It seems as though David Cameron wants to move away from someone the Tories hold in such high esteem – Thatcher. In his Hugo Young Memorial Lecture Cameron set out his party’s agenda to tackle poverty, by calling for a “big society” as an alternative to “big government”, accusing the Labour party of failing to act to protect society and instead promoting selfishness and individualism. This is in stark contrast to Thatcher who broke all social cohesions that hindered competition, favouring individualism above society when she rejected Keynesian economics for ‘supply side’ solutions. After all, she did declare there is “no such thing as society, only individual men and women”.
It could be read that the current Tory Party are moving to the centre, more so than any previous Conservative party before them. There is no doubt that distancing themselves from Thatcher will curry support with the swing-voters and the disgruntled Labour members; but will this come at a cost to the core Tory support? I have no doubt that Cameron’s intentions are good, but will his party support him on this policy if elected or are they merely creating a superficial unity beacuse they have been out in the wilderness for so long?
His speech was laced with right-wing policies disguised with a left-wing lexicon; perhaps this is due in part to the audience at the Guardian HQ. There is no expressed Thatcher-type ideology of rolling back the state; instead of adopting a “big government response” (Labour) or a “no government response” (Thatcher), Cameron has decided to go down the middle: “we must use the state to remake society” and create a “big society”.
He deems that this is not a laissez-faire approach, but I would argue it is instead an enforced laissez-faire. He is giving more power to communities and charities through decentralisation. By doing so, he is not leaving it to each group to do as they please – instead he is using them as a conduit for the Tory agenda. Depending on your position on the political spectrum this is going to be good, bad, alright or evil.
Regardless, this creation of a “big society” has to be created on foundations, and is not going to be an “organic” process; its growth will be stimulated by the Conservatives. Moreover, a “big society” cannot remain ungoverned as this can only result in anarchy. Thus the state may fail more people in areas of low community cohesion or charity involvement and could lead to greater segeration between classes where the rich look after the rich and the poor look after the poor. It is also somewhat utopian to believe that all sectors of society are going to unite and work together if given responsibility. The problems of the working class/lower class British are a lot more complex than Cameron may have us believe.
This is surely a parsimonious position adopted by the Tories, but Grant Shapps (Tory Housing Spokesman) argued in The Telegraph that, “[f]ighting poverty is nothing new for the Conservatives” and the charity, Crisis, which supports homelessness, was co-founded in 1967 by the then Conservative Shadow Chancellor Ian Macleod. Yet, one can also note that in Shapps’s article, he calls for “the heritage of our one nation tradition” alongside strengthening “individual entrepreneurship”. This seems somewhat contradictory, but it is the crux of the Tory policy: to reorganise and change the welfare state, whilst simultaneously supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship. Will this prove counter-intuitive?
It is encouraging to see Cameron promote the idea of social entrepreneurship – the nomination of Debbie Scott as a Conservative peer has to be welcomed – but at the same time the state cannot leave all the work to these individuals and merely play a supporting role. The state is there for everyone, and by delegating to local authorities and charities, the risk is that people may slip through the net as they do not have enough localised support.
He criticises the Fabianism of the Blair administration for creating a “mechanistic view of the state”. Yet at the same time, he praises the creation of the welfare state and other such measures taken to fight poverty up until the 1960s. However, the Fabian Society was the leading group of intellectuals that worked for and created social justice during the industrial revolution and up until WWII – i.e. the very era that Cameron speaks highly of.
Cameron then conveniently skips over the 1970s/80s, when the Tories were in power and inequality exploded. He also selectively ignores Thatcher’s crushing of the trade unions and social solidarity. Ultimately, Cameron’s bypassing of this period forms the basis on which to critique Labour’s efforts at reducing poverty – an omission which undermines his credibility. To be fair, although Labour got off on a good foot they too have failed to reduce poverty to the extent they said they would. The levelling off and even recent increase in poverty indicates their policies are not working anymore, and Cameron does well to point this out.
It seems strange to equate community activism with the Tories – could this really be a changing of the tide, or is it symptomatic of a deeper social crisis? Traditionally poverty would be the concern of the Labour Party, and if we are to follow Cameron’s speech we are to believe that it is also (now) a concern of the Conservatives. Through a process of disarticulation I would argue that there has been a new fusion between homogenates. In other words, the Tories have used (or are using) the notion of poverty as means to their end – power and control of the state. Nowadays the two parties are vying for largely the same constituencies, thus leaving room for only minutiae differences in policies between the two parties. Is this a result of the homogenisation of society, in toto?
I would argue that Labour’s policies have not worked for the long-term, and that the Tories’ proposals are unlikely to help also. Neither party is tackling the root of the problem; their approach is similar to two bald men fighting over a comb and neither are offering real solution to endemic problems. Ontologically their positions are similar, but epistemologically they differ. In other words they agree on the problem but state different reasons for tackling it. Agreeing that poverty levels are high is not necessarily the right way to tackle the problem. The two parties are consistently battling for the middle ground and this could ultimately lead to a hung parliament in May.
New Labour vs. Modern Conservatives, can you spot the difference?
So what is the root of the problem? Thatcher rolled back the state, then Labour brought back the state, and if we are to follow Cameron’s narrative it is likely that the state will swing back to playing a lesser role again. Although there have been advancements and growth through globalisation there still remains great inequality between classes, and thus arguably poverty will continue. We are yo-yoing with the role of state and this will not tackle the underlying problem of inequality.
The problem as I see it is with the overarching system of neoliberalism and the Schumpeterian creative-destruction it brings. If we are to address poverty and inequality we need to start with wealth’s uneven distribution, and how this distribution is resented in various sectors of the community. Yes, education has a large role to play but not only at a school level, we the wider sector of society need to reacquaint ourselves with morality and justice and an adjustment in excessive market freedoms, which are the root of economic and social problems must be addressed.
President Roosevelt marked market freedom as a cause for economic and political problems of the 1930s Depression. Freedom must be given to all and not only those whose “income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property.” I call for a serious debate and not political point scoring. Ultimately he meaning of freedom needs to be re-evaluated before it becomes meaningless for those trapped in the perpetual poverty cyclical.