Friday, 18 December 2009

Why Cameron's "big society" agenda would make Britain more unequal

David Cameron's attempt to nuance the "cartoonish depiction of the state" set out in his Autumn party conference keynote may unwittingly have turned the Conservative leader into a "confused social democrat", according to Phillip Collins and Richard Reeves, respectively Chair and Director of the think-tank Demos. Writing in the new issue of Prospect, they argue that there is clear empirical evidence that David Cameron's "big society" approach as currently conceived, whatever its other merits, will surely make Britain more unequal, not less.

This is the latest of a number of contributions which have sought to take Cameron at his word in seeking to engage him in a substantive debate over which means would best achieve the progressive end of reducing poverty and inequality, yet where the empirical basis for Cameron's assertions appears entirely mysterious.

The Prospect piece approvingly cites Liam Byrne's "smarter state" lecture in November which set out the evidence that countries with strong civil societies and high social trust are almost never those with smaller states. ("The bottom line is this. If you want a strong society, you need a fair society. And fair societies have a strong state").

And while Reeves and Collins are liberal critics of the Fabian tradition, their piece shares much common ground with Fabian research director Tim Horton's recent letter to Cameron setting out the international evidence on poverty reduction in our new 'The Solidarity Society' book.

Reeves and Collins are similarly bemused:

it makes literally no sense to argue that inequality needs to be reduced and then to call for a reduction in state benefits. The issue is not ideology; its not politics; its just arithmetic ... Labour's record shows that cash transfers can work to reduce basic income inequality. It also shows that even a broadly centre-left government did not feel able to transfer money on the scale needed truly to make society more equal. So inequality has been checked, not reversed.

They also note the gaping hole in the Cameron survey of the 20th century evidence in his Hugo Young lecture:

To make a speech about inequality and poverty and then to chart the course of 20th century British history but miss out the Thatcher years was dishonest

This reluctance to confront or challenge his own party marks a clear difference between Cameron and Blair, Reeves and Collins argue.

It would be nice to think that the Cameron camp would pay some attention to challenges from liberal critics, even if they might be more suspicious of the Fabian challenge.

Perhaps they might. One of the main motivations for the Hugo Young lecture was disappointment among Cameron's advisers at the scathing notices his party conference speech received, particularly from those commentators in the liberal centre who are most hostile to Brownism and sceptical about 'big state' social democracy. Yet Martin Kettle, John Rentoul and Phil Collins - who might all take a substantive Cameronism seriously - found the speech facile, simplistic and doctrinaire.

And so, along with briefing that Cameron has a portrait of Harold Macmillan, not of Margaret Thatcher, in his office, another speech was promised to "square the circle".

Intriguingly, a good chunk of the Hugo Young lecture appeared to have been lifted pretty directly from Phil Collins' Times critique of the party conference speech, suggesting that Cameron should learn from a rich progressive Conservative tradition which had consistently expanded the role of government.

Any judo world champion would surely be envious of the dexerity with which Cameron received this fundamental critique of his own thesis only to turn the tables to claim that this was, in fact, the argument he was himself making, now arguing that "for centuries, the state expanded in order to help achieve a fairer society ... the evidence suggests that up until the late 1960s, the expansion of the state to advance social justice was not only well-intentioned and compassionate, but generally successful".

Having argued in October that big government had not only failed to tackle social breakdown, but was in fact itself the root cause, Cameron now argued that "Our alternative to big government is the big society. But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society".

(What, then, of the hyperbolic absurdity of Red Tory Phillip Blond's claim that "the state has abolished society"?)

And the question of "how?" remained equally opaque the second time around.

However incomplete, Cameron's offer to grapple with the question of poverty and inequality is surely welcome. It is important to also note that the left, and non-partisan academic and civic society voices concerned with poverty and inequality, ought to be able to have an entirely different argument with David Cameron than was the case with Margaret Thatcher and the Thatcherites.

The Thatcherite response to the challenge 'you are increasing poverty and inequality' was essentially 'nonsense!' and 'good!" That was a dialogue of the deaf. Since Cameron says he shares these "progressive ends", he needs to respond to the scrutiny for that claim to be seen as sincere.

By contrast, John Moore argued in 1989 that real "poverty" no longer existed in Britain; relative poverty was a quasi-Marxist twisting of the English language.

And the Thatcher government was explicitly in favour of greater inequality. This was not an accidental by-product, as is sometimes implied: it was one of the goals of the economic strategy.

Margaret Thatcher's Let our children grow tall speech, making the case for greater inequality, was perhaps the most important she gave in opposition. (She may have thought so anyway: it also gave the title of her first published collection of speeches before 1979).

So the Cameron conundrum which Reeves and Collins explore is further illuminated by returning to what was essentially her version of the Hugo Young lecture.

For Thatcher's speech was also about the "progressive consensus" ...

Thatcher: The debate centres on what I'll term, for want of a better phrase, the ‘progressive consensus’. I should perhaps say here that things that are called progressive are not always progressive in practice—but of course some of them are. And the progressive consensus, I think, is the doctrine that the state should be active on many fronts: in promoting equality, in the provision of social welfare, and in the redistribution of wealth and incomes.

Of course, Thatcher came to bury the 'progressive consensus', not to praise it.

Dave takes the opposite view:

Cameron: If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality, if you care about the environment – forget about the Labour Party. It has forgotten about you. If you count yourself a progressive, a true progressive, only we can achieve real change.

Yet Thatcher was able to admit that redistribution by government was responsible for narrowing the gap.

Thatcher: If one looks at that, you find that the facts about economic inequality in Britain are these: that the rich are getting poorer and the poor have so far got richer. It's due both to market forces and the actions of government through the tax system.

Cameron also acknowledges this, for the period to the late 1960s at least.

Yet Thatcher argued in 1977 that redistribution had reached the end of the road.

Thatcher: But if you look at the scope for further redistribution now, there's very little left, because it's no longer the case that taking further money from the rich will make a significant difference to the wealth of the bulk of the population. We've come to the end of that road. Nor will taxing them more heavily pay for much more government spending. So those are the facts on equality over the years and the redistribution of wealth and income, and most of us believe that we have now come completely to the end of that road.

Cameron used almost exactly the same language in 2008:

Cameron: We can see that in the 20th century, the methods of the centre-left – principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state – had considerable success in relieving poverty. It would be churlish to pretend otherwise. But those methods have now run their course. The returns from big state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing.

(Yet the Thatcher government surely itself showed how much difference government can make: the redistribution upwards fuelled by its major changes to the tax system saw a much greater rise in inequality in Britain than in any other large advanced economy).

So how does Cameronism differ from Thatcherism?

Cameron insiders say that it is his argument that "there is such a thing as society; it is just not the same as the state".

And yet the author of this phrase is Margaret Thatcher too. As she argued in her 1996 Keith Joseph memorial lecture.

Thatcher: To set the record straight — once again — I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other people.

The real difference is about what the overall aim is.

Thatcher's central argument was that "the pursuit of equality is a mirage". Cameron argues the opposite. Hence Reeves and Collins' warning:

At present, he is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap and trotting gamely towards it"

And so Cameron's advocacy of "conservative means to progressive ends" risks turning into "Thatcherite arguments while hoping for the opposite results".

If this is not his position, then he surely needs to give a third speech.

Nobody yet has any idea what he thinks happened to inequality in the 1980s and why.

If he is serious about social justice, and debating approaches to tackling poverty, then David Cameron would surely answer that question. Otherwise, he simply seems to be in denial about the evidence.

The Fabian Society have generously offered to platform such a speech - and we're looking forward to a reply.

I am sure that Demos would too. If even that might be too dangerous, then surely ResPublica or Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice could persuade David Cameron to return to the fray.

If the Tory leader wants his social justice agenda to be about more than brand decontamination, then he must surely in the new year break his silence on the inequality of the 1980s - and explain how and why his "big society" argument would not see history repeating itself once again.


Mike said...

I think British political leaders through out history can be fitted into the following 4 types, when it comes to the role of the state:

Big Redistribution + Centralised State

Big Redistribution + Decentralized State

Small Redistribution + Centralized State

Small Redistribution + Decentralized State

The modernized wing of the labour party fit's basically in the first category, particularly post Credit Crunch.

Thatcher fitted into the third category.

Cameron fits somewhere in between the 1st and 4th category, unable to decide if he supports progressive taxation and adequate government revenue, but broadly in favour of decentralizing and personalizing public services.

Mike said...

edit: the modernized wing of the labour party fits into the second cateogry, advocating highish spending and decentralized state. Old labour fits in the first category.

peterbradley said...

The Speakers' Corner Trust website has been hosting a debate between IPPR and Policy Exchange on the relationship between society and state which resonates with this discussion. In the hope that it's of interest, here's the link: