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catallaxy in technical exile

Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as society

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When Margaret Thatcher told Woman’s Own that “There is no such thing as society” her opponents were convinced they knew what she really meant — that if you were poor, sick, or badly educated it was your fault and your responsibility to do something about it. Of course this wasn’t what she said, but it played to an image of Conservatives as an uncaring and greedy party intent on demolishing the welfare state and unshackling the more fortunate from their social obligations.

Once sound-bitten, twice shy. So now the new Tory leader, David Cameron, is proud to say that “there is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state.” Presumably he means that people do have obligations to each other but that this doesn’t mean that more government is always the best way to solve our problems. In the same speech Cameron also tries to neutralise the idea that Conservatives only care about business and money. There is “more to life than money” he says, “the quality of our relationships and the beauty of our surroundings matter too.”

Society has become a favourite theme of the Tory modernisers. In June this year David Willetts was arguing that Conservatives needed to get away from an narrow focus on the economy:

Many people think that this is all that Conservatism stands for — personal choice in a market economy. But free-market economics cannot be the whole story. We should stay true to the free-market economics that originally got so many of us involved in Conservatism, while grappling with the big social issues that go beyond economics. That is why many “modernisers” want us to match economic liberalism with social liberalism.

Willetts says that Blair has outmaneuvered the party with his Third Way combination of economic efficiency and social justice:

For too long the Conservative Party has stood transfixed in the headlights of this vehicle and decided that it either has to veer off as purely the party of neoliberalism and personal freedom, or we become a party of cultural Conservatism trying to protect traditional ways of doing things.

The latest news is that Oliver Letwin, a key Cameron adviser, wants to tackle economic inequality. “Of course, inequality matters” he told the Telegraph, “Of course, it should be an aim to narrow the gap between rich and poor.” While Letwin wants to focus on improving people’s ability to provide for themselves he doesn’t rule out taxing and spending “We do redistribute money and we should redistribute money,” he said.

To many commentators this looks like a radical break with the party’s Thatcherite past, but in reality it’s mostly a change in emphasis. Even during the Thatcher years the party talked about levelling: As a 1976 policy statement explained:

Since some people have more ability and a greater opportunity to acquire property than others, there are bound to be social and economic inequalities. Conservatives are not egalitarians. We believe in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour and ultimately means that there are fewer resources for helping the disadvantaged. Hostility to success, because success brings inequality, is often indistinguishable from envy and greed, especially when, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, it is dressed up in the language of the `class struggle’.

Oliver Letwin was careful not to stray too far from this tradition. While he placed less stress on the virtues of private property he never argued for ‘levelling down.’ As he told the Telegraph:

The Government should seek to reduce what would otherwise mean intolerable inequality … It should be an aim to empower those who have least to advance – not in the sense of trying to do down those with most; in the sense of enabling those who have least to share an increasing part of an enlarging cake.

Or as George W Bush might have said, if we want the poor to get a bigger share, then we should “make the pie higher.” There’s nothing revolutionary going on here.

The British Conservative Party’s new rhetoric probably owes a lot to Bush’s idea of Compassionate Conservatism. The Bush campaign had to deal with a post-Clinton Democratic Party — a party that had embraced Third Way themes of personal responsibility and market-friendly economic management. The campaign responded by countering some of the Republican Party’s key negatives — that they didn’t care about the poor and disadvantaged and supported selfish individualism rather than social responsibility.

The party faithful were reassured that compassion didn’t mean higher taxes or more government interference in the market. As Bush adviser Stephen Goldsmith said “compassionate conservatives believe in low taxes, limited government regulation, and the vast power of the free enterprise system.” The public probably weren’t paying that much attention. As long as the candidate cared, that was probably enough for some waverers.

Bush’s presidency was eventually overtaken by the events of 9/11 and the war on terror that followed. But even still, there’s little reason to think that the Bush Whitehouse would have moved far from the kinds of welfare policies traditionally favoured by American conservatives. The same is probably true for Britain’s Conservatives.

Written by Admin

December 24, 2005 at 2:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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