punitive taxation of the wealthy. In his speech, Cameron deplores the fact that “the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country…as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side-by-side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.” But the East End, the first port-of-call for poor immigrants from Huguenots and Jews in the past to Bangladeshis and East Africans today, has always been poor. And it has always been the philanthropy of wealthy City merchants that relieved that poverty, without creating dependency. The example of the Jewish community demonstrates this process particularly vividly. A government committed to the egalitarian goal of increasing “general well-being” by reducing inequality, as Cameron (following the doctrine of The Spirit Level) proclaims himself to be, will have difficulty in permitting the large disparities in outcome that actually create the conditions for a philanthropic culture.

Cameron only needs to glance across the Atlantic to see what happens when egalitarianism and philanthropy clash. In the US, the society which has witnessed philanthropic altruism on a truly heroic scale, the Obama administration has recently slashed the tax exemptions for charitable giving of higher-rate taxpayers by as much as 30 per cent, while simultaneously raising their marginal rates. The net effect of this is expected to be a huge fall in the income of not-for-profit organisations, already badly hit by the recession. President Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag, reckons that the state cannot afford such generous exemptions at a time when huge sums are being spent on health care reform and other priorities of the president or Congress. In an article in Commentary, David Billet goes so far as to call this a “war on philanthropy” — an ironical allusion to the “war on poverty” promoted by the Great Society in the 1960s. Cameron, like Obama, puts great emphasis on government agencies directing the efforts of the voluntary sector. Obama’s officials claim that tax exemptions for the arts or other areas of civil society that do not contribute to the administration’s goals are unjustifiable in the present climate. Can we be confident that Cameron would be proof against such arguments? It would be reassuring to hear him say so. But his praise of Phillip Blond, who advocates an egalitarian war on “monopoly capitalism” that would certainly have a devastating impact on philanthropy, suggests that there is cause for concern. According to Professor Fung, the missing element in the Big Society speech is business. Without capitalism to provide the wealth and dynamism, the Big Society will be stillborn.

Then there is the conflict about family values. Iain Duncan Smith, the real architect of Mr Cameron’s compassionate conservatism, has used his Centre for Social Justice to accumulate evidence in support of his central argument that the basic reason why our society seems “broken” is that the traditional family structure has collapsed, largely as a direct result of the way the welfare state works. He wants social policy to be focused on removing perverse incentives that privilege single parenthood or discourage fathers from taking responsibility for their children. And he has demonstrated beyond dispute that marriage is the institution that is by far the most likely to create stable, conscientious families, raising children who in turn will contribute to society rather than being a burden on it. Impressed by this argument, Cameron has made a firm promise to recognise marriage in the tax and benefit system, though some of his colleagues (notably the shadow Chancellor George
Osborne) seem less enthusiastic, given the exigencies of the recession. Unless Cameron makes it the central plank of a restoration of family values, the revival of marriage may prove to go the way of his “cast-iron” pledge to hold a referendum on Europe. 

Yet there are worrying signs that the Big Society won’t give marriage or family values a high priority. True, the Hugo Young Lecture promises to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, encouraging couples to stay together. But Cameron is careful not to mention marriage. Mr Duncan Smith’s name is notable by its absence. Instead, he pays tribute to Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor who wants to abolish any recognition of marriage by the state. Again, such ideas are part of the equality agenda, in this case denying marriage any status that distinguishes it from cohabitation or civil partnerships. That equality agenda trumps the family values agenda that drives so much of compassionate conservatism. Cameron is nervous of challenging the radical egalitarians who have already succeeded, for example, in closing down the Catholic adoption service, which served many of the hard cases that state agencies were reluctant to take on, but which refused to place children with gay or lesbian couples. Which was more important here — the needs of the children or the demands of would-be parents? In the end, Cameron will have to choose.

Most worrying of all, however, is not what Cameron says but what he does not say. In order to transform Britain from a country in which the state and its satellite agencies now spend more than half of all the wealth we produce to one in which society reclaims its birthright, the Conservatives will have to close down entire provinces of Whitehall’s empire, privatising functions that have been performed by government for generations. That this is incredibly difficult to accomplish even in a boom is demonstrated by the failure of the Thatcher government to do more than slow down the juggernaut. A Big Society cannot be created as long as Big Government is left largely intact. But Cameron is pathologically averse to the word “cuts”. Not just the public sector’s inefficiencies but its raison d’être must be challenged to enable “Britons once again [to] feel in control of their lives”. A return to the virtues that he invokes in his speech — courtesy, civility, “a new can-do and should-do attitude” — can only happen with a much more realistic recognition of what government can achieve and the damage it has already inflicted.

Limited government and a decent society are two sides of the same coin. Cameron intuitively grasps this, but he has some way to go to persuade us that he will not fall victim to the same temptations as previous leaders. Margaret Thatcher is notorious for saying that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” But she was right. Society — big or otherwise — has been a euphemism for the state. It was also Mrs Thatcher who said this: “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions. He had money as well.” The best thing a Cameron government can do to create a nation of Good Samaritans is to let people keep more of their earnings — and to get out of the way.